Leave No Trace: The Appalachian Battlefront

ATC Ridgerunners (Author Andrew Downs located on the far right) Back in 2011 I received a Master Educator course scholarship from the Leave No Trace Center For Outdoor Ethics, made possible by Outdoor Research.  My goal was to learn the skills necessary to teach others about low impact recreation.

I am lucky to have turned a lifelong love of the backcountry into a career protecting America’s outdoors with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).  The ATC partners with local Trail clubs as well as state and federal land management agencies to empower volunteers who protect the Trail. I work every day to make sure that America’s favorite footpath is in better shape than it was the day before.  A big part of that work is to explore the role of Leave No Trace ethics within the diverse culture that surrounds and supports the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (A.T.).

Just describing the culture surrounding the A.T. is a daunting task. I’ve looked at the Trail as a thru-hiker, manager and maintainer and yet elements still crop up every week that both delight and frustrate me. I may work with a Trail club to install a privy at a location that is being impacted from improper waste disposal and be delighted that the “toilet paper blooms” disappear. However when we dig the composted material out to find freeze dried food bags and trash that has been thrown into that privy, the delight is muted as we pack it out.

Experiences like these, shared with my colleagues at ATC, led to the formation of a work group focused on Leave No Trace and the Appalachian Trail. Comprised of hikers, ATC staff, employees from the United States Forest Service and the National Park Service, we’re working on bringing Leave No Trace to the A.T. in a way that’s never been done. I’m one of five Leave No Trace Master Educators in the group, which also includes four people who have hiked the entire A.T. as a thru-hiker or section hiker and three volunteer maintainers.

The unique pairing of A.T. experience and Leave No Trace training reveals just how significant the challenges are when attempting to blend “hike your own hike” with the Seven Principals so to speak, but progress is being made. We’ve updated Leave No Trace signage within the A.T. corridor to specifically address the unique nature of this Trail. We’ve also acquired funding to build an interactive website for people researching the A.T. or planning a hike. A prospective thru-hiker, section, day hiker or A.T. dreamer will be able to learn about special places on the A.T., how to plan for them appropriately and what challenges we’re facing as a community of A.T. enthusiasts. It’s our belief that 99% of hikers want to do all they can to protect the Trail they love, we just need to present information in a fun and approachable way.

We’re also coming up with ways to engage the 1%’ers, the folks directly causing impacts.  The ones who don’t seem like the most approachable people on the planet.  It’s a difficult task, but I believe that the key is in the messaging.  Working with Ridgerunners on the A.T.— the ground educators and the front-line of Leave No Trace education— we use the “Authority of the Resource” technique [Justifying a backcountry rule by appealing to eco-stewardship] when engaging people in a discussion about backcountry ethics. One important element to the “Authority of the Resource” technique is that it can be applied to the 1%’ers in what I call “the Squeaky Wheel” approach. We all know that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but in the backcountry, when the squeak is an impacted campsite, the grease can often come in the form of unwanted rules and regulations. We all want regulations on the A.T. to be “as unrestrictive as possible” -- (quoted from the Comprehensive Plan for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail), perhaps we can agree that following the best Leave No Trace practices is one way to ensure that there will be fewer rules, regulations and patrols on the Appalachian Trail.