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atraildreamer
2008-11-08, 14:38
Found this in "The Providence Journal" of 11/06/2008. Thought it would be of interest to HikingHQ members:

http://www.projo.com/opinion/contributors/content/CT_wyss6_11-06-08_9SC3K34_v16.3e2a706.html

Bob Wyss: Is the Appalachian Trail being loved to death?

01:00 AM EST on Thursday, November 6, 2008

I’M HIKING a small portion of the fabled Appalachian Trail, the 2,176-mile route that runs from Georgia to Maine.

The autumn foliage today is a combination of Virginia pine evergreen and hickory and redbud that are turning brilliant hues of yellow, red and orange. Bear, deer, bobcat and turkey are hiding here beyond the mountain laurel and dogwood. The sky is slate gray, the forecast calls for rain later, but who cares, I’m one with nature.

Yes, one; except that I am a party of about 50 climbing this famous ridge toward McAfee Knob. We’re environmental journalists out to both enjoy the trail for a day and to find out if all of us in this country are destroying the nation’s great natural landmarks, including the AT.

We have all been accused of loving our great natural resources to death.

The perils to the national parks are well known. Many now recall the congestion of cities, clogged as they are with automobiles, choked with exhaust and threatened by pollution. Wildlife, including many fragile species, are threatened.

The dangers extend further. The day after my hike I attend a session about the impact off-road vehicles are having on federal and state lands. Officials complain that drivers have carved out unauthorized trails in pristine areas, eroded existing trails, polluted streams and killed wildlife. Encounters between law enforcement officers and unrepentant riders have become increasingly hostile and violent.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, calls the destruction “an abomination and an embarrassment.” He adds: “It’s the top threat to the nation’s environment.”

Conditions on the Appalachian Trail are not as dire, yet many are worried.

David Startzell, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which helps maintain the trail, said a recent audit found that up to 2,000 endangered species live along the pathway.

He said his organization, in concert with federal and state agencies, are working to acquire as much land along the trail as possible. Catawba Mountain was once privately owned and off limits to the Appalachian Trail. It took years of negotiations and litigation for the federal government to acquire this land. The trail was moved here to take advantage of the famous McAfee Knob viewpoint.

More property needs to be acquired, but easements and conservation deeds are the best Startzel can hope for. “We will never buy it all,” he said. “We could not afford it.”

Scientists such as Jeffrey Marion, who is also on our hike today, are also helping.

Marion, who works for the U.S. Geological Society, is a recreation ecologist. “I study visitor impacts in natural areas,” he explained.

Marion and his colleagues have found that the number of visitors to a natural resource may not be the most important criteria to protecting it. Short visits of a day or more have less impact on vegetation and wildlife than longer stays in an area.

He cited a tent site as an example. Setting up a tent for one day is far different than for a week. Less vegetation is trampled, less fire wood needs to be gathered, and far less wildlife disturbed.

“It’s about the amount of use,” he explained, “it’s not just about the numbers.”

As we hike Marion points out that the Appalachian Trail is always changing and moving. For instance, we are about two-thirds of the way to the summit when Marion remarks that this section is only about five years old. The switchbacks installed here replaced the more direct grades on the old trail, because they are less prone to erosion.

Marion said he has never worked with off-road vehicles owners but he would enjoy the challenge. While many in the environmental community are put off by the noise, pollution and destruction of the machines, Marion believes that better management can overcome any problems in a natural area.

By the time we near the upper ridgeline we have climbed nearly 1,200 feet and my legs ache. We pass 20-foot-high boulders of brown Silurian sandstone, relic of this range, which 250 million years ago was higher than the Himalayans.

And then, finally, we’re there.

More than 5,000 journey to McAfee’s Knob each year to witness this spectacular panorama.

The rock surface at the summit juts in a craggy spit over the cliff. Below, more than a thousand feet, is the Catawba Valley. It is a patchwork of cultivated fields and tiny houses surrounded by forests of green and autumn amber that climb North Mountain and Tinker Cliffs. A hawk circles below.

Roger Holnback takes in the view. Holnback is executive director of the Western Virginia Land Trust, which has been working to acquire and preserve much of this land .

“I’m seeing twice as many houses down in that valley as I first saw 20 years ago,” he said. “And in 20 years there will be twice again as many.”

He does not say very much else. He does not have to.

Bob Wyss is a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut and a former reporter and editor for The Providence Journal.