New Study Highlights Challenges Facing the Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Washington, D.C.—According to a new assessment released today by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), one of the most beloved recreational footpaths in the United States, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, faces many challenges that put the experience of visitors and trail resources at risk.  Adjacent land development on privately owned land, sources of air pollution, and funding shortfalls impacts the ability of trail managers to protect historic structures and preserve trail resources.

“The Appalachian Trail attracts millions of hikers each year, and we must ensure its unique American experience is protected for future generations to enjoy,” said Ron Tipton, NPCA’s senior vice president of policy. “This report demonstrates clearly that a strong commitment by government agencies and trail advocates is essential to preserve the AT’s unique natural and cultural values for future generations.”

According to the new assessment by NPCA’s Center for State of the Parks, approximately 10 miles of the immediate Trail corridor are not publicly owned—only about 150 properties remain to be acquired to protect trail resources. Many of these areas remain vulnerable to incompatible development or land use, including proposed pipelines, powerlines, residences, energy-producing wind turbines, and motorized off-road vehicle and mountain bike use. A primary way that trail managers can protect additional lands is through support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal program that provides funds for land acquisition.

“Our long-sought goal of establishing a permanent right-of-way and publicly owned greenway surrounding the Appalachian Trail is now within reach, with less than 10 miles and 150 properties remaining to be acquired,” said David Startzell, ATC’s executive director. “But the goal of protecting those lands, the natural and cultural resources within them, and the adjacent landscapes surrounding them remains a never-ending challenge–one that requires on-going public and private support.”

While Congress has funded AT land acquisitions consistently over the past 30 years, additional public/private funding is critical for resource protection. The National Park Service and the ATC have a unique management partnership, in which these organizations share resources, but are forced to make difficult decisions on how limited funding is spent.

For example, staffing and funding is needed to interpret historic sites and expand community-outreach programs. Report findings indicate the trail could benefit from National Register of Historic Places designation, which could make the trail eligible for additional funding.

Another challenge facing the trail in some locations is poor air quality, which has a profound effect on hiker health and enjoyment of the trail.  Air pollution obscures scenic views, creates breathing difficulties for hikers, and damages sensitive plants and trees along the trail. In the summer, visibility along the A.T. within Shenandoah National Park is sometimes as little as five miles or less, while hikers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park may only be able to see 12 to 16 miles.

NPCA and the ATC are advocating for stronger regulations on nearby coal-fired power plants and other sources of pollution to improve air quality and protect the health of hikers, wildlife, and trail resources.

The Appalachian Trail is well known as a continuous footpath spanning the Appalachian Mountains between Georgia and Maine, passing through 14 states and six national parks, eight national forests, two national wildlife refuges, 67 state-owned land areas, and more than a dozen local municipal watershed properties. The AT’s protected corridor encompasses more than 250,000 acres, making it one of the largest units of the National Park System in the eastern United States.

To view a copy of the full report, and take action to help protect the park, please click here.

via National Parks Conservation Association


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