Hiker vs. farmer in western Massachusetts. Rerouting of Appalachian Trail riles farmers, imperils town tax income

Arthur Delmolino, steering a harvester through a half-mown corn field, shuts off the engine and clambers down to explain why he's ''getting kind of riled up.''

Pointing a grubby finger at the forested mountain behind his farmhouse, Mr. Delmolino says the US government wants to buy enough land to put a footpath along the ridge. The trouble, he says, is that a spring up there irrigates his fields and supplies water for his family.

He and a number of other farmers in the tiny town of Sheffield in western Massachusetts oppose a plan to reroute the Appalachian Trail through their farms. The National Park Service has proposed the route as part of an effort to protect the 2,100-mile trail permanently by removing it from roadways and development projects, buying up private property where necessary.

The farmers of Sheffield are not alone. Landowners in nearby Tyringham and, farther south, in Sharon, Conn., are also trying to waylay the Park Service's plans.

For now, they appear to have succeeded. At the request of US Rep. Silvio Conte (R), who represents western Massachusetts, the US Interior Department has agreed to halt temporarily all land-acquisition proceedings in the two Massachusetts towns. Congressman Conte's office is arranging for an Interior Department representative from Washington to tour the disputed sites.

William Hartwig, the Interior Department's point man in this case, is an old hand at dissolving the antipathy that the Appalachian Trail relocation project creates in some communities. He says he has settled many landowners' disputes, most recently a longstanding case in Hanover, N.H. To satisfy the landowner's demands, he says, ''we moved the trail on his property at least six times'' and struck up an agreement that allowed him to sugar the maple trees growing near the trail.

Of the proposed Sheffield route, Mr. Hartwig says: ''That line, which may look like it's cast in concrete, is not.''

The original Appalachian Trail, marked off here in the 1920s, is not opposed by anyone - farmers, town officials, or residents, says Dana Bartholomew, chairman of Sheffield's Board of Selectmen. The trail relocation project, however, has been poorly implemented, he adds.

''The privacy of the landowner is being infringed on,'' says Mr. Bartholomew, who sides with the farmers. ''The law should be changed.''

The law he speaks of is the National Trail System Act, passed by Congress in 1968. The act authorized the federal government to purchase 100 feet of land on either side of the trail to protect it from commercial and residential encroachment. But by 1978, more than 200 miles of the footpath had been moved off the terrain and onto roadways. So Congress stepped in again, this time allotting $90 million to widen the belt to 1,000 feet, and ordering the National Park Service to remove the trail from roads wherever possible. The Park Service has relied on local chapters of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) to recommend route changes where needed.

Hartwig says relocation along the Appalachian Trail - which winds from Mt. Katahdin in Maine through Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains to Springer Mountain in Georgia - is almost complete in the South. There's a ''large amount of state and federal forest land'' along the southern part of the trail, he explains. ''We prefer to walk across public land whenever possible.''

Now, with fewer than 50 miles of trail still on road, the National Park Service and the Interior Department are bargaining mostly with private property owners. The strongest pocket of resistance, Hartwig says, is in the rural Cumberland Valley of central Pennsylvania. But opposition also comes from paper companies in Maine and from parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts.

In Sheffield, where the proposed route cuts across at least three farms, Hartwig says he plans to work closely with each farmer to reach an agreement - and to adjust the path of the trail if necessary.

Hartwig says the government has used eminent domain - the right to take private property for public use - in only 2 percent of the relocation cases, a track record that ''indicates a desire to try to work this out with landowners, '' he says.

Dairy farmer Arthur Batacchi, who owns a 200-head milking herd, isn't so sure. He says the government wants to buy a 27-acre slice of land in the middle of his pasture, in effect bisecting the farm. Standing in front of a barn stuffed with hay, the grizzled farmer says, ''Now how am I supposed to feed the animals at the other end of the pasture? ... I'll have to hire extra help to truck (the food) to the other end. It'll just put me out of business.''

In late summer, five Sheffield farmers formed a committee to find an alternative to the route preferred by the National Park Service. The committee has now endorsed the Park Service's own Plan B. According to the service, which laid out the options in April, Plan B would leave 0.4 more miles of the trail on the road than the preferred Plan A. Currently, all 5.2 miles of trail in this part of town follow paved roads. (See map.)

The farmers, town officials, and at least one member of the AMC's Appalachian Trail Committee of Berkshire County have a number of gripes against Plan A:

* It cuts across at least three private farms and would require farmers to give up more than 100 acres.

* It cuts across wetlands and would require that footbridges be built for hikers. Opponents say the road provides safer walking during the spring, when streams and swamps can be impassable.

* It affects more private land - land that will become tax exempt when it converts to federal ownership.

It's this last point that especially concerns Selectman Bartholomew. In the past 18 months, the federal government has purchased or has agreed to buy 833 acres of private land in Sheffield - and another 200 acres will be sold before the project is complete, he says. Sheffield will lose $25,000 a year in tax revenue when those parcels come off the town tax rolls, Bartholomew estimates.

For a town of 2,700, that sum represents the salary of one of Sheffield's seven full-time employees (two police officers, a treasurer, and a four-man highway crew). The federal government will compensate the town for part of the revenue loss, but Bartholomew says the reimbursement formula is inadequate.

But the tale of the Appalachian Trail project here is not just one of money. Indeed, the overriding theme is a common one, pitting the individual's love of the land against the government's desire to preserve a part of American heritage for all its citizens.

Art Delmolino, who long ago helped his father clear much of this land, explained his feelings in a letter to his congressmen: ''I do not understand why I should sacrifice my property and 60 years of farm life to a trail, which would destroy my livelihood. I cannot believe this can happen in a democracy.''

But Hartwig of the Interior Department says the government is ''committed to getting it (the trail) off the road.'' The roadway may be scenic now, but in 10 or 20 years the road may be widened to accommodate traffic brought by new growth and development, he says.

Some farmers have vowed to fight for their land ''all the way to the Supreme Court.'' For his part, Delmolino says he is ''open to sensible reasoning'' and would consider granting a right-of-way easement along his property. ''The way I see it, you always got to think positive.''

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