Steps to Build a Blue Trail: Build

Work with Landowners

NFCT - Jamie MierauIt’s not unusual for landowners to have initial concerns about a Blue Trail. Therefore, it’s important to involve landowners during the early stages of planning. Landowners may worry about their land being taken or otherwise reduced in value. They may fear that the Blue Trail will impose restrictions that will somehow limit future opportunities to sell or develop land for profit. However, trails and greenways increase the natural beauty of communities and they have been shown to bolster property values and make adjacent properties easier to sell. Other concerns include sense of privacy, security, and trash. But open communication can address these concerns and dispel misconceptions.

In these litigious times when liability and lawsuits are on the minds of many, it may not be easy to convince landowners that opening their land to public or semi-public use is in their best interests – and in some cases it may not be. An important job in evaluating a potential site is to weigh the consequences of opening it. Who will use it? Will it be subject to overuse? Is it an environmentally sensitive area? Is ownership simple (one owner) or complicated (several persons in undivided ownership)? Can you assure it will be well maintained?

Fortunately, nearly every state has a recreational use law designed to limit liability for landowners who open their property for free public recreational use. To learn more about your state’s recreation use statute see Resources: Liability.

Your case will be helped by addressing frequently asked questions at the very beginning, which should be enclosed with your letter requesting use of the property. Be sure to let landowners know that they, not your group, will set the rules for use of their property. In many cases, other than a few rules they feel are necessary (no fires, no cutting of trees, confine use to the immediate area of the campsite, etc.), they will settle for your guidelines for camping and low-impact use.

The decision whether or not to have a formal lease with the landowner should be left to them. In most cases, you will improve your chances for getting permission to use a site by listing agreements between you and the owner in an informal letter and then sealing the agreement with a handshake. This gives the owners an “out” if for any reason they no longer want their land to be part of the blue trail, whereas they may feel they are being painted into a corner if they have to sign a contract.

Alleviate common concerns

You can take various approaches when working with landowners and others who may have concerns about your community’s Blue Trail. You should always stress the benefits of Blue Trails and keep landowners and others who may have concerns involved in the process. Accept the fact that you may revisit their concerns several times during the process. Deal with the issues head-on. Seek out opponents and hear their concerns and objections. Engage them in solving the problems.

Landowners, those who participate as well as those who do not participate, should be regularly updated during the development, implementation, and use of the Blue Trail. This could include updates by phone, mail, email, and regularly scheduled meetings and organizational events. Their continued participation is essential for success and they need outlets to both receive information and question and comment on it.

Reach out to landowners and neighbors: Don’t wait for landowners and neighbors to learn of the proposal by reading about it in the newspaper. Talk to them directly, either by circulating a letter or giving a presentation at a community gathering.

Listen to what they’re saying: Take time to understand why landowners and neighbors have concerns about the community’s Blue Trail. Listen carefully, address concerns, and try to arrive at solutions that benefit as many people as possible. Imagine yourself as a landowner to better understand their perspective.

Find allies among landowners and neighbors: Within a group of landowners and neighbors, you may find paddlers, anglers, families, and others – all of whom will be likely Blue Trail supporters. Seek out these individuals, explain the benefits and urge them to support your efforts.

Give landowners and neighbors a role in the project: Establish an advisory committee and ask landowners and neighbors to serve along with advocates and user groups. Often, when given a chance to participate in the process, landowners and neighbors are willing to work toward solutions.

Invite former opponents to speak to their neighbors: Invite an articulate landowner who once had concerns about the Blue Trail to come speak in your community. Hearing the story of how an opponent became an advocate can help lessen the concerns others.

Work hard for favorable reviews in the media: Favorable coverage in the media helps to defuse the opposition and generate support for your cause. Give your Blue Trail project the best opportunity for positive exposure by supplying television, radio, and newspaper reporters and editors with interesting and accurate information.

Reach out to decision-makers and opinion-shapers in the community: This can include the mayor, city and county council, state delegate or senator, local business owners, and notable leaders and members of recreational organizations, neighborhood clubs, school and universities, churches, etc. It always helps to have official or neighborly support to build acceptance, deeper support, and usage.

