Hikers on Mile-High Swinging Bridge, Grandfather Mountain State Park, North Carolina

What’s Ailing America’s Public Trails?

In an op-ed published in The New York Times over Memorial Day weekend, “America’s Trails Are a Wonder, and They Need Our Help,” Yale School of the Environment Professor Justin Farrell and master’s student Steven Ring ’25 MEM highlighted the need to better maintain neglected and often deteriorating public trails in the U.S. YSE news recently caught up with them to find out more about their motivation for writing the piece and why they believe we need a national commitment to environmental stewardship.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to write this joint op-ed? 

Many people, even those who use them recreationally, don’t realize that our public trails aren’t self-sustaining. Sometimes, it seems like we, as Americans, almost believe that our over 236,000 miles of public trails fell from the sky — or that deer made them. So, in this article we wanted to highlight the critical importance of the people who build and maintain our trails, shed light on the fact that they are responsible for more and more with fewer resources, and show how their work offers meaningful pro-social value in a time when Americans are increasingly lonely and isolated. 

Q: Steven, what motivated you to become a trail worker at Yosemite? Can you expand a little on your own experience — in terms of the benefits or joy of the work as well as the challenges? 

I began working on trails at 17 because I loved to hike and wanted to give back to landscapes that had given me so much. The job can be physically and mentally grueling. Also, many positions are seasonal, making it difficult to make ends meet but, for me, the rewards outweighed the challenges. More than the beautiful work setting and tangible tasks, the community I found on trail crews kept me in the field for years. When you live and work together outdoors for extended periods, you form strong and deeply rewarding relationships.

Steven Ring
Steven Ring '25 MEM

Q: In the piece, you write that while money can certainly help address the trail deterioration on federal lands, willing workers are also in short supply. Do you think it’s a question of funding (or pay rate) alone or is there something else at play?

To be sure, pay, housing, and an often-byzantine federal hiring process, are critical factors in addressing worker shortages on public lands. Underpinning these issues are deeper cultural challenges of how we value this work. There is a persistent myth that trail work is something for just retirees or college students looking for a summer job rather than a meaningful career option. In truth trail work is critical infrastructure work that creates numerous social and economic benefits but remains systematically under resourced and culturally undervalued. 

Q: Professor Farrell, you’ve written about the changing landscape of the American West and the shifting dynamics of land conservation in your book “Billionaire Wilderness.” Do you see any parallels or connections between the dynamics in Teton County, Wyoming, and the country’s neglected and deteriorating trails? 

Trails serve as a great equalizer, accessible to most all Americans regardless of their financial status. Even in areas that have become too expensive for average Americans to visit, the trails remain generally accessible. This accessibility underscores the importance of publicly recognizing their crucial role in fostering a connection with nature for people from all walks of life and then taking steps to preserve trails for public use. 

Q: What do you think it would take to establish and sustain “a national commitment to environmental stewardship”?

Increased funding for public lands, specifically for wages and housing is a great place to start. There is an ingrained challenge of environmental stewardship being seen as something volunteers alone can take care of, or a nice thing to do on the weekend. The reality is that we need professional ecological workers like trail crews and others to meet the climate crises, and as we note, it will also require a cultural shift in our national values to meaningfully invest in these people and their careers. 

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