Last weekend, the 2nd annual Florida National Scenic Trail Symposium brought together land managers, FTA volunteers, and interested hikers to find out about the current state of the FNST. Held in Sanford, it was the kickoff to the Florida Outdoor Recreation Coalition Summit as well.
We saw a lot of familiar faces throughout the crowd, including some that haven’t crossed our paths in many years. Among the invited – and particularly inspirational – speakers were former FNST manager Michelle Mitchell and Steve Elkinton, head of the National Trails Program for the National Park Service.
The focus of the meeting was to update volunteers and land managers with what’s in progress on the FNST. For those of you who aren’t aware of the distinction, a quick tutorial:
The FNST, aka Florida National Scenic Trail, is the portion of the Florida Trail that has been designated as National Scenic Trail by the federal government and is overseen by the USDA Forest Service. It does not include loop trails, side trails, roadwalks, and certain connector trails like the Ocean-to-Lake. The term “Florida Trail” includes everything that volunteers have put on the ground.
For a hiker, it doesn’t matter much. But the land managers care about those distinctions (eligible for Federal dollars or not?) and that’s why this symposium is held. Volunteer trail maintainers care when in situations like we in are right now where they are told NOT to work on the FNST because all contractual agreements between the Federal Government and FTA are suspended during the shutdown, which means worker’s comp and other protection is not available to volunteers.
“The Florida Trail is one of the most difficult trails in the United States to maintain.”
We heard that this weekend, and if you’ve ever done trail maintenance in Florida, it’s very true. Vegetation tries to reclaim any footpath here with a vengeance. It takes constant vigilance and efforts to keep the trails open. Eric Mason, Trail Program Director for FTA, shared a few stats:
- FTA has about 4,600 members.
- Over the past year, volunteers drove 119,746 miles to do trail maintenance.
- The value of volunteer hours contributed this past year is $347,000.
Megan Eno from the USDA Forest Service shared updates on focus areas along the FNST. One of the key issues in managing the FNST is trying to fill in those gaps where no public land is available and hikers must roadwalk around the gaps. Some stats she shared:
Certified FNST: 1,036 miles
Roadwalks and private lands: 336 miles
New trail miles added in 2012-13: 20 miles
Considered for addition to the FNST: 59 miles
UPDATES BY REGION: PANHANDLE
- In 2014, the USFS intends to officially designate the Blackwater Section as part of the FNST.
- There is talk of a Northern Terminus marker at Fort Pickens but no movement on it yet.
- The FNST will be moved from a roadwalk along US 331 between Nokuse and Eglin Portal into Eglin, hopefully by the end of the year.
- St. Joe has announced their intent to sell large amounts of their land along SR 20, which opens the potential for eliminating the roadwalks along SR 20 if a land trust can get involved to help with land acquisition.
UPDATES BY REGION: NORTH
- There are 85 miles identified as gaps that need to be filled in the northern section.
- The USFS is working with landowners to ensure protection of the corridor along the Suwannee
- Work is underway to assess moving the FNST to go right through downtown White Springs, like the Appalachian Trail does in Hot Springs, NC
- A newly hired FTA staff member, Jeff Glenn, has been hired as a Regional Representative to coordinate efforts on the FNST in the North region. He’ll be working with local officials in White Springs to revitalize trail efforts and promotion of the trail in that area.
UPDATES BY REGION: CENTRAL
- There are 53 miles identified as gaps on the Eastern Corridor (Ocala / Orlando sections), and 91 miles identified along the Western Corridor.
UPDATES BY REGION: SOUTH
- The southern section will likely be the first portion of the FNST to be completed.
- 31 miles of gaps are identified, primarily through the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation.
- There is an effort underway to identify a route circumventing the reservation by using South Florida Water Management District levees to the east of the reservation.
- Movement is underway to move a 30-mile section of the FNST from the western side of the Kissimmee River to the eastern side, north of US 98. (Our note: this is due to persistent flooding due to river restoration and issues with limited access on Avon Park Air Force Range, and we think it’s a very good idea.)