Rural System's

Planning for the Appalachian Trail
in the George Washington National Forest

The Appalachian Trail is an important resource. That's what people say and it has been written for many years. It is if it can be preserved, enhanced, and managed and if greater gains can be made from it than at present. Now it is merely used and exploited and its character and maintenance changed daily. It is a 2,000-mile long hiking trail from Maine to Georgia but we'll not describe it here. It is important to know that the Trail is long, old, on federal- and state-owned land, and "in the hands" of a private group that is federally funded. That newly named agency is the "Appalachian Trail Conservancy." The Trail's "management," regulation, support, and maintenance are as complex as the trail is long. As new-home owners, new clergy, and old city engineers know too well, after soaring flights of creativity and the work and decisions of construction, then comes the lasting drudgery of maintenance and management. We have silently and slowly merged, without recognizing it, into that second period. We the Forest, the Conservancy, and the public need a strategy for that period. Visitors or people driving by Trail signs or reading articles about it may "care less," or be in wonderment that such a thing exists, as unnatural as a rappelling wall. Yet we still say that it is an important resource. Hundreds of people hike it within the Forest annually. Each year many people hike the entire trail or succeed in hiking the last stretch of it so that they can say they have walked the entire Trail. There are thousands of members of the AT. Some of us think the Trail is an important resource; others do not think so; some have not had the opportunity or reason to think about it.

The Forest Plan needs to include a new strategy. I separate easily "tactics" and "strategies," the former being the actions and procedures used to achieve the strategies. I define less easily "strategies." If I am not careful, I will assume improperly that a "plan" is a strategy. A strategy is a carefully-developed and written concept of a procedure or set of procedures for achieving a pre-stated set of objectives. It is not the "ends" or objectives, and is not the list of actions, tools, and techniques to be used. It is not a directive for how to gain efficiencies, even to gain greater effectiveness. A strategy is one selected option from a set of alternative ways to achieve objectives. It presupposes there being a set of alternatives. Each of the alternatives embodies tactics, but the one selected states the sequential and simultaneous general procedure to be taken to achieve one or more major objectives. By "carefully selected" I mean to suggest that the selection has the character of a stratagem. It may not be apparent in its existence, application, or effect; it may be deceptive, but of course legal and ethically bound. It probably must be indirect to be successful.

The Situation

It is clear to me that the Trail within the Forest is virtually unmanaged, reaching conditions of excessive use and increasing abuse and vandalism, and is inadequately supervised. Users are untrained and un-monitored; safety and lost-hiker events, with their concurrent costs, increase. Volunteers are unstable in number or skill and thus essential work (and thus appropriate trail conditions) cannot be stabilized or assured. Major weather events that are well-known and expected present seemingly unexpected challenges to Trail managers. The volunteer force with needed expertise and knowledge is difficult to sustain. Cost estimates increase with each such failure.

Potential benefits to hikers, landowners, and citizens of the regions through which the trail passes are unexplored. The economic benefits are scant and poorly assigned. Undesirable-for-the-Trail-user practices around the Trail emerge like brush fires, and land use change occurs with little thought of their effects to the trail or its yet-unexpressed economic value to them and local citizens. Research is rare, both to understand the trail, trail users, land owners, or surrounding landowners. The unlimited potential of the trail for ecological research and especially for climate change, for air pollution effects, and for the revelations possible from a national ecological transect goes unexploited.

We have a "situation." That orientation to trail work no longer works and thus we need a stratagem, an effective attack on the problem. It cannot be frontal for we know the entrenched interests, the obstacles, the sociology of change, and entitlements. We must create a clear, positive, powerful alternative with incentives for change for the decided future.

There are residual alternatives, e.g., continuing as in the past, asking for federal money, depending on giant grants and bequests, and hoping for more volunteers. These are not working now and seem unlikely to work well in the near future. There is danger to the Trail and its users if we continue to depend upon them and they fail. Perhaps you will include the new alternative in the Forest Plan. Perhaps you will advise and improve my strategy.

