Clockwise from above right: Dr. Jeff Marion’s graduate assistants collect data on the A.T. in Virginia near Blacksburg that will give Trail managers more insights into which sections of A.T. are sustainably designed and maintained; Volunteers from the Maine Appalachian Trail Crew spent years working to stabilize the A.T. on the north slope of White Cap Mountain; Konnarock Trail Crew members assist the Roanoke A.T. Club with relocation work on Sinking Creek Mountain in Virginia

The first time I ever set foot on the Appalachian Trail, it was as a Trail maintainer. I was just about to begin my freshman year of college at Dartmouth, and was partaking in the long tradition of “First-Year Trips,” a rite of passage organized by the Dartmouth Outing Club, or the DOC. These five-day trips, just before the start of orientation, are a way for new students to meet one another and connect with the land that they will call home for the next four years. Trips run the gamut from rock climbing to nature photography, from “extreme hiking” to cabin camping. Many of them take place along the Appalachian Trail. That summer, I had chosen trail work as one of the trip options that I was interested in, and there I found myself, getting dropped off with my “trippees” along Route 25A at the base of Mount Cube. We hiked south along the A.T. to Smarts Mountain. In an effort to keep hikers from falling and twisting their ankles, we spent the next two days crushing rocks and piling them under the steps of a wooden staircase that the DOC’s summer trail crew had built just a few weeks prior.

Earlier that summer, when I indicated that I would be interested in doing a trail work trip, I’m not sure that I actually knew what trail work entailed. I had participated in a couple of trail cleanups with my high school outdoor club, so I think I had a vague idea that trails needed to be “maintained,” but I don’t think I knew what that actually meant.

Nor do I think that my ignorance was particularly rare. Many hikers have no idea that trails need consistent care and maintenance. Those of us who had the privilege of growing up with woods in our backyards, for example, created our own trails just by walking the same paths over and over again. My backyard trails didn’t need to be kept up or looked after — they remained clear and walkable from my frequent use of them. So why wouldn’t the Appalachian Trail be the same way?

Of course, those of us who have learned a bit more about trails, who volunteer or work to keep them sustainable, know the answer to that question. Factors like rain and overuse are constant threats to trails, and can cause negative impacts ranging from gullying and soil compaction to trail widening and vegetation loss. Then, there are more urgent threats, like big storms causing scores of trees to fall or a bridge washing out in a flood.

The Appalachian Trail does not escape any of these problems, and is in constant need of care. This care can take the form of work as simple as clipping brush that grows into the trailway, or something as complicated as relocating multiple miles of the entire Trail. Maintaining almost 2,200 miles of trail is no small feat, and in the case of the Appalachian Trail, relies on a complex but cooperative network of partners.

Clubs and Crews

Most important to the management of the A.T. are the more than 6,000 individuals each year who dedicate their time and passion to the Trail as volunteers. Almost all of those individuals volunteer through one of 31 A.T. maintaining clubs, groups that have committed to overseeing the maintenance of a specific section of the Trail. These 31 clubs, in conjunction with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and government agency partners such as the National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Forest Service, and many state and county agencies, work together as partners to manage and maintain the Appalachian Trail.

Each partner plays a unique and vital role to the Trail’s upkeep. Volunteers of the 31 A.T. maintaining clubs perform much of the “routine” maintenance of the Trail, such as keeping it clear of obstacles like downed trees and overhanging vegetation, ensuring proper drainage, and maintaining shelters. It is when the Trail has more extensive needs — projects requiring significant humanpower, training, and tools — that the partnership really comes into play.

Each partner plays a unique and vital role to the Trail’s upkeep. Trail maintaining clubs, the ATC, and agency partners rely not only on each other to maintain the Trail, but on the vast network of members of the ATC, partner organizations, and individuals around the world who value the Appalachian Trail.

