Our Stories

Unit Status for the North Country National Scenic Trail

Categories: Advocacy, Trail Updates


In early December, 2023, the North Country National Scenic Trail became a unit of the National Park System.

What is a “unit” of the National Park System?
The National Park Service manages 428 individual units covering more than 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. While there are at least 19 naming designations (National Parks, National Lakeshores, National Trails, etc.), these units are commonly referred to as “parks” but can come under different names and multiple parks may be managed together as an administrative unit within the National Park Service.

What does this mean for the North Country Trail?
Although already administered by the National Park Service (NPS), the North Country National Scenic Trail lacked a special “unit” designation, which held it back from important funding and promotional opportunities. Of the six National Scenic Trails managed by the National Park Service, three have been considered units (Appalachian, Potomac Heritage, Natchez Trace), and three lacked that distinction (North Country, Ice Age, and New England). Although there was no apparent reason for the discrepancy, the implications became clear over the past several decades as we watched as resources, including funding, support, and promotion, were often held back from the three Trails without unit status. This announcement remedies that and puts us on even ground with all of the other units of the System. 

What does this not mean?
Unit status does not change how the public accesses the Trail or how partners manage it; it merely means we’ll have access to more resources.

How did this come about?
The NCTA has been advocating for this for 34 years, both within the agency and with our members of Congress. Senator Baldwin (WI) has been a champion on the issue, introducing legislation during each session of Congress. Ultimately, legislation was unnecessary as the National Park Service had the authority to make the change themselves. We are thrilled that NPS Director Sams finally did. His support sends a strong message about the role long trails and partnerships play in how the National Park Service delivers its mission.

Weren’t we always associated with the National Park Service?
Since the Trails designation by Congress in 1980, the National Park Service has been the official administrator. They set the nature and purposes of the Trail, lead important planning efforts for the route and management of the Trail, build partnerships, and provide resources like technical assistance and funding to partners who accomplish the work on the ground as the NCTA does.

How many National Park units are there, and what number are we?
This decision takes the number of units from 425 to 428. Numbers are not directly assigned to each unit because of the potential for fluctuation if a unit is removed from the System.

Will this change the land ownership of the trail?
No. The current ownership does not change. The National Park Service will continue to work on protecting the corridor of the Trail through easement and land acquisition, which occurs by working with willing landowners. To learn more about the many land management partnerships, see the Who Manages the North Country Trail? infographic. 

Will the role of partners and volunteers change?
No. The North Country Trail Association, our Chapters, and Affiliate partners continue to be the driving force behind the Trail’s development and management. 

Will the trail/trailheads be a fee-use area now?
No. Fees are only assigned by the land manager in charge of that specific area. For example,  you may incur fees if you visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (MI) or state parks requiring a Park pass. The Trail will remain open to the public without additional fees imposed due to the National Park unit status. Likewise, America the Beautiful passes will only be accepted by National Park Service sites and will not in lieu of fees charged by any other agency. 

Will the trail close if there is a government shutdown?
We’d be impacted in the same ways we were before becoming a unit. A government shutdown would only impact lands owned by and actively managed by the National Park Service (like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore) or another Federal Agency like the Forest Service. It may also impact programs run by the National Park Service like our volunteer protections under the Volunteer in Parks (VIP) program or projects that use federal funding sources may be put on hold.

When will we start seeing results?
Some changes will be immediate, while others will take time. The National Park Service has already added the Trail to their list of units on the NPS website. We’ve seen a lot of public recognition and increased interest in the Trail as part of this announcement. In time, additional funding and promotional opportunities will be available for the NCNST.

What’s next?
Although we’re thrilled about unit status and we hope it will bring more resources to the Trail, it doesn’t change the need for volunteers and financial support. NCTA still needs your help in building, maintaining, protecting, and promoting America’s longest National Scenic Trail (and National Park System Unit). Please join us!


Press Release

December 7, 2023 (Lowell, Mich.) The North Country National Scenic Trail is now an official unit of the National Park System.

Unit status provides the North Country National Scenic Trail with official recognition within the National Park Service, and access to additional resources and funding opportunities. It also provides equal legal standing with the other trails and parks that the National Park Service administers.

The North Country Trail is the longest of the 11 National Scenic Trails in the United States, stretching 4,800 miles from North Dakota to Vermont. Six of these 11 trails are administered by the National Park Service but at the time of their official National Scenic Trail designation, only three were identified as units: the Appalachian Trail, Natchez Trace Trail, and Potomac Heritage Trail. Unit status was missing, for no clear reason, from wording in the law for the remaining three: the North Country Trail, Ice Age Trail, and New England Trail. This means they were not recognized as units of the National Park Service, and thus, not promoted to the American public.

“Now, when the National Park Service tells the story of the amazing scenic and recreational opportunities provided by the National Park System, it will tell our stories too – the stories of all the National Scenic Trails it administers in cooperation with other units of government, nonprofit organizations, volunteers, and private landowners,” reflected Tom Gilbert, former National Park Service Superintendent of the North Country National Scenic Trail.

“The stewards of these three trails have called for equality for 30 years, so we’re thrilled by Director Sams’ decision,” said Andrea Ketchmark, Executive Director of the North Country Trail Association. “This is such a win for us, our partners, and our volunteers, who work so hard to build, maintain, and protect the trail.”

The North Country Trail Association deeply thanks the U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, National Park Service Director Chuck Sams, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), and most importantly, the leadership, volunteers, and supporters of the North Country Trail Association, Ice Age Trail Alliance, Appalachian Mountain Club, and Connecticut Forest and Park Association, who have championed this issue for three decades. Without your voices, we would not be here today.