by Alyson Browett

A.T. Communities: Gateways to Economic and Stewardship Success

August 3, 2018

You might consider 2018 the Year of the A.T. Community™.

There are nearly 50 locales along the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) corridor that have been recognized in the A.T. Community™ program. The program serves as a two-way street of A.T. love: designated communities promote and protect the Trail by raising awareness about landscape conservation, Leave No Trace ethics, access to the Trail, and other related issues, while the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) helps these cities, towns and counties with promotion through signage, branding, and local projects that grow outdoor recreation for sustainable economies.

Earlier this year, ATC launched its first official economic assessment of A.T. Communities to learn more about outdoor recreation-related markets and values, as well as opportunities for new, enhanced, and connected services and businesses. The data collected from four pilot communities will assist ATC and community partners create and implement plans for strategic investments and collaborative action to capitalize on Trail and recreation assets.

These actions will help all communities adjacent to the A.T. tap into the outdoor recreation economy, which the U.S. government estimates was 2 percent ($373.7 billion) of the entire 2016 U.S. Gross Domestic Product. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s a greater proportion than mining, including oil and gas extraction, at 1.4 percent. And, the outdoor industry is growing at a faster rate than the overall U.S. economy, 3.8 percent versus 2.8 percent.

In her first year as ATC President & CEO, Suzanne Dixon is prioritizing the enhancement of outdoor recreation-driven economies in these A.T. gateway communities.

“We have to look beyond the footpath. These places have a shared identification, because the Trail is contiguous,” Dixon said in a May interview with Blue Ridge Outdoors.

The shared asset of the A.T. can be a driver for sustainable tourism in these communities, which in turn can help support economic development; celebrate local culture; sustain recreation, natural, historic and cultural assets; and enhance the well-being of residents.

Successful A.T. Community™ Summits

In another first this year, an A.T. Community™ Summit was held this spring in every ATC region. These summits, co-convened with the Regional Partnership Committee meetings in the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions and with the Southern Partnership Meeting in the Virginia and Southern regions, were designed to allow community representatives the opportunity to deepen their connection with the Trail’s traditional management partnership, and network and share resources with other A.T. Communities. Anyone is allowed to register for these summits, which ATC hopes to continue to convene in order to inspire economic, conservation, and stewardship improvement ideas surrounding the A.T.

At the summits, community ambassadors and representatives shared successes, such as fostering political and business support; challenges, including Trail visitor impacts and management; and future plans, like the creation of day hike maps and brochures. Attendees at all summits heard from a representative of the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) Program, which partners with community groups, nonprofits, tribes, and state and local governments to design trails and parks, conserve and improve access to rivers, protect special places, and create recreation opportunities. And during one session at each meeting, attendees huddled up by community or region to brainstorm ideas for events recognizing the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act.


Working Together to “Kill the Dam Invasives”

One of these ideas became reality on July 7, when more than 50 people gathered in the A.T. Community™ of Fontana Dam, N.C., for the “Kill the Dam Invasives” workday. The event was supported by ATC, REI, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mount Inspiration Apparel, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Fontana Dam Tourism Development Association, and the U.S. Forest Service. And the Fontana Village Resort provided discounted rooms for people participating in the stewardship event.

On a muggy, hot and overcast day, volunteers worked together for five hours to protect southern forest native species by removing the invasive species Russian olive, mahonia, honeysuckle, thorny olive, vinca and Oriental bittersweet from both sides of the Fontana Dam, where the National Forests meet the National Park.

After a well-deserved lunch with live music by Asheville-based Brew Davis, several volunteers participated in a nature walk led by Matt Drury, ATC’s Southern Region resource management coordinator, and Gary Kauffman, a botanist and plant ecologist with the National Forests in North Carolina. Despite a persistent downpour, participants (including myself) learned many facts — and maybe some myths and legends — about the plants, fungi, trees and lichen of the southern forests.

ATC hopes to continue its work with partners to make the workday an annual event. For more information on how you can help remove invasive plants or report invasive plant infestations on the A.T. corridor or assist in monitoring rare plant species, contact your regional ATC office or local Trail-maintaining club.

Smile! You’re with a White Blaze!

Another campaign that blossomed out of the A.T. Community™ Summit in the mid-Atlantic region is the Hike a Mile, Share a Smile! campaign of the Front Royal/Warren County, Va., A.T. Community. Beginning on June 2, National Trails Day, and running through September 29, Family Hiking Day and National Public Lands Day, hikers can share a selfie, taken with an A.T. white blaze, with the Front Royal/Warren County Visitors Center staff to receive a coupon book loaded with deals from A.T. Community™ Supporters, locally owned and managed businesses that support the A.T.

To be entered in a grand prize drawing for one night at the newly remodeled Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park (including park admission for the lodging date), hikers can send their photos to with permission to post to social media and “like” the Front Royal/Warren County A.T. Community Facebook page. The grand prize drawing will take place in October (you must be 18 years or older to claim prize).

The Hike a Mile, Share a Smile campaign is a win-win, providing discounts to hikers and promoting local businesses that participate in the A.T. Community™ Supporter program.

Go find a white blaze and share your smile!

Share Your Community Story

Do you want to learn more about A.T. Communities or become a designated A.T. Community™ or supporter? Do you have a gateway community story to share? Visit us online at or on the Facebook Appalachian Trail Communities group.