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Home > The Gateways Network > Tools > Water Trail Toolbox > Building a Water Trail > Water Trail Toolbox: Acquiring Access
Water Trail Toolbox: Acquiring Access

During the planning process, your organization probably received numerous suggestions for potential access sites from individuals, organizations, government agencies, and businesses.

When you laid out the route on paper, you considered these suggestions and made initial selections based on the locations of roads, accessibility of the terrain, spacing along the water route, and other factors. Now you have to face the difficult—but often rewarding—chore of obtaining permission to use lands or to purchase property for launch sites, camping areas, and other facilities.

Initial access to the trail typically will be at existing parks, federal and state boating access sites, private marinas, current campgrounds, and riparian lands owned by nonprofit organizations. As the trail is expanded over the years, additional important access sites can be acquired and developed.

Private Property Owners

Private land owners will be particularly interested in what stewardship and management services you are offering to ensure protection of their property. They will want to know about anticipated usage and plans for facilities and services before agreeing to sign a year-to-year agreement, lease, or permanent easement.

Make private sector partners part of the planning process and invite those with attractive sites on the waterway to have them officially designated as points on the route. Private marinas and campgrounds might view the designation as an opportunity to serve the public and expand their business. Some private owners may charge users for using the access site – be sure to communicate this information to users through the water trail map and guide and website.

Public Land Managers

Just because land is publicly owned does not necessarily mean it would automatically be accessible to water trail users. It is still critical to request permission from the public land manager. Some public lands are managed as reservoirs, wastewater treatment plants, and other purposes incompatible with public use.

Other public lands, such as natural and recreational areas, are usually excellent launch sites and stopping-off spots. Some of these areas may already have camping and other overnight accommodations and well-established launch pads for small boats, canoes, and kayaks. Public land managers will have many of the same questions as private property owners. Do your homework so you can speak authoritatively and approach the managers of these lands about becoming trail partners and having their lands designated as sites on the trail.


Before approaching a landowner or land manager for permission to use their property as an access site, 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
  • Liability information
  • Management plan, be it formal document or unwritten intentions
  • A commitment to an ongoing relationship and regular communication with the owner or manager
  • A single, reliable contact within the water trail organization

Making 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 organization.

Begin with a polite letter of introduction and intent and follow that a week or two later with a telephone call. Try to arrange a face-to-face meeting at a time and place convenient to the property owner or manager.

At the meeting articulate the following:

  • Benefits of access that will appeal to them, such as fostering an appreciation of nature, building a constituency for the resource, or making the world a better place.
  • Your organization's philosophy and policies about usage, such as Leave No Trace practices.
  • Kinds of anticipated users of their property, such as paddlers, families, school groups interested in day use only, and campers.
  • Amount of anticipated usage.
  • Services you are willing to provide, such as periodic cleanups, habitat restoration, stewardship services, or fee collection.

If the owner or manager agrees to grant access to trail users, be sure to express your gratitude and follow that up with a letter acknowledging the agreement.

Overcoming Objections

The most common objections to water trail proposals are voiced by private landowners and usually involve the following:

  • Vandalism or burglary to neighboring properties or buildings
  • Newcomers squeezing out traditional users
  • Water trail's popularity affecting the fabric of waterside communities
  • Commercialism catering to boaters
  • Conflicts between boaters and local users, such as fishermen and hunters
  • Crowded launching ramps, parking lots, and other access sites

Accept the fact that you will be dealing with private landowners and community leaders and that you may revisit their concerns several times in the course of the project. Deal with the issues head-on. Seek out opponents and hear their concerns and objections. Engage them and others in the community in solving the problems.


One issue that almost all private landowners will have before they agree to open their property to the public is the question of liability. In many instances there are limits to their liability.

Nearly all states have a recreational use law designed to limit liability for landowners who open their property for free public recreational use. A summary of the recreational use statutes in all 50 states can be found at and click on the publication - Recreational Use Statutes and the Private Landowner.

Some states confine this landowner protection to specific activities such as boating, while others provide blanket protection for all recreational activities. Some states even allow for restitution of the landowner's legal fees if a member of the public unsuccessfully sues.

Providing insurance is an option. For example, the Hudson River Watertrail Association in New York owns its own campsite. A one million dollar insurance policy for the property runs about $250 per year. The cost of adding another piece of property to the policy was estimated in 2001 to cost $50 per year.

Assessing the Property

After an owner or manager indicates an interest in granting access, make a thorough assessment of the property if you have not done so already. Your assessment may include:

  • An inventory of sensitive wildlife habitat or fragile vegetation
  • Identification of potential campsites 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
  • A survey of neighboring communities for indications of potential opposition
  • A research study of the traditional uses of the property

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

Sealing the Deal

If the property is suitable, talk with the owner or manager in detail about his or her expectations of use and impacts and your organization's ability to manage usage.

Encourage the adoption of strict low-impact standards—such as no fires, carrying out all human waste—for all sites along the trail, but let the owner or public land manager establish the rules and restrictions for the specific site.

Reach an understanding in writing. The document can be as simple as a gracious letter reiterating agreements and responsibilities. Some owners and managers prefer such an informal approach while others may request a legal document. Other owners, such as 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 is probably wise to have your lawyer examine and approve your agreements before signing them.

NOTE: Visit the Maine Island Trail Association at ( ) for examples of a management plan, letter to a landowner, and annual report letter.]

Visit the Hudson River Watertrail at ( ) for information about its insured campsite.

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