by Leanna Joyner, Director, ATC's Volunteer Relations Program

The Century Past and the Century Ahead

The Appalachian Trail has its roots in civic engagement. Built by volunteers and agency personnel and protected through the work of volunteers and agency personnel, the public-private partnership is primary to the success of the Trail and is baked into the National Trails System Act. The Act, meant to foster mutual respect among federal, state, and non-profit partners, enables the multi-jurisdictional work that has worked in the building and maintenance of the footpath. At any one location on the Trail, there is a three-way partnership (often described as a three-legged stool) comprised of the land-owning agency, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and an A.T. club.

The work of the Trail and its partners has evolved over the decades. First intent to build a connected trailway, then through legislation to protect it, followed by efforts to acquire land for its permanent protection and the construction of associated relocations for optimal location. The work of partners was most largely focused on the footpath alone.

Within the last two decades, the Appalachian Trail Partnership has lifted its gaze beyond the treadway. Obligations and devotion drove the adoption of more responsibilities, including care for vulnerable corridor boundaries, natural resource management and protection, engagement of youth in the Trail through education, the engagement of designated A.T. communities, necessary visitor use management projects, and the protection of the large landscape along the eastern seaboard. Management responsibilities have also deepened. Rather than working largely independently and without oversight from federal partners, clubs are asked for annual plans, 5-year capital plans, asset inventories, condition assessments, investment in policy direction, visitor use planning, and visual resource inventories, in addition to the requirements of holding current enabling agreements, proper volunteer training and coordination, managing organizational risk, and maintaining organizational resiliency of any non-profit in its funding and leadership. Club capacity to undertake additional desired responsibilities related to natural or cultural resource management, advocacy, and public awareness through work with A.T. communities, educators, youth, or other partnership work varies tremendously. Notably, several clubs express concern over the members/volunteers’ aging demography, a lack of new participation, and specific struggles with identifying and cultivating leaders for their organizations.

Clubs have long been identified as the sole third-leg of the A.T. Cooperative Management stool, alongside land managers and Appalachian Trail Conservancy. This excludes other individuals and partners who have a shared interest in a given landscape for either land preservation, habitat restoration, recreation, or those who have not traditionally been active or embedded within A.T. clubs.

What might be over the horizon?

Examining the A.T. Cooperative Management toward effective shared stewardship for the next century is a bit like hiking an unknown trail. We don’t yet know what is over the next horizon or where this exploration will lead. Let’s consider:

Might the cooperative management of the A.T. acknowledge that more people or partners have a greater stake in the expanded focus of A.T. management, beyond the treadway?

Many clubs are insular in that their work extends only to within their membership. Might partnerships among clubs or between clubs and other partners offer greater impact for civic engagement?

Are the management responsibilities resting on A.T. clubs too weighty given all that the A.T. partnership is focusing on and how management duties have expanded in the last 10-30 years?

What makes a rewarding experience for A.T. volunteers and their longevity?

If we are intentionally or unintentionally excluding voices from the A.T.’s management will this continue to be the People’s Trail?

What other things might spark our curiosity on this journey?

If you have thoughts about any of the above, we’d love to hear from you. Please email us at

Additional Resources
International Journal of Wilderness: Shared Stewardship and National Scenic Trails: Building on a Legacy of Partnerships

Amicus Brief to the Supreme Court

Volunteer Leadership Academy 2020: Introduction to Cooperative Management (run-time 48:00)