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August 2017

Throughout this year and even before, these “ponderings” have focused on the PATHE Task Force and visitor use management. I am sure that you remember that PATHE stands for “Protecting the AT Hiking Experience.” This group has worked on this for almost two years and a lot of good work has come from that effort, such as the new campsite at Hawk Mountain. New tentpads are planned for Gooch Mountain and more projects are in various stages of development.

Last week the PATHE Task Force reached a major milestone. After months and several meetings, the group has finally reached consensus on what is “the AT Hiking Experience” that we are tasked with protecting. That may seem like a simple task. I certainly thought so at the beginning. But it didn’t prove to be such a simple task. There is a lot of trail experience on the task force and getting everyone’s opinion into a simple statement seemed to elude us. When we met June 29th I wasn’t sure we would be able to accomplish this simple-sounding task. But two special individuals helped us. Jason Zink, ATC’s new Visitor Use Manager prepared a summary statement compiled from several lengthy foundation documents concerning the AT including laws and regulations regarding it use and protection. Jennifer Henningan (CONF Forest Supervisor’s Office) managed the meeting and kept us focused and on-task. By 1:00, our self-appointed time for adjournment, we had done it! This simple document will serve as guidance for future projects in GA. I would like to pass on to the Club a few simple phrases from that statement.

“Visitors to the AT in GA should expect a simple footpath...” This was the original intent of the AT. But what does it mean? For one, it means that the structures that we add to the Trail should be kept to a minimum. We build and maintain waterbars and dips to protect the trail. Otherwise it could easily turn into a washed out gulley from overuse. We add steps in places where the Trail would be hazardous without them. But every time we add a structure we should understand that we are causing a diminishing of the simple footpath which is our goal. We attempt to balance the ideal with the practical necessity of protecting those who hike on our Trail.

The second paragraph of the guiding statement begins, “This environment challenges visitors to be responsible for their own safety and to prepare themselves physically and mentally...” The mission of GATC does not include making the AT in Georgia safe for everyone, devoid of risks. Hiking the AT anywhere, including GA, will always include risks. To attempt to eliminate them all would destroy the vision of the simple footpath. Part of our job is to educate and inform hikers to help mitigate those risks. One of the primary joys of hiking the Trail is overcoming the obstacles and risks that are imposed by nature. We should not take that joy away from hikers. It is sad to say but there will always be hikers who suffer the consequences of hiking into the Forest unprepared.

The statement includes a phase that seems somewhat contradictory, “The AT experience offers opportunities for solitude and camaraderie...” Solitude and camaraderie at the same time? Not really. Hiker surveys reveal that many hikers prefer solitude when hiking during the day but still prefer to camp in groups at night. We have long acknowledged the fact that too many hikers come to the Georgia AT in the spring. Beginning March 1st every year, hikers are jammed up around the shelters at night, especially in the sections between Amicalola Falls State Park and Neel Gap. How the Task Force addresses that issue remains to be seen. Can’t we simply limit the number of hikers allowed on the Trail at any given time. The guiding statement includes, “Management recommendations should be developed only to the extent necessary to protect the physical Trail, its environment and the visitor’s experience.”

What if some hikers refuse to behave or follow acceptable back county practices? The document includes, “Trail management actions should control incompatible activities through education and, if necessary, enforcement of laws and regulations.” The big effort will always be education. GATC has taken the lead for this in establishing the Trail Ambassadors and in sponsoring workshops and community events that try to get across the principles of Leave No Trace.

As I stated above, this is a major milestone for the Task Force and I am proud of what we have accomplished. But this is really just the beginning. Wouldn’t you like to join this effort?

Submitted by: Don Hicks