Q&A: Legal scholar proposes world's longest walking trail around Great Lakes

Here's a figure to impress the guests at your next cocktail party: The Great Lakes shoreline in the United States and Canada is more than 10,000 miles long-nearly half the circumference of Earth.

Now imagine a walking trail around that shoreline. It would be longer than the Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails combined. In fact, it would be the longest public walking trail in the world.

Such a footpath is more than a hypothetical idea. Melissa Scanlan, director of the Environmental Law Center at the Vermont Law School, proposed a Great Lakes Coastal Trail in a recent article in the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law. Scanlan argues that the trail would provide a tangible way to restore the public's coastal history and build local tourist economies.

Intrigued, we checked in with Scanlan by email to learn more about her ambitious vision for the trail.

MEC: Why does someone in Vermont care so much about the Great Lakes? What's your connection to the lakes?

Melissa Scanlan: I grew up in the Lake Michigan Basin of Wisconsin, founded and directed Midwest Environmental Advocates, where I worked as a lawyer to protect the Great Lakes, and have spent many hours enjoying the lake shores, so I understand what a precious and beautiful resource they are for the region. I also saw through my prior work that we need to focus the public's attention on the significance of the lakes for the region as a cohesive, binational whole. To address this need, build on existing water and property law, and engage the public, I've created a blueprint to establish a Great Lakes Coastal Trail on the shores of the Great Lakes. The trail will link together 10,000 miles of coastline and provide the longest marked walking trail in the world. Unlike other National Scenic Trails where most of the trail required new easements, this one will demarcate an already existing, yet largely forgotten, public trust easement. You don't have to be born rich to be a beneficiary of this trust fund; the Great Lakes Coastal Trail will allow the public to enjoy their common heritage in the lakeshore, which is held by the government in trust for them.

MEC: Give us the basics: Where does this idea come from, and what is your vision for the trail?

Melissa Scanlan

MS: In the United States, when each of the Great Lakes states entered the Union, the federal government transferred to them the waters and lakebeds of the Great Lakes up to the ordinary high water mark on the beach. The states were to hold these lands and waters in trust for the public use and enjoyment. In 2005, the Michigan Supreme Court held in favor of the public's longstanding and historic right to access and walk along this beach, a right they reasoned existed even before Michigan became a state when it was part of the Northwest Territory. This is the only Great Lakes state supreme court decision to directly address the public's right to walk along the Great Lakes, and it provides an excellent contemporary model decision for the region. New York designates this coastal area for walking in one of its statutes. On the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, there is an existing movement to build an 800-plus mile Waterfront Trail along all of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, as well as legislative efforts to recognize a right of passage on foot along the Great Lakes shoreline. However, the states and provinces lack consistency in how they address public access to this coast, and have not identified it as a broad public asset like the Appalachian Trail.

I came up with the idea for a Great Lakes Trail when I was hiking on another National Scenic Trail in the Great Lakes region, the Ice Age Trail, and realized the right to walk along the Great Lakes shore already exists, but we haven't quite grasped this as a region or given it the Scenic Trail recognition that it deserves.

Establishing the Great Lakes Trail will be a monumental effort, but well worth it. It will require local and lakeshore property owners' support for the trail as something that adds value to the region. Trails can be a terrific way to engage volunteers, and this one will need a system of local volunteers too. This will be a way to build local tourism economies around the asset of the walking trail and the various other biking and water trails that are already established in the region. Local artists and educators will be critical to design art installations and signs that reflect each community's values and educate the public about Great Lakes ecological and legal issues. This will be something local chambers of commerce can use to build local tourism businesses, like those that exist along the coastal trails in England and Scotland. And of course, partnering with GIS mappers and app developers will be important to produce real-time local business information and mapping. Ultimately, allowing people to utilize their public trust rights in walking the coasts of the Great Lakes could really engage people in seeing the importance of the Great Lakes as an ecological, political, economic, and cultural asset.

MEC: What do you think the main benefits of this trail would be?

MS: The Great Lakes Coastal Trail will enrich people's lives; walking for pleasure is the most popular outdoor recreation activity in the United States. And walking near the water: What can beat that?

Another benefit is that it will settle confusion about where the line between private and public property is on the coasts, which will reduce trespassing on privately owned uplands above the Ordinary High Water Mark.

MEC: This sounds like a lot of planning, negotiating and on-the-ground work. How long do you think this project would take, and what would the key challenges be?

MS: Even without a Scenic Trail designation, the beauty of this particular trail is that people can walk on it today-most clearly in Michigan and New York.

To get it officially recognized as a National Scenic Trail and get the economic benefits of attracting tourists to the region, however, the first step is a congressionally authorized study to show the feasibility and desirability of the trail. The Park Service is usually the agency charged with undertaking such a study, and this can take one to three years to complete. Then if the trail is feasible and desirable, Congress needs to act again to establish it as a National Scenic Trail. So, congressional leaders from the Great Lakes could do a lot of good in moving this forward.

The technical challenges will be assessed in the feasibility study, but I expect them to include things like navigating around existing development on the shoreline, such as power plants; designing around the physical reality that the water level is not fixed for all time; and identifying how much of the trail needs to be on uplands due to natural features like bluffs.

MEC: What's the status of this project? Is it more than just an idea at this point? What are the next steps, and is there a way for people who support the idea to get involved?

MS: There's a blueprint for the concept in an article I wrote and the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law recently published. Anyone who wants to learn more, should read that blueprint and can access it for free here.

The Water and Justice Program at Vermont Law School has taken this on as a project, and if anyone wants to get involved, show their support, or ask more questions, they may contact Rebecca Milaschewski ([email protected]), who is creating a list of supporters. We're working to partner with other NGOs in the region, talking with public officials, and the Park Service about getting the trail established.

MEC: What do you say to convince people that this ambitious idea could someday become reality?

MS: Perhaps you've heard of Benton MacKaye? In 1925 he presented the idea for the Appalachian Trail. People built that trail over decades and well in advance of anything called a National Scenic Trail. Congress ultimately created the National Trails System Act of 1968 and then recognized the Appalachian Trail as a National Scenic Trail. I imagine the 3 million to 4 million people who hike the Appalachian Trail every year are happy that MacKaye proposed the idea in the 1920s and started working on it without knowing how it would turn out in 2015 and beyond. We now have the national legislation for trails, NGOs that support trails, and the Park Service's decades of experience on these trails as a foundation to build on that didn't exist at the start of the Appalachian Trail.

MEC: It sounds like part of the idea here is to get people to experience, appreciate and learn more about the Great Lakes. As someone from the region who now lives elsewhere, what's your read on how people from other regions perceive the Great Lakes? 

MS: We need more awe in our lives; this is what inspires us to action and enlivens us as humans. The Great Lakes can do that for people. But many people haven't ever gotten to enjoy them. Even people who live very close to them don't access the beauty of the lakes. The Great Lakes are a natural treasure that people simply don't understand until they visit and experience these freshwater seas in an up-close and personal way. Ideally, the Great Lakes Coastal Trail will bring more people in contact with the wonders of the lakes in their lives.


Beach photo courtesy Tom Gill via Flickr


Melissa Scanlan photo courtesy Vermont Law School



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