When are the trails going to reopen? This is a question I am hearing often and as I look in my crystal ball all I see are clouds. The impact of the Coronavirus is amazing and after many weeks of sheltering in place many people are anxious to get out. But let’s not be hasty.
I see opening as a very delicate balancing act. Our health is of paramount concern and getting the virus under control and a vaccine will take some time. There are economic issues as well, unemployment is staggering, small businesses everywhere are hurting and we are just starting to see big and small companies fail. Keeping these forces in balance is vitally important. We don’t want to open businesses without customers.
Over the last couple of weeks I have spent time learning how this affects us and how we need to change to face the future. I have had multiple meetings and phone calls with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the Chattahoochee Oconee National Forest (C-ONF) and several members. We are very fortunate to have Dr. Scott Deitchman on our board, he is retired from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Scott has been a big help to me and ATC.
As we consider reopening the A.T. I have suggested we should assess the trail and do some necessary work. I expect it could take up to four weeks to count and clear blowdowns, being the priority. To that end the Forest Service has just allowed us to perform this inventory in small teams. I suspect they are feeling some pressure to open the forest but cannot begin to predict when that will happen.
On May 5 the superintendent of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (APPA) sent a letter out saying that “volunteer work will continue to be suspended”, I hadn’t realized it had been suspended. On Wednesday May 7 during a trail wide virtual meeting it was noted that the suspension was limited to various lands under APPA control, other national parks and some national forests. C-ONF was not on that list.
Working with Tom Lamb, Trails Director and Mike Cordisco, Sawyer Coordinator a plan was developed to conduct the inventory. The key points are that it be done with no more than 2 parties of 1 to 3 people each day. Trips need to be scheduled with Tom to keep the Forest Service updated as to who and where crews were going.
Also on May 7, the C-ONF issued a News Release advising “select trails and dispersed recreation areas” were opening. This not only does not include the A.T. it doesn’t get close. It does open some trail that otherwise connect with the A.T. such as the Benton Mackay Trail and Duncan Ridge Trail, but only at a distance from the trail.
The ATC has started the Adaptive Recovery Task Force to develop guidance on how A.T. visitors can re-engage safely with the Trail. Comprised of representatives from APPA, agency partners, ATC and the clubs this is an example of the Cooperative Management System that has served us well for over fifty years. GATC’s Bill Bryant and Scott Deitchman are serving as members of the force.
The task force will adopt several guiding principles as it develops a decision-making framework for staff, volunteers and Trail visitors. The task force’s top priority will be the safety and health of ATC staff, volunteers, agency partners, Trail visitors and adjacent communities. An evidence-based approach, relying on the best science available will be used. It will account for the unique characteristics of the A.T. and develop guidance that is specific to the A.T. and the broader Trail community. The policies of our federal and state partners as well as restrictions and closures implemented at the local, state and federal levels will also be taken into consideration.
At this point I do not see our club holding a work trip or conducting hikes and activities as we are accustomed. I suspect that for at least a year we will need to practice social distancing procedures. I am working on a Trail Epidemic Protocol so we can continue club work in a safe and healthy manner.
Basically, groups will be no larger than 6 to 8 people, no carpooling means meeting at the trial head and maintaining a social distance. We also need to normalize reminders to each other to follow these protocols. It is all too easy to get closer to our friends and make exceptions.
Activities Director John Lewis is looking at ways to accommodate hikers on scheduled hikes, keeping groups no larger than 6 to 8. This may require breaking people into different groups or selecting different itineraries.
Trail Director Tom Lamb is working on revamping the work schedule. To accommodate multiple work crews of six people, where they don’t encounter each other. This will necessitate spreading them across several districts. This model should work well in addressing the maintenance needs of the trail.
There are several fall programs under consideration to be held virtually. The Trail Skills Workshop, scheduled for September, may not happen. I am holding board meetings virtually. At this point the annual meeting in October and the holiday party in December may also be virtual.
What concerns me about the reopening of society is how some people seem to reject the value of social distancing. I can understand how scared people are who have lost their jobs and want to get back to work. The pent up boredom and desire to get out doors and resume normal activity is very high. Everyone is anxious to get going, and we need to proceed cautiously.
It scares me that so many people are not practicing social distancing guidelines. Both young and old people can carry the virus asymptomatically and then give it to the unknowing and unprepared. Chances of transmission decrease by being diligent about protecting oneself. I believe in the guidelines that call for 14 days of reduced numbers before taking a step, such as opening restaurants. With 14 more days of declining numbers than another step can be taken. Only by being conscientious can we make this work.