By Kimber Ray
Though some may dream of a solitary retreat, the wayfarers and romantics along the Appalachian Trail are far from alone.
With between 2 and 3 million visitors each year, the steady trudge of hikers along this protected corridor of land, spanning from Georgia to Maine, wears down the trail and strains natural resources. At the same time, the persistent advance of climate change is driving more intense storms and droughts along the footpath.
Jeff Marion, a recreation ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech, launched a three-year study this May to help reduce the impact of this annual flood of hikers and unpredictable weather.
Equipped with a $300,000 grant from the National Park Service, Marion’s team of researchers from Virginia Tech and North Carolina State University are collecting data about how the trail is used, whether this use is sustainable and how this impacts nearby natural resources. This includes information such as soil compaction and erosion, water drainage, waste disposal and the unauthorized creation of campsites and side trails. With this knowledge in hand, Marion’s crew will create low-impact guidelines for sustainable trail maintenance, which will be shared in workshops with trail staff and volunteers.