To learn more about communicating with landowners see Build a Blue Trail: Provide Access.

Communicate with landowners and land managers

It’s important to bring landowners and land managers into the process from the very beginning. By doing so, they will likely be more supportive of the blue trail and willing to talk to other landowners and land managers to get their support and involvement as well.

Working with landowners can be a rewarding experience but may require reaching compromises and facing outright rejection from time to time. Landowners, of course, do not have to participate, no matter how effectively you present your blue trail plans. Landowners are within their rights to walk away at any time before a solid agreement is reached. But there are ways to communicate with landowners that will make forming effective partnerships easier.

Contact landowners and land managers by letter: You may have better success by first writing to an owner or manager rather than making a cold call where a quick “no” is easier than a discussion. A letter can detail exactly what you want and include a brochure or other information about your blue trail, giving the recipient a chance to mull over your request and make any inquiries. Be sure to include your contact information and suggest a time you will check back with the owner or manager.

Introductory information: Compile an introductory package of information that includes a brief description, the blue trail vision, frequently asked questions, information on your state’s liability laws, and any other details you think would be helpful. For information on your state’s liability laws see Resources: Liability.

Before approaching an owner or manager for permission to use their property, you should have the following in place:

  • Trained volunteers or staff to assist in caring for the property
  • Tools and equipment including workboats if the property is accessible only by water
  • A management plan, be it a formal document or unwritten intentions
  • A commitment to an ongoing relationship and regular communication with the manager or owner
  • A single, reliable contact within your group

Make the request: Asking for access to a property is much like fundraising. It requires preparation and a gracious, thoughtful approach by an enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and trust-inspiring representative of the group. In your letter, let the landowner or manager know you will be calling them in a few days for a reply or to see if they have further questions. Therefore, when you call, there’s no need for a lot of explanation and you can get down to business. Mention other landowners or managers in the area are being contacted simultaneously, so as to not infer the singling out of a property.

Try to arrange an in-person meeting at a time and place convenient to the owner or manager. At the meeting articulate the following:

  • Benefits that will appeal to them (fostering an appreciation of nature, building a constituency for the resource, etc.)
  • Your group’s philosophy and policies about usage (Leave No Trace practices, etc.)
  • The type of users they can anticipate on their property (families, school groups, campers, etc.)
  • Amount of anticipated usage
  • Services you are willing to provide (periodic cleanups, habitat restoration, stewardship services, etc.)

If the owner or manager agrees to grant access to users, be sure to express your gratitude and follow that up with a letter acknowledging the agreement. Ask owners or managers if they would like to be listed where you publicly acknowledge other donors (newsletter, website, etc.) as providing access to their land is a valuable donation. Also ask if they would allow the use of their name when reaching out to other landowners.

Assess the property: After an owner or manager agrees to grant access to their land, make a thorough assessment of the property, if you have not done so already. Your assessment may include:

  • A description of the site, access points, amenities, and river
  • An inventory of sensitive wildlife habitat or fragile vegetation
  • Identification of potential campsites, launch and day-use areas that would minimize impacts on the property
  • An evaluation of the access point’s ease of use from the water and safety concerns
  • An investigation of any hazards, such as uncapped wells and hunter’s traps

Use the results of these studies to develop a policy on how the site will be managed.

Seal the deal: If the property is suitable, talk with the owner or manager in detail about their expectations of use and impacts and your group’s ability to manage usage.  Encourage the adoption of strict low-impact standards (no fires, carrying out human waste, etc.) for all sites along the Blue Trail, but let the owner or manager establish the rules and restrictions for the specific site.

Reach an understanding in writing. Some landowners and managers prefer a simple letter reiterating agreements and responsibilities while others may request a legal document. Land trusts may prefer a stewardship and management plan based on the inherent qualities and characteristics of the property. Include a time period in all agreements with an option to renew. It’s wise to have your lawyer examine and approve your agreements before signing them.