Politics threatens Appalachian Trail

Published April 1, 2001

Fox News recently reported a conflict between a granite quarry and hikers on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail in western North Carolina. The owner of the property across which the trail ran had spent two million dollars planning, testing, and preparing for operations. He submitted all the required applications and was granted a permit by the State of North Carolina. Operations at the quarry began.

Although the quarry site was more than three miles from the trail, some hikers found the noise level unacceptable and complained the mine could no coexist with a “nature trail.” The objectors apparently had a great deal of clout, as the State reversed itself and revoked the quarry owner’s permit. Mining was halted. State officials contacted by Fox refused to comment on the decision.

The story suggests the unfortunate demise of a long-standing cordial relationship between private landowners, managers of public holdings, and individuals who enjoy recreation in the form of hiking. Until now, the Appalachian Trail has served as a model of voluntary cooperation in a truly American way.

Long history of cordial relations

Partly out of the kindness of the hearts of countless private property owners, hikers have been able to enjoy the trail’s 2,144 miles passing through a wide array of settings, from northern Georgia to Mount Katahdin in northern Maine, for decades.

The trail was never intended to remain in a totally wild state. Indeed, the Appalachian Trail is unique in that it blends in with, and takes advantage of, a wide variety of natural and cultural settings that not only provide the opportunity to enjoy nature, but also afford conveniences that enable a hiker’s basic human needs to be met. It is a rare individual indeed who would traverse the entire length without at least once sleeping in a bed with a roof overhead, partaking of a hot shower, eating in a restaurant, or purchasing groceries. And the human structures that enable the trail’s many rivers and streams to be crossed are certainly a godsend.

Those causing the friction probably pride themselves in being devoted to the protection of the environment. But what’s wrong with a granite quarry? If the hole had been created by Mother Nature, it would be prized by the environmentalists. And unlike those environmentalists, the wild creatures who share the quarry’s surroundings have adjusted exceedingly well to the noise. Could it be the quarry’s opponents care less about nature, and more about themselves?

Just one infringement among many

The quarry controversy is not the first to have afflicted the Appalachian Trail. In northern Maine, it crosses private property belonging to the owners of Saddleback Mountain Ski Area. For years they have obliged hikers, providing a generous trail corridor. But the National Park Service, which has named itself savior of so many properties, decided Saddleback’s owners should give up even more acreage. A nasty situation has been created and still festers.

Then there is the debacle involving the Franciscan friars’ Graymoore property in Garrison, New York. The friars’ ministries there include a shelter for homeless men, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, an AIDS ministry, and a retreat center. Graymoore was founded in 1898.

Since 1923, under a handshake agreement with the federal government, the friars have allowed the Appalachian Trail to run through their property. Moreover, they’ve provided meals, showers, and a place to stay overnight for more than 400 hikers a year, free of charge. The friars say it has been an enriching experience for them, meeting many interesting people with all kinds of stories to tell.

Back came the National Park Service in 2000, demanding 20 more acres of the property and moving to take it by eminent domain. How’s that for a ham-handed way to deal with an obliging, cooperative group? Among other things, the Park Service contended that, since the original easement is only 50 feet wide in some spots, the trail runs “too close” to the outside world–this on a trail which by its nature traverses much of what the Service considers the distasteful outside world.

Recently, under pressure, the Park Service retreated from its efforts against the friars . . . who know perfectly well there’s no guarantee the bureaucrats will not attack again.

Where might it lead?

The very nature of the Appalachian Trail–its voluntariness, its spirit of cooperation–has been violated by power grabs and disregard for private property rights. If the trail continues to be plagued by the sort of behavior demonstrated by those who would attack the granite quarry, the ski area, and the friars, a horrible precedent will be set. The Appalachian Trail would never be the same . . . because once they are successful, those who would use the force of government will not retreat.

Something surely must be done, for example, with the “non-conforming structure” that is Route 441, running from Cherokee, North Carolina to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The noise from the traffic is horrendous. Even worse are superhighway I-40, going west to Newport, Tennessee, and Routes 19E and 421.

In Virginia, even more potential conflicts arise. There’s I-81, I-77, and I-64; the many unsightly little villages that litter the trail; and, indeed, the very popular Blue Ridge Parkway, along which the trail winds.

The political environmentalists may want to reconsider how trail hikers are supposed to get across the Potomac River, from Virginia into Maryland. And in Pennsylvania, they’ll want to ask whether it would be most appropriate to have the travelers swim across the Susquehanna River, or should they use birch bark canoes? The trail is awfully close to many small villages in Pennsylvania’s open farm country, and the Blue Mountain Ski Area is near the hikers’ path. The crossing of the Delaware River presents an even greater challenge still.

Fortunately, the New Jersey section of the trail has only a few conflicting roads. In New York, too, only a small area is involved, but resolutions of those conflicts will present a political nightmare. Connecticut is not too bad, but the trail is very close to roads, people, and their nonconforming behavior.

The biggest problem in Massachusetts is the Turnpike, which may have to be torn up, with traffic re-routed into Canada. Vermont, luckily, has only a few major highways . . . but Killington Ski Area better be on guard. Should hikers be allowed to use the bridge from Vermont into Hanover, New Hampshire, and is Dartmouth College in danger? While much of the trail in New Hampshire is on White Mountain National Forest land, many highways interfere nevertheless. And the problems are obvious in Maine: the highways, Sugarloaf Ski Area as well as Saddleback, scores of small villages, and many paper company roads with those horribly big log trucks.

And these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. When big brother comes along, there’s no telling where its efforts to destroy people’s lives and rewrite the meaning of a great trail with a fine history will end. Let us hope that by the time you read this Gail Norton will have been confirmed as Secretary of Interior, and that the pendulum will begin to swing back toward sane, reasonable objectivity in matters such as these.