The Selected Alternative: Replacing a Strategy

We need to reconsider published Trail objectives and suggest, beyond mere consideration, that there are alternatives for achieving them. We are currently involved in a large activity oriented to an earthen trail. Everything - staff, several agencies' interests, funds, and volunteers - is concentrated on where to place boots. That orientation has grown historically. It made sense; it was practical and immediate; it worked.

The new alternative shifts the emphasis of those working with and for the Trail to creating and operating a system for people. That system has a performance measure of

   Sustained, bounded profits to a Trails group and its affiliates

The shift is drastic -- from the trail itself to citizen benefits. The required structure is a private/public partnership with notable emphasis on users, but especially on the index of the quality of their experience - that which is expected, actual, and remembered. We engage in a new entrepreneurial model for natural resource management. The work maintains the Trail but that is done in order to stabilize profits - those that are shared with the landowners, the counties having the trail, and especially with Trail users and tomorrow's users.(Of course there remain other objectives and desired outcomes, and they are preserved and increased over time.)

We have a clear, measurable and reportable measure of system success. We have an existing system with high costs and realize those will increase without major change. That change, perhaps even including giant gifts from some donors, cannot likely be sustained. If gifts are now available they can be used to build the system (thus not necessarily the trail) that will last into the future, one concentrated on Trail members and responsible users, on heightened benefits for all concerned, for teaching about and marketing the Trail benefits, for stabilizing the fundamental basis for operating and maintaining the Trail and all that is related to its productivity -- it as a national resource, one requiring conservation, and now one with known manageable personal incentives that still may include ethical motives, responsibility, and altruism.

You may see that we are creating a stereoscopic view of a trail and a modern. working, computer-aided system. It is both environmental and sociological, both ecological and psychological, both development and maintenance, both knowledge-base storage and knowledge-base building, both in the countryside and in the mind of prospective as well as past users.

You can imagine the elements:

The monetary income stream within the above is that of memberships; publications; specialized equipment; conferences and seminars; guide services; tours, events and related services; Internet activity; marketing of related equipment and services; off-Trail impact analyses; and grants and memorials. Some income may be from research grants. Some funds may be from agencies including in-kind service as in the past. The gains are from diverse cash flows, integrated management, investments, and planned incentives for the public, users, grantors, and cooperating enterprises.

The profits are bounded and the objective is to sustain them over a planned period of at least 150 years, sliding forward a year, each year. Many other objectives held in the past must still be achieved if this primary objective is to be achieved. Those objectives are not relinquished. To achieve the primary objective requires the greatest attention to and careful management of and re-investment into the productivity and care of the Trail. It will be a major task, one well known but hidden in the flow of funds from government agencies, no matter how sporadic. We have to stabilize funding and thereby to stabilize the quality of the trail and the potential benefits from it flowing to people! There are direct costs of trail work. These have been hidden in the thousands of hours of volunteer work. We propose to encourage that for as long as possible and include it within membership suggestions. We plan to gain assistance from trained juvenile work crews from the Courts. We shall seek project work with "The Wildland Crew" and "Stoneworms." We believe that improved location, equipment, and structural enhancements will increase trail quality and, over time, reduce the workload to a constant annual amount with planned peakload efforts

You can begin to see the strategy - creating and operating a system based on benefits, indexed with money, and dependent on newly-conceived users and citizen benefits. It is a strategy with clear measurable objectives, a known and knowable physical attributes and processes, with operating feedback, and timely adjustments to the perceived future - i.e., feedforward.

In connection with local enterprises we may create staging areas where hiker groups and individuals assemble, gain information about the trail and conditions, gain services and offerings of the memberships, have desired behavior reinforced, gain safety advice. Here as elsewhere, secure parking is available as well as scheduled transits to start- and pick-up points. Small parking lots provide some local revenue and these operators often have contacts for guides and trail associates.

