5 Ways the Appalachian Trail Is Preparing for the Movie Masses

This month spelled the release of the highly anticipated film adaptation of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. The film chronicles the journey of two friends along the 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail.

Spanning from Georgia to Maine, the A.T. has long captured the imaginations of many Americans. Now that dream will reach an even wider audience, not from chance encounters with weathered thru-hikers themselves, but from within air-conditioned movie theaters. A Walk in the Woods pairs a star-studded cast with carefully edited depictions of East Coast wilderness. Undoubtedly, many moviegoers will be lured outside, freshly inspired and eager to experience their own version of life on the trail.

Generally, organizations like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the National Park Service are excited to raise the profile of protected lands. The goal, after all, is to foster meaningful engagement with the Trail, leading to public appreciation and the desire to protect it for future generations. Increased media attention can have the additional positive impacts of encouraging more families to set foot on the trail, preventing obesity and combatting nature deficit disorder.

But there is a dark underbelly to such popular acclaim. Can the Appalachian Trail really withstand even more people?

What happens when Hollywood steps outside?

Some refer to the phenomenon as the “Wild effect,” named for Cheryl Strayed’s novel and resulting movie about thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The following surge in usage of the Pacific Crest, like the expected one on the Appalachian, spells trouble for both wildlife and hikers seeking solitude. Generally undisputed, the impacts of overcrowding include worsened sanitation, trampled vegetation and increased noise. In other words, Leave No Trace principles are abandoned. Long-term consequences for trail maintenance and ongoing conservation initiatives remain unknown.

Due to these challenges and others, the Pacific Crest Trail Association enacted a new permit system, allowing only 50 hikers to start the trail each day, and formed a “Responsibly Wild” initiative. Now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and state park officials are preemptively taking action to mitigate the impact of crowds on the A.T. in coming years:

1. Launching a Twitter Campaign

To raise awareness, folks are stepping off of that worn footpath and into cyberspace with a new social media strategy called #protectyourtrail.

Robert Redford has jumped on board, encouraging the Appalachian Trail community to maintain responsible trail etiquette: “It’s up to all of us to preserve the trail, so that future generations can enjoy this priceless part of our national heritage.”

2. (Maybe) Changing the End of the Trail

For northbound thru-hikers–those starting their walk in Georgia–the A.T. has always ended with the legendary final climb up Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park. That may soon change. Park officials are far from pleased with the crowds and rule-breaking they have witnessed as of late. Jensen Bissell, the director of the park, describes an “‘unlimited growth’” model as the root of the problem. In an effort to preserve a wilderness experience and a sacred mountain, the final section of the Trail may be shifted out of the park.

3. Encouraging Alternative Hiking Itineraries

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy provides ample resources on alternative routes to hiking the trail in a traditional, all-in-one northbound or southbound fashion. Not only does this aid in crowd dispersal, routes that commence in the middle of the A.T. may actually provide more appropriate terrain for beginning hikers.

4. Creating a Voluntary Registration System

Hikers starting a thru-hike can now take personal responsibility in planning their first day on trail. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s new voluntary registration tool offers graphs of the previous year’s start-dates for a full visual of trail congestion:

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The Conservancy recommends beginning a thru-hike midweek or in late April to alleviate congestion. By planning around more popular dates to set off on the trail, hikers can minimize undesirable conditions. Self-regulation, if successful, will prevent the Conservancy from imposing an official permit system, like the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

5. Conducting Ecological Assessments

The National Park Service has commissioned a three-year baseline study to collect data on the current condition of the Appalachian Trail. Trail assessments aim to document impacts to the trail, like soil erosion, as well as effects on water quality and biodiversity. With a detailed report of existing conditions, Park officials will be better equipped to track long-term changes in the future.

“A Double-Edged Sword”

Will these new initiatives proposed by government agencies and non-profits actually save the Appalachian Trail? It’s hard to say. While increased foot traffic appears inevitable, instilling a sense of personal responsibility and stewardship in hikers may go a long way in maintaining the Trail as a national treasure. Outside spoke with Wendy Janssen, Appalachian Trail superintendent for the Park Service, who explained the complexity of the situation:

“‘It’s a double-edged sword. We want to continue to reach out to new audiences. Folks in our national parks should reflect diversity in America, and, frankly, we’re not there yet. We know we have to be very proactive about Leave No Trace tenets along the way. We don’t want to send the wrong message about how the Appalachian Trail is used.’”

Photo Credit: Joanna Parkman

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