The Appalachian Trail Landscape Conservation Partnership: The Legacy and The Realization
WORDS BY LAURA BELLEVILLE
“IF THESE PEOPLE WERE ON THE SKYLINE, AND KEPT THEIR EYES OPEN, THEY WOULD SEE THE THINGS THAT THE GIANT COULD SEE.”
— BENTON MACKAYE, 1921
he Appalachian Trail is the iconic hiking route that follows the scenic Appalachian Mountains for more than 3500 km—from Georgia to Maine—along the east coast of the U.S. Its success has been a proof-of-concept and inspiration for a number of other long distance routes in North America and other nations.
Benton MacKaye (1879-1975) was the first person to propose the idea of the Appalachian Trail, which he did in October of 1921. MacKaye was a regional planner and forester who helped pioneer the idea of land preservation for recreation and conservation purposes. He was a strong advocate of balancing human needs and those of nature. He grew up reading the work of American naturalists and poets and taking long walks in the mountains of New England. MacKaye sometimes claimed that the idea for the trail was born one day when he was sitting in a tree atop Stratton Mountain in Vermont. MacKaye was responsible for convening and organizing the first Appalachian Trail conference in Washington, D.C., in 1925. That gathering of hikers, foresters, and public officials embraced the goal of building the Trail. The Appalachian Trail Conference became the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 2005.
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Today, hiking the Appalachian Trail isn’t just a walk in the woods—it is an experience that embodies an environment linking the majestic Appalachian Mountains to the human landscapes of the eastern cities. Iconic viewsheds, precious natural resources, and cultural heritage that surround the Trail all contribute to the hiking experience. The Appalachian Trail embodies, among those who walk along the footpath, a sense of place that is profound and often remains as a lifelong experience.
“The Appalachian Trail is conceived as the backbone of a super reservation and primeval recreation ground … its ultimate purpose being to extend acquaintance with the scenery and serve as a guide to the understanding of nature.”
The landscape surrounding the world-famous Appalachian Trail connects rural communities and working farms and forests; squeezes through rapidly developing regions; and provides the foundation for unparalleled outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities. A part of the U.S. National Park Service system, the trail winds through an exceptional variety of terrain, including rolling hills and mountains, deep valleys, forests, rivers and streams, open pastures, and much more. Today more than three million people each year hike all or part of the Appalachian Trail and that number continues to grow.
MacKaye envisioned a trail project as a means of protecting the surrounding landscapes of the Appalachian Mountains—a mission even more relevant, if not urgent, today! While the trail has been in place now for nearly eight decades, the opportunity to bring communities and conservation partners together around a large vision is just beginning. The mission is to conserve the recreational and ecological resources of the ancient Appalachian Mountains at the appropriate scales.
While federal law protects the Appalachian Trail footpath itself, and its surrounding narrow corridor, and much has been done over the years to preserve the trail experience — with its pristine viewsheds, watersheds, and diversity of natural resources — the corridor remains vulnerable to many external threats. These threats are varied: poorly planned commercial, energy, and transportation development; suburban sprawl; noise pollution; climate change; and habitat fragmentation and destruction. Not only can these impact the trail experience but also the clean water, wildlife habitat, and ecological resilience upon which so many nearby communities rely.
Opportunities exist to connect established conservation areas, conserve and promote historic and cultural features, and prevent land-use changes that impact pristine landscapes surrounding the Trail. Identifying and targeting a diverse variety of landscapes, watersheds, and viewsheds has the potential to significantly enhance the natural, emotional, and economic value of the landscape backbone along a 3600 km stretch of the Eastern United States.
MacKaye’s background as a regional planner and vision for landscape scale conservation in the rapidly developing eastern United States was prophetic, but took some time to gain traction. Large-landscape scale conservation initiatives have only resurfaced in the last couple of decades as conservation scientists recognized that large, unfragmented corridors would be necessary for the long-term survival of some species, especially in an age of climate change. Accordingly, those concerned with biodiversity conservation, the future of working farms and forests, the protection of water resources, outdoor recreational opportunities, and economic development linked to both natural and cultural amenities have shown a renewed interest in conservation initiatives of relatively large scale and comprehensive scope.
On the ground, large landscape conservation means enhancing the conservation value of all lands, helping conserve key connections between landscapes, implementing climate adaptation initiatives, and developing strategies to help nature remain resilient on a grand scale.
The multi-jurisdictional complexity of the Appalachian Trail corridor requires a large landscape-scale conservation strategy that involves commitments from a variety of stakeholders. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the National Park Service have laid the foundation to bring together a coalition of private and public entities in a concerted new way that facilitates joint strategies and actions.
The Appalachian Trail Landscape Conservation Partnership includes work on climate change mitigation, connecting with cultural and historic resources, and opening the trail to a wider and more diverse audience. The Partnership is working from the trail looking out across the landscape and from the perspective of local communities looking back across the landscape to the trail.
The Partnership will: connect people along the Appalachian Trail and across the broader associated landscapes to foster information exchange and to discuss challenges, objectives, and key conservation strategies; foster collaboration with partners to help craft and implement local, regional, and federal programs and policies that advance our conservation goals; conserve priority lands to achieve our collective goals; and communicate across geographies and sectors the importance of conserving the broader natural and cultural landscapes associated with the Appalachian Trail.