Gainesville, GA – Partners create new sustainability model for heavily used Appalachian Trail in Georgia
As snow falls atop Hawk