A section of the A.T. in the White Mountains (approaching Mount Washington) shows a sustainable subalpine tread lined with scree wall to contain traffic

One perfect example can be found in southern Virginia, just north of the A.T. Community of Pearisburg, Virginia. Until 2014, the section of Trail north of the New River was the last big piece of the A.T. situated on private land. Almost four decades of negotiations, eight years of work from volunteers of Konnarock Trail Crew, and several local A.T. clubs, and significant funding and support from NPS and the U.S. Forest Service resulted in the eventual relocation of 6.5 miles of Trail, protecting it from future development. “That relocation is a testament to the partnership,” says Josh Kloehn, resource manager for the ATC’s Central & Southwest Virginia region.

Volunteer Trail crews often assist A.T. clubs with these more extensive projects; this summer, for example, volunteers from Konnarock Trail Crew and the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club are continuing work on a multi-year relocation of the Trail on Sinking Creek Mountain in Virginia. Their work will remove an unsustainably-designed section of Trail that runs straight up the mountain, which has caused significant erosion as well as unsafe conditions for hikers.

Unsurprisingly, projects like these involve significant investments of money. Because it is a unit of the NPS, the Appalachian Trail is eligible for Park Service funding for some of its maintenance needs. Like many federal agencies, the NPS is stretched thin, and our national parks suffer a backlog of “deferred maintenance” — needs that NPS staff are aware of, but do not have the funding to address. As such, the NPS must prioritize the available funding for only the most pressing system-wide needs, which means that the A.T., in a sense, competes against other national park units for that funding. “The ATC works closely with individual A.T. clubs to determine which projects are submitted for NPS funding. This funding is essential to support seasonal Trail crews that assist clubs with the more physically demanding or technical Trail projects,” says Laura Belleville, ATC’s vice president of Conservation and Trail Management Programs.

Many A.T. club volunteers know their Trail sections better than most of us know our own neighborhoods, and already know which sections of the Trail need some serious TLC. But A.T. partners, including club volunteers, ATC staff, and staff of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (the NPS office that helps manage the A.T.), have used several different processes to determine which sections of the Trail are in greatest need. These processes don’t necessarily inform partners of maintenance needs they weren’t previously aware of; rather, they provide a way of comparing needs up and down the length of the A.T., and, importantly for competing for NPS funding, quantifying those needs.

One tool that A.T. managers have used to prioritize projects is a Trail assessment. From 2004 to 2014, volunteers and ATC staff walked the entire length of the Trail, twice, recording data along the way that would help identify all of its deficiencies. The Trail assessment allowed A.T. partners to see the scope of the Trail’s deferred maintenance — those known needs that managers haven’t had the resources to take care of yet — from Maine to Georgia.

Another Trail assessment is currently being conducted by Dr. Jeff Marion, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech, and Dr. Jeremy Wimpey of Applied Trails Research. For each of the past two summers, Dr. Marion’s graduate assistants have taken measurements at 3,150 points along the A.T., an 11 percent random sample of the Trail. Dr. Marion’s comprehensive data collection will give Trail managers more complete insights into which sections of A.T. are sustainably designed and maintained, as well as what factors affect the sustainability of the Trail and visitor use sites. This study will aid Trail managers in redesigning or replacing Trail segments and sites to avoid or minimize future recreation impacts, decrease the amount of maintenance required, and craft improved Leave No Trace practices. The team is sampling the last third of the A.T. in the Mid-Atlantic region this summer, and will begin their data analysis this fall.

A thank you dinner for volunteers after Sinking Creek Mountain relocation work in 2016

Also since 2015, A.T. partners have been working to complete the “Trail Asset Inventory” — a process by which dedicated volunteers have collected data to assign a dollar value to each feature, such as rock steps and waterbars, along the A.T. This dollar value quantifies what it would cost, including the value of volunteer labor, to replace each of these features were they destroyed or left to deteriorate. Appalachian National Scenic Trail staff can then use these values to demonstrate to the NPS the true cost of various maintenance projects along the Trail, making those projects more likely to receive federal funding. As Keith Stegall, facilities manager for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, points out, “this funding is critically needed to protect our boundary corridor, maintain open areas, manage hazard trees, repair and improve the Trail tread, replace privies, and improve and maintain campgrounds, bridges, shelters, parking areas, roads, buildings, water systems, and even a high hazard dam.”