Just as funds secured at the staging areas and parking lots are not directly on the trail, they are from the Trail and its near environment as well as all within its view-scape and growing knowledge-scape (where people know about, see images, plan, yearn for and recall). We are part of a growing concept of the land as a working platform, with a full range of possible uses and many different benefits, crudely expressed "like a factory site," from which we may profit in diverse ways, limited primarily by our imagination and decision powers for many years if we tend it very, very carefully and manage it well.

We now have a GIS knowledge base for my entire trail. We have lists of all of the plants and animals ever seen and recorded in a computer. We can make such lists available and when they are converted and well edited, they become the text material for Trail "life lists" for hikers. A well-known bird watcher's life list is a list of all bird species seen in their life. We will offer programs of "Trail-only life lists" for plants and animals. The results for members will be posted and we expect expert observers to become prominent. We also expect new "finds," creatures expected but not yet recorded as present.

There will be great adventures to select areas on and along the Trail where experts and volunteers do intensive studies. We will advance knowledge of the biodiversity of the Trail and its zone.

New computer analytical powers will allow us to create permanent picture points (using GPS) and from them analyze the view-scape. These stored images will reflect the history of the growth of the valleys and the changes taking place that will eventually affect the Trail. The images may deter some development or suggest slight shifts in placement of development within the valley to reduce visual impact on hikers there. These picture points, taken seasonally, will provide a new record of the plants of the area and their change, and how community structure changes with elevation, and over time. They may become invaluable as studies of the ecology of the entire Trail develop, with new emphasis on and accuracy for the ecological functions at Earth points with latitude, longitude, and elevation being precisely determined (a new condition with new conclusions possible).

The Trail is terrestrial and the headwater streams that it crosses have been seen as impediments to hikers and bridge builders. Now we create a headwaters program with cooperators and work to map and describe the stream characteristics and headwaters of the Trail. We have existing GIS progress and it needs refinement and greater specificity. The brook trout is of great interest and a book and CD on ancient streams will be prepared and sold, but the new emphasis is on the riparian volume, the seasonal images, the importance of seeps, and new estimates to improve precipitation data (now largely from valley airports and scattered incomplete and outdated data sets) for the mountains and their streams.

Few with whom I have shared this recommended strategy can see the income potentials. (Few can see the income sources for the immediate future of the Trail.) We do not discount gifts and grants or contract work for our staff groups working on state and federal lands, but we quickly list membership fees; insurance; equipment, clothing, and product sales; publications and CDs; commissions from parking areas, motels, and restaurants; guide and Trail associates programs; tours, conferences, seminars; Trail impact analyses for valley developers; and a variety of advertising. A school and training camp for prospective total-Trail hikers may provide substantial income. It, along with ancillary trail hiking programs, will add to the profitability of the operation.

The Stratagem of This Paper

The Forest needs to be involved in the advanced stage strategic action of redefining the AT, at least experimentally, at least for this Forest, as a rural resource, advocating a stable set of bounded-value benefits, clarifying the source of management funding, clarifying Trail resource benefits, describing the Trail as a conceptual resource volume, developing a resource management structure, conceiving of Trail sections as unique systems that are modular, developing managerial aids, clarifying benefit opportunities and those experienced, clarifying costs and disproducts, clarifying risks and developing risk-reduction procedures, and producing public statements of the nature of the resource and its opportunities over time, especially for the future. This can be done. It needs a plan and as all plans, a budget and actions based upon it.

Robert H. Giles, Jr., PhD


In late 2006 the concept of the Trail as a transect was advanced (see Neon, inc.)

Citizen Scientists on the Appalachian Trail

Hikers, government agencies, and NGOs are planning a long-term initiative to gather environmental data in the mountains and valleys traversed by the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail. Citizen scientists could help track change on the trail by recording as many as 50 variables, ranging from climate to cultural data, according to Michael Fay, a National Geographic explorer. Supporters of the Appalachian Trail Mega-Transect include the Appalachian Trail Club, the National Park Service, the US Geological Survey, USDA Forest Service, National Geographic, Aveda Corporation, and Cornell University.

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January 2, 2006