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MassWildlife's trails policy

The trails policy supports MassWildlife’s statutory mission to both conserve wildlife and habitat and to provide opportunities for recreation.

Policy summary

The Walking Trails Policy addresses the proliferation of unauthorized trails and trail maintenance on Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs). It was adopted as part of MassWildlife’s statutory mission to both conserve wildlife and its habitat and to provide opportunities for wildlife-related recreation.

The policy:

  • Supports MassWildlife’s mission to protect wildlife and its habitat
  • Formalizes a trails license agreement process for six regional trails
  • Limits trail creation, marking, and maintenance
  • Allows areas damaged by trails to recover
  • Continues free public access to MassWildlife lands

The policy does NOT:

  • Restrict public access to MassWildlife lands
  • Prevent walking on or require closure of any existing path, woods road, or cart path on MassWildlife lands
  • Limit hunting, fishing, trapping, wildlife-related recreation, hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or off-trail exploring

Additional Resources for

More information

In response to increased and unauthorized trail development activities as well as requests for new trails on its lands, the Fisheries and Wildlife Board approved a Wildlife Lands Policy and a Walking Trails Policy in August 2016. Together these policies support MassWildlife’s statutory mission of conserving wildlife habitat and providing wildlife-related recreation.  MassWildlife lands generally include simple, gravel or dirt parking lots with unmarked footpaths and woods roads. This minimal-development management approach keeps “wild places wild,” while allowing access to nature with an "off-the-beaten path" experience.

MassWildlife’s land management mission and approach differs from other protected conservation lands in that wildlife and wildlife-related recreation are the agency’s main priorities. Other public open space such as properties managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, municipalities, and private land trusts that promote public recreation on their lands are guided by very different missions.  This distinction is central to MassWildlife’s core mission to conserve a diversity of wildlife and to promote wildlife-related recreation such as hunting, fishing, trapping, and wildlife observation. The Walking Trails Policy is designed to encourage the public to see MassWildlife lands through a different lens, focusing on diffused public access that offers a different, “wilder” visitor experience.

Effects of Trails on Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat

At first glance, trail networks on WMAs may seem benign. Conservation science has shown, however, that recreational trails can fragment and degrade habitat, disrupt wildlife behavior, and compromise biodiversity.  Improperly designed and unauthorized stream and wetland crossing structures are contrary to the Wetlands Protection Act and can alter water flow, degrade water quality, and adversely affect aquatic life. Some kinds of wildlife and habitats are particularly sensitive to disturbances by trail users or trail work.  For example, trails located in rare plant communities or important nursery or sheltering areas for rare reptiles may be in violation of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act and could result in plants being trampled or destroyed and animals being killed or illegally collected. In keeping with its primary mission of managing land for wildlife and simultaneously accommodating public recreational access, MassWildlife’s Trails Policy addresses these concerns.

Limiting Trail Marking and Maintenance

Cutting vegetation and other trail development activities without permission have always been prohibited on WMAs and MassWildlife has rarely permitted these activities. Pursuant to the Trails Policy, MassWildlife will continue to limit the marking and maintenance of local trails. Selected pathways may be closed for recovery, but most will remain accessible, although simply not marked or actively maintained. Maps, compasses, GPS units, and smartphones are all readily accessible to enjoy MassWildlife lands.

In certain situations, MassWildlife recognizes that passage across MassWildlife lands is appropriate to connect existing regional walking trails. The Walking Trails Policy identifies certain important regional trails that cross WMAs. MassWildlife is contacting the groups associated with the trails identified in the Policy to discuss License Agreements. License Agreements will allow those groups to mark, improve, and maintain a trail or trail segment crossing MassWildlife’s WMAs subject to the agreement’s conditions. 

MassWildlife also recognizes that trails and trails maintenance can serve to protect valuable natural resources by routing traffic away from sensitive areas or by clearing trails to prevent trail re-routing (for example, around a blow-down). Therefore, from time to time, MassWildlife District offices may re-locate existing trails, conduct trail maintenance, or close trails when deemed necessary to protect sensitive areas, and may seek local or volunteer assistance in this regard. MassWildlife cautions, however, that this work may only be undertaken with the express written permission and direct involvement of MassWildlife District staff.

Commitment to Public Access and Outdoor Recreation

MassWildlife has a long and proud history of supporting and promoting wildlife-related recreation through its traditional constituency of hunters, anglers and trappers, as well as naturalists, birders, photographers, and other wildlife enthusiasts.  Wildlife Management Areas continue to be open to wildlife-related recreation and other outdoor activities such as walking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. MassWildlife is committed to providing opportunities for wildlife to thrive and to offering access for the conservation and outdoor recreation community now and into the future. The Walking Trails Policy strengthens that commitment.