As these processes are completed, efforts moving forward “can be focused on only those sites along the Trail in most need of attention, which the ATC and clubs are in the best position to identify,” says Stegall. One of those areas is northern New England, where more than 60 percent of the maintenance needs identified through the Trail assessment are located. Claire Polfus, the ATC’s Maine program manager, reports that funding from NPS has been critical to chipping away at the long list of maintenance needs. Each summer, two Trail crews, both of which have historically been funded in large part by NPS, work on projects to make the A.T. in Maine more sustainable. For instance, volunteers from the Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC) recruit Trail crew leaders and volunteers for the Maine Trail Crew to work on myriad projects spanning vastly in work and time. “I think that one of the notable projects completed by the Maine Trail Crew was stabilizing the A.T. on the north slope of White Cap Mountain,” says MATC president Lester Kenway. The project began in 1993 and was completed in 2014 – 857 stone steps and numerous stone waterbars were installed on 3/4 mile of Trail. “This work took 21 years to accomplish,” says Kenway. “This year the crew is beginning work to relocate a portion of the Hunt Trail on Katahdin. A steep section of the Trail two miles from Katahdin Stream is being relocated from 35 percent grade to 12 percent grade by taking a serpentine route instead of going straight up the mountain. Stone steps are being installed in each turn.” The crew continues to work along Rainbow Lake, where deep peat soils have created a very wet Trail.  Step stones are being placed to harden the Trail; and more work is going on along the South Slope of Barren Mountain where stone steps will be placed in several eroded sections.

Money Money Money

Yet despite the close partnership of those working to manage the A.T., no one can anticipate the unexpected. Weather emergencies happen frequently on the A.T., and can lead to complex and urgent maintenance needs. The federal government is not known for being nimble, and NPS funding generally needs to be applied for three to five years in advance.

This is when A.T. managers rely on private funding and important networks of partners beyond the usual cooperative management arrangement. In July of 2016, a severe windstorm in Tennessee caused almost 100 trees to fall along just a few miles off the A.T. within the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness in Tennessee. The local A.T. club, Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club, called upon the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS), an important A.T. partner in the southeast, for help to address the damage. Within just two weeks of the storm, SAWS was able to re-direct two of its seasonal trail crews to the area to quickly clear the blowdowns, keeping hikers from further damaging the Trail by creating new paths over and around the trees.

Just a few months later, severe wildfires swept through the southeast in one of the worst fire seasons in memory. At one point last fall, these fires caused the closure of more than 200 miles of the A.T. in North Carolina and Tennessee. The hard work of volunteers from the Nantahala Hiking Club was critical in quickly reopening the Trail once the fires were out, and hundreds of donors responded to an appeal from the ATC to help fund efforts to repair the damage. Thanks to their generosity, Konnarock Trail Crew is spending three sessions this summer rehabilitating the most damaged part of the Trail, a section in southwestern North Carolina near Wesser Bald. Because there was no emergency funding available through the A.T.’s federal agency partners, this is work that Konnarock would be unable to accomplish without those private donations.

It takes a lot of resources — time, money, and sweat, to name a few, to keep a trail that runs for almost 2,200 miles in good shape. This is important for the safety of those who hike it, but also the health of the ecosystems surrounding it. Dr. Jeff Marion notes that, “As the A.T. continues to experience increasing visitor use over time, the A.T. community can and should increase its efforts to improve the sustainability of the Trail … to minimize associated resource impacts and improve the quality of recreation experiences.” Trail maintaining clubs, the ATC, and agency partners rely not only on each other to maintain the Trail, but on the vast network of members of the ATC and A.T. clubs, partner organizations, and individuals around the world who value the Appalachian Trail. If you fancy yourself a member of that A.T. community, there are myriad ways to help keep the A.T. sustainable. Volunteer for your local Trail-maintaining club or, if you live farther from the Trail, an ATC trail crew. Practice Leave No Trace when you visit the A.T., and encourage others to do so as well. And continue to support ATC’s work as a member.