By Ethan Goldman, ATC Federal Policy Intern

From the Mountains to The Hill

August 26, 2021

Long before joining the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) as an intern I was spending weekend camping trips with my family, often unwittingly ending up on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). We took frequent trips to the mountains of western North Carolina and Virginia, but the A.T. remained in the background of my thoughts. After enrolling in Dartmouth College in the Fall of 2018, the Trail quickly moved to the front of my mind. I joined the Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC), one of the 31 Trail maintaining clubs tasked with stewarding sections of the 2,193.1-mile Trail.

At first, I was mostly interested in the “fun” hiking trips, such as the 26-mile Presidential Traverse, which climbs some of the tallest mountains in New England, or checking off each of the 4,000-footer summits in New Hampshire. But I quickly developed an appreciation for the DOC’s mission of maintaining over 50 miles of the A.T. between the DOC’s two main bases of Hanover and Mt. Moosilauke, New Hampshire.

My first time participating in DOC’s Trail maintenance work was an unglamorous work trip to drain mud from a particularly wet area. We accomplished this by digging ditches and shoveling mud off of the Trail, getting thoroughly dirt-covered in the process. From this trip began a connection to the A.T. that has grown stronger in the years since.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I worked on the DOC’s Trail and Cabin Crew, participating in several rehabilitation projects along the DOC’s stretch of the A.T. We built stone staircases, stepping stones, and water bars, which are lines of rocks that cross the Trail at an angle to guide water away from the footpath to prevent both erosion and mud. We even completed a small re-route of the Trail after determining that a portion of the treadway had become unsalvageable.

A stone project that incorporates both a water bar for diverting water off the Trail and a staircase to prevent erosion. This project helps assist hikers in climbing over the water bar. Pictured are Ethan and Kellen A.

During the first week on the Club Trail and Cabin Crew, when members of the crew were still inexperienced with both Trail work and living outdoors, it poured rain for five straight days. Everyone embraced the situation, rain and all, and by the end of the week our hygiene was questionable, but our spirits were high. I still laugh thinking about the looks we got walking into the local ice cream store on Friday night after just coming off the Trail.

At one point we built a water bar out of a single massive rock named “Bruce,” which probably weighed five times as much as me. Four of the strongest crew members tried to pick up this rock and move it into place. We reached an unfortunate stalemate, having picked the rock up, but were unable to either set it down safely or move it to where we wanted it to go. Between laughing and calling for help, we eventually managed to shift Bruce into place and escaped only with injured pride.

Through all the physical labor, I developed a deep appreciation for the Trail as both something that exists beneath our feet and an intangible idea that connects fourteen states, dozens of partners, thousands of volunteers, and millions of visitors every year. I began to appreciate the foresight shown by the early trailblazers to build and protect a Trail that would forever connect people to nature.

One of the most rewarding things about being a Trail maintainer is returning to previous worksites and seeing the lasting impact your work has made. In the years since I worked on the DOC crew, I’ve returned numerous times to our project sites all along the Trail in New Hampshire and each time thought about the many hikers who have been helped by our work. Nothing compares to the satisfaction of pointing out to your friends a staircase you helped build. I’ve continued working on the DOC’s section of the Trail (although not as much as I would have liked due to COVID-19) and even been able to introduce some new DOC members to Trail work for the first time. And throughout the pandemic, returning to nature on the A.T. has helped me through these stressful times.

Ethan and the Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC) built a stone staircase on Smarts Mountain in Lyme, NH.

When I saw an email from the DOC leadership advertising an internship position at the ATC, I knew I had to apply. I was fortunate enough to be accepted and have spent several weeks working as ATC’s Federal Policy Intern. After spending so much time on the implementation side of Trail management, it has been both rewarding and illuminating to learn the details of the policy side.

During my time at the ATC, I’ve had the chance to work on several projects, including projects on the Cooperative Management System (how the federal and state governments, ATC, and the 31 Clubs, like DOC, manage and maintain the Trail) and the role that National Parks’ Friends groups have for the parks that they serve. I’ve also been able to attend several weekly calls with members from other environmental groups and learn more about the inner workings of the industry. This has allowed me to interact with and learn about the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), the Trust for Public Land, and many others we work alongside or in partnership with.

The ATC has offered so many opportunities for learning and personal growth, and I expanded substantially my knowledge of conservation and environmentalism. Before starting at the ATC, I had never heard of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which plays a huge role in acquiring and protecting public lands. I had also never heard of “30×30” or the ambitious goal to conserve 30% of our nation’s lands and waters by 2030. I’ve also learned more about the importance of public lands in sustainable rural economies and how other Trail maintaining clubs, are working to strengthen their ability to care for their Trail sections and communities, like the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s future Skowhegan Maine Trail Center.

Working at the ATC has also given me so many opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise known about or had access to. I’ve been able to attend several of the National Park Service’s (NPS) Connected Conservation webinars, which highlight specific tools that parks, NPS programs, or external partners can use to further landscape-scale conservation. I was also able to attend a Leave No Trace (LNT) Awareness course. Even after my internship with the ATC has ended, I will take what I have learned and apply it to the work we do at DOC.

I am so grateful that I have had the opportunity to interact so consistently with the A.T. It is an invaluable resource that has given me so much, and I am so thankful for the ability to give back through the work I have done. But I am also mindful that it is a privilege to have spent so much time on the Trail. Without the hard work of so many maintainers before me, my work would not have been possible. I keep that thought in mind whenever I can take advantage of the A.T., and I will continue ensuring that my work at the ATC, DOC, and everywhere else helps to build a more vibrant, protected, and inclusive Trail.