We have tossed around a few terms this year. Among these are “Visitor Use Management” and “PATHE.” Visitor Use Management is simply the concept of trying to manage the ever increasing number of hikers on the Appalachian Trail. PATHE is the name of a task force, of which GATC is a central participant, and a document developed by that task force. GATC had a hand in developing that document and it bears our logo. In past columns I have discussed specific ideas that are presented in that document. In the next few months I intend to dig deeper into some of those ideas. This month I want us to consider the first goal of the PATHE document, “Distribute Use Across Time and Space.”
As I understand it, the simple explanation of this goal is to try to get some hikers to hike in other places and/or at other times rather than everyone coming to hike the AT in Georgia during March and April every year. The reason for this is equally simple, the first thirty miles of the AT in Georgia are overwhelmed by hikers during that time period. Most thru-hikers plan to start their adventure in Georgia and the best times to start are generally just after March 1st. Though the majority of these intended thru-hikers are off the trail before they reach Neel Gap, the trail and facilities between Springer and Neel Gap are overused and abused. A very critical point of this abuse is that many of these hikers are acquainted with or concerned with Leave No Trace principles.
So how do we persuade these hikers to hike someplace else or hike at a time when that section of the Trail is less crowded? Starting a thru-hike at Springer sometime around March 1st is a tradition that is not easily changed. The primary recommendation from the PATHE document to help accomplish this goal is, “Design and implement a zone-based voluntary registration system for all overnight users.” I would imagine that few GATC members are even aware that, in the PATHE document, the GA AT is segmented into zones. The exact number of zones may change and that number is not critical to understanding this approach to trail management. What is important to this understanding is that every zone is characterized as one of three zone types: 1) threshold, 2) back country, or 3) primitive. Each of the three zones includes a different set “hiker experience expectations.” The threshold zone is more accessible to the public. There are more accommodations in that zone than one would expect to find in a zone characterized as primitive. The idea is that hikers in a primitive zone expect to see less other hikers and less sign of man than hikers in a threshold zone.
Of course, we are well aware of the trailheads that are easily accessible to the public: Amicalola and the Approach Trail; Blood Mountain and the Byron Herbert Reece Trail; Unicoi Gap and the Trail over Rocky Mountain; and the Trail heading north and south from Woody Gap. All of these areas are crowded with day hikers, especially on pretty weekends. The focus of the zone-based registration system is on overnight campers, not day hikers. But everyone understands that along with the back packers on the trail for extended hikes, there will always be the additional impact of individuals and groups who are hiking on the Trail for just the day. The PATHE document states, “(Trail Management partners) will reflect a sympathetic concern for the special needs of long-distance hikers, while basically maintaining the Trail for hikers of all distances. Managers must make sure to provide pristine and challenging environments for long distance hikers and those seeking solitude, while accommodating, to some extent, the needs of day hikers and those seeking to visit iconic sites near easy access points.”
So the GA AT has been segmented into zones and now GATC and our partners are being encouraged to manage those zones differently to correspond with the expectations of the long distance hikers who use those sections. Of course, we seek to guide those expectations along the lines of Leave No Trace principles. The PATHE document also reminds us that, “the Appalachian Trail is a way...for travel on foot through the wild, scenic...and culturally significant lands...such that visitors may experience them by their own unaided efforts.” In other words, we are to manage the Trail for the well prepared hiker, understanding that hikers in the threshold zones come to the experience with a much more casual attitude toward their own responsibilities. The hopeful goal of the zone-based registration system would be to control the number of hikers in each zone, partially dependent on each zones categorization. Whether or not that goal is reasonable remains to be seen. This system would have no impact on the number of day hikers in each zone.
Submitted by: Don Hicks