As you make your way step-by-step to an iconic Appalachian Trail (A.T.) summit, a sense of anticipation fills you as you near the viewpoint. But instead of seeing a valley carpeted by pristine farmland, imagine finding a new four-lane highway. Or picture 30 wind turbines lining the high peaks of a nearby ridge, visible for miles and miles. Or imagine your eyes falling on a clear-cut swath of land winding like a snake over the formerly fully forested rolling Blue Ridge.
The 2,190-mile A.T. and its surrounding landscape host a variety of natural, cultural, and historical resources and assets: pristine headwaters of the East Coast’s major water sources; migratory pathways for thousands of mammal, amphibian and bird species; habitats for rare and endangered plants and animals; generations-old family farmsteads; and Civil War battlefield and Underground Railroad sites, to name a few.
Unfortunately, incompatible development near the A.T. threatens not only these resources, but the intent of a National Scenic Trail as outlined in the National Trails Act.
What would you do to help save these landscapes? What stories do these lands hold?
Conservation Through Collaboration
While the Trail and its relatively narrow corridor are federally protected, that greenway should not exist in isolation.
“We’ve got to broaden the way we talk about the Trail because it’s not only a footpath for hikers,” according to Anne Baker of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).
For this reason, the ATC and the National Park Service (NPS) created the A.T. Landscape Partnership, which aims to create a voice for the land, to protect large landscapes along the A.T. and the entire Appalachian Mountain Range. The partnership brings together various public, private and nonprofit groups and individuals to work toward the goals of connecting the Trail’s scenic, recreational and historic values to a wide audience and protecting one of the most important landscapes in the United States.
“One of the most compelling aspects of the A.T. Landscape Partnership is a new way to talk about conservation and enable a broader focus on the A.T. landscape, which in turn could bring new stakeholders and funders into the picture,” said Baker, the Partnership’s manager. “We as conservation organizations cannot exist in silos because we won’t be successful.” Baker noted the importance of educating and involving a broad constituency in conservation efforts, from developers to corporations, nonprofits to individuals.
In 2017 alone, partner organizations completed 15 land acquisition projects, conserving approximately 10,200 acres along or adjacent to the A.T. One of those projects included the largest unprotected property along Pennsylvania’s Kittatinny Ridge: a 4,662-acre parcel that, when fully acquired, will become part of Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Previously owned by Pennsylvania American Water Company, the property is crucial to the preservation of the A.T. due to its scenic and aural attributes. The land also houses important animal and bird species, making its protection necessary to a healthy and thriving wildlife habitat. In addition, the acquisition would connect the landscape to Pennsylvania state game lands, state parks in New Jersey and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, in addition to the A.T.
Phase I of the property was completed in 2017, which included the purchase of 1,731 acres by The Conservation Fund and the subsequent transfer of that acreage to Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The remaining 2,931 acres — phase II of the project — will close in 2018. The successful conservation of all 4,662 acres will preserve more than 5 miles of the A.T., ensuring the integrity of the Trail and its landscape for future generations.
Through the A.T. Landscape Partnership, the ATC is collaborating with partners in several ways to raise awareness and accelerate conservation efforts:
- Regional Conservation Partnerships (RCPs): Beginning in the mid-1990s, conservation organizations and communities began banding together to protect large tracts of land from development. With more than 40 RCPs of various capacities operating in New England and New York, this model is now being replicated in Maryland, and there is conversation surrounding the formation of an RCP in Northern Virginia. The ATC is engaging with these and other efforts to help form additional RCPs all along the Trail. Learn more at wildlandsandwoodlands.org.
- Action Fund Grants: On behalf of the A.T. Landscape Partnership, the ATC recently launched the Action Fund Grant Program to provide funding to qualified conservation organizations, including nonprofits and public agencies, working within the Trail’s landscape. These land protection and organizational capacity building grants — expected to total up to $500,000 and $150,000 respectively in the first year — are intended to support work in the conservation of the ecological, cultural, scenic and recreational values of the A.T. and its surrounding lands. Information on eligibility and the application process is available at AT-Landscape.org.
- Communication: The A.T. Landscape Partnership is increasing its communication, education and outreach efforts to unite key stakeholders to conserve large landscapes. The partnership has launched a new website, AT-Landscape.org, and a newsletter to provide updates about completed and ongoing conservation projects. Partnership staff also attended Regional A.T. CommunityTM Summits to speak about how localities adjacent to the Trail can become involved in conservation efforts. For example, A.T. Communities can include local land trust representatives on coordinating committees, educate area landowners about conservation easements or speak with local officials about the importance of large landscape conservation.
- Advocacy: The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) – a long-standing, highly successful conservation program that has substantially helped in building the Appalachian Trail – is set to expire this year. Established more than 50 years ago, Congress must reauthorize the LWCF before September 30, 2018, for it to continue. Through the LWCF Coalition and the A.T. Landscape Partnership, the ATC advocates for the permanent reauthorization of the LWCF with full funding annually of at least $900 million. The LWCF already has helped the ATC and its partners conserve thousands of acres of land in the A.T. landscape, and the A.T. Landscape Partnership is actively identifying additional at-risk land tracts for conservation. You can lend your voice at appalachiantrail.org/lwcf.
We want to hear about why you value the A.T. landscape. We are depending on you to give these lands — our lands — a voice.
Featured image by Brent McGuirt Photography