The Appalachian National Scenic Trail (A.T.) runs from Georgia to Maine. Its southern terminus on Springer Mountain in the Chatthoochee-Oconee National Forest receives heavy spring visitation from a variety of types of hikers. The higher amount of traffic increases the need for on-Trail education and data collection for future management decisions.
Balancing the act of welcoming increasing numbers of A.T. visitors with protecting the natural and scenic qualities of the A.T., the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) sought and was awarded a MAP Grant from the National Forest Foundation for a project focused on educating hikers for a lifetime of responsible use.
The multi-pronged approach taken by the Conservancy:
- employed on-Trail educators,
- engaged citizens in on-the-ground stewardship,
- involved the greater north Georgia community in efforts to protect the resource, and
- improved standards and practices for visitor data collection and management.
Ridgerunners & Caretakers
ATC increased the number of staff on-Trail in Georgia from two staff people to five ridgerunners and caretakers (RR/CTs). Their primary function was on-Trail education of regulations, Leave No Trace information, data collection, and performing essential duties including litter clean-up and campsite restoration.
During the season, staff:
- had 9,000 conversations with the 15,000 visitors they encountered,
- packed out 938 lbs. of trash, and
- dismantled 167 fire rings to discourage future use.
On average, ridge runners captured 72% of the thru hikers and 43% of the other overnight users that passed through the Springer Mountain area during a peak season week in 2016.
The Georgia Appalachian Trail Club’s 13 volunteer Trail Ambassadors augmented the on-Trail education during days off of ATC’s RR/CTs, increasing total impact of Leave No Trace conversations by another 1,700.
Furthermore, with an associated project to re vegetate the barren earth of Hawk Mountain Shelter and improve its water and soil conditions, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club coordinated the work of 129 people in the months of January through March who contributed a total of 2,666 hours to the construction of sidehill campsites – extremely resistant to user created expansion - .5-mile south of the shelter.
ATC hosted a one-day workshop on Protecting the A.T. Hiking Experience for Trail service providers that helped validate the vested interest of cooperators in preserving the A.T. through advocating the best on-Trail behavior in visitors they serve. Roughly 40 participants, including USFS personnel, Georgia A.T. Club volunteers, and A.T. Community representatives and business owners shared ideas on natural resource protection.
Improved data collection methods
ATC started a digital collection method for reports that allowed for easier reporting, more detailed information gathering, and real-time analysis. Utilized by both staff and volunteers, it is a model for Trailwide improvements in visitor use data collection and monitoring. Data collection includes types of visitors, observation of Leave No Trace impacts for year-over-year analysis, and assessments of overnight site use of shelters, tents, and hammocks as ATC aims to understand shifting trends.
Overall, this work is helping to inform our future management plans. Throughout the season, data collected by staff and volunteers demonstrate that thru-hikers account for less than half of total visitor use in Georgia during peak season, and that the majority of visitors to the A.T. in Georgia are short distance overnighters and day hikers. If we assume all overnight users create similar ecological impacts, short distance overnighters may have as great an impact on the Trail’s resources as the 3,400 thru-hikers who started the A.T. in 2016. As we look to 2017, ATC will continue to educate hikers, protect the resource, advance stewardship and deepen community involvement on this Trail we hold so dear.