by Kate Foral, ATC Federal Policy Intern

Approaches to Public Health on the Appalachian Trail

August 13, 2021

I joined the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) in June 2021 as a federal policy intern. I was eager to use my specific skillset and love of the Appalachian region to help protect the cultural and natural resources of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) Because my environmental education is intertwined with a public health background, I also helped ATC staff with projects relating to the health outcomes of hikers. My experiences this summer with both federal policy and public health initiatives allowed me to understand the important role of both large-scale and small-scale projects in protecting the Trail.

For my public health work, I joined a team working on preventing and responding to illnesses along the A.T.  Norovirus, a gastrointestinal illness spread through contaminated human or animal feces, is of particular concern along the Trail because it can be easily spread in shared living spaces and can massively impact dehydrated and malnourished hikers. We were tasked with adapting a National Park Service (NPS) norovirus infographic to be relevant to the A.T. This resource, along with posters the ATC sends to hostels and other establishments along the A.T., aims to prevent illness at the individual level and tells hikers what to do if they do get sick.

Next, I helped to update the illness reporting form, originally used by hikers to report cases of norovirus. We updated it to encompass a greater diversity of illnesses and include questions about water treatment methods. Additionally, we created a “point of contact” list so that relevant agencies can be contacted in the case of an outbreak. Reporting illnesses – and reporting them to the correct parties – is critical to stopping disease outbreaks. This is especially important along the Trail, where hikers easily pass along viruses and bacterial infections as they stay in group shelters and hostels.

During my time working with this team to address public health outcomes at the individual and community level, I also supported the ATC at the federal policy level, advocating for policies that will protect the valuable natural, cultural, and experiential resources of the A.T. and improve our ability to effectively steward the land. This includes legislation that bolsters reforestation efforts and funds restoration projects to enhance environmental quality and the overall experience of visitors to public lands. Federal policy has the potential to create long-lasting changes that can impact the country for generations to come, which is why I was eager to experience the role the ATC has in this area.

While the land management policies the ATC advocates for will undoubtedly improve the quality of the land and protect sensitive plant and animal species along the Trail, my personal motivation for advancing public lands policy comes from my public health background — I aim to protect the lives and livelihood of people. Luckily, these two objectives go hand-in-hand. For example, reforestation has a positive impact on air quality. Trees also purify water and maintain water quality, contributing to clean drinking water supplies for nearby communities. Additionally, healthy forests improve resiliency against climate change by mitigating floods and droughts, and lessen the effects of climate-related natural disasters, all of which have dramatic public health impacts. The health of the environment and the health of humans are inextricably linked, so federal policy that enhances environmental quality similarly enhances the wellbeing of humans.

While federal policy is an exciting level to work at because of its potential for monumental change, processes at the federal level are often slow and labori0us, requiring years of advocacy and hard work to accomplish even marginal changes. At this level, it is easy to feel as though I am not making a difference in my daily work. Meanwhile, it is much easier to see the direct impact of my work with the illness reporting project and public health team, though I am working at a much smaller scale and affecting fewer people than with federal policy.

The main point I learned is that both are equally valuable.

The combination of micro and macro approaches is critical to the maintenance and improvement of the A.T. Whether this applies to public health or to any other objective, both slow-moving, large-scale federal policy decisions and direct, more immediate actions are essential for long term success. The ATC relies on both federal policy advocacy and on-the-ground stewardship from volunteers, Trail maintaining clubs and Trail crews, for the continuity of the A.T. Every person who advocates for, experiences, or maintains the Trail in some way is important, no matter how big or how small their role.