A growing number of Americans whofind the call of the wild irresistible at this time of year are being drawn to what is no doubt the longest and best-known hiking trail in the world -- the Appalachian Trail. One of the most striking things about this 2,100-mile natural phenomenon stretching across 14 states, from Mt. Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia, is not its scenic outlooks, its beckoning country pathways, its rocky mountain ridges, or its babbling brooks and secluded ponds. The often overlooked wonder of the Appalachian Trail is the manner in which private citizens -- i.e., conservation groups, hiking clubs, and landowers -- have joined hands with federal, state, and local governments to preserve and protect a vital and irreplaceable part of their natural heritage.
That such a corridor of natural beauty exists at all in 1980, cutting through some of the most densely populated and industrialized sections of the US, is remarkable in itself. How the trail has managed to withstand the threats of development, encroaching highways, and erosion is a testimony to the dedication and hard work of thousands of volunteers all along the trail. They constantly blaze and clear the paths, maintain more than 200 shelters, and work with the National Parks Service and the US Forest Service in acquiring new land for widening the trail and protecting it.
Except in a few isolated instances where property owners have set up resistance, local trail clubs have collaborated with landowners and paved the way for federal and state acquisition of tracts along the trail to provide a buffer zone, as wide as 1,000 feet in some places, against suburban sprawl, second- home development, and other encroachments. States, too, have taken the initiative, Maryland, for instance, has purchased 22 miles of the trail and, after another eight miles are acquired, the state will own nearly all of the trail within its borders. And of no little importance at a time when the national economy demands restraint in federal spending, Maryland has done so without federal funds.
Maine offers another prime example of volunteers working with timber companies and state officials in an effective trail-protection program. The Maine Appalachian Trail Club is one of the few hiking clubs along the trail that exist exclusively to maintain the trail. Many of the other 60 hiking organizations with a combined membership of more than 60,000, however, devote considerable time and effort to keeping the trail open.
The Appalachian Trail, in short, is a monument to what citizen leadership with government cooperation and assistance can accomplish -- a trail truly worth following.