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April 2016

April, 2016

In the March issue of the Mountaineer I introduced the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s  Strategic Plan for 2015-2019.  That plan includes five goals and in that issue I wrote about the first goal, “Effective Stewardship.”  This month I want us to consider the second goal, “Proactive Protection.”  This goal is defined as, “Advocate for broader protection of the Trail’s natural and cultural resources.”
The desired outcomes included in Proactive Protection are:
  • Identify and protect high priority landscapes within the A.T. corridor.
  • Defend and prevent threats to the natural and cultural resources along the A.T.

An important part of this goal includes a term that I believe we shall hear with greater frequency in the very near future, “Protecting the A.T. Experience.” This is certainly not a new term but I believe we should occasionally pause to consider exactly what it means.  What does “the A.T. Experience” mean to you?  If you believe everyone has the same ideas about this, you are wrong!  GATC is now being encouraged to consider whether we are over developing the simple path of the Trail.  Part of the Management Philosophy included in the “Comprehensive Plan for the Protection, Management, Development and Use of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail” (September 1981) states

“Hikers along the Appalachian Trail must be responsible for their own safety and comfort. Trail design, construction, and maintenance should reflect a concern without detracting from the opportunity for hikers to experience the wild and scenic lands by their own unaided efforts (italics added by me) and without sacrificing aspects of the Trail which may challenge their skill and stamina.  Attempts to provide protection for the unprepared lead to a progressive diminution of the experience available to others.”
If you read that carefully you might better understand why some folks believe that GATC is developing the Trail beyond its original intent.  GATC has always focused on the safety and welfare of hikers on the Trail.  We feel a responsibility to everyone who steps foot on “our” trail.  However, the management philosophy in the Comprehensive Plan clearly states that hikers are responsible for their own safety.  Also stated is the belief that attempts, even those of good intentions, to make the trail safe for all hikers can diminish the A.T. Experience available to everyone.  The Trail is a test of skill and stamina.
Where do we the draw the line between efforts to make the trail safe and efforts that may diminish the A.T. experience?  It has been suggested by several individuals that the privies that GATC has constructed along the Trail in Georgia do indeed diminish that wilderness experience.  I strongly disagree.  The privies were not constructed primarily for the convenience of the hikers.  Rather, they are designed to protect the resource.  I believe that it is the consensus of GATC leadership that concentrated camping without a sanitation plan leads to deterioration of the forest.  When GATC agreed to help build a new campsite on Hawk Mtn. we insisted that a new privy be included in the plan.  We are certain that without a privy at the new campsite, “Charmin flowers” would bloom in abundance. I don’t believe that anyone’s idea of A.T. Experience includes stepping in poop.
In order to achieve the goal, “Proactive Protection,” the ATC is encouraging all thirty-one trail maintaining clubs to expand their trail management philosophy to include not only reactive activities such as restoring waterbars and removing blowdowns but also proactive measures.  One measure that GATC is using to accomplish this is educating hikers.  The problem for Georgia is that most of the new thru-hikers begin their journey at Springer Mtn. or at Amicalola Falls State Park.  Many are grossly unprepared to camp in the wilderness.  Most have never heard of “Leave No Trace.”  The impact of these inexperienced hikers on the Trail is huge. They do not know, and probably do not care, about the proper procedures to use the bathroom in the woods.  They wash themselves, their dishes, and their gear in the streams.  They throw trash of every kind in the fire rings and privies.  They leave a mess as if their Mommy will follow behind them and clean up.  
This year GATC is taking a huge proactive step.  Jay Dement has developed the idea of Trail Ambassadors, serving as voluntary Ridge Runners and Care Takers. Jay has worked hard to gain the blessing and support of the Forest Service and the ATC. There is now a cadre of volunteers trained in First Aid, Leave No Trace, and interacting with the Public in the wilderness.  These volunteers are equipped with Spot devices or satellite phones.  They follow standard Forest Service procedures for checking in and out each day.  I believe this will have a big impact on the health of the trail.  Once again, GATC is serving as a model for the other trail maintaining clubs along the AT. 
There will always be challenges for GATC in accomplishing our mission. Since 1930, the Club has always responded in a manner that is informed and enthusiastic. There are pressures to change how we serve our beloved Trail.  I am convinced that we will continue to serve as proper stewards of the Georgia AT, changing where we deem right and standing firm where we do not.
Don Hicks, GATC President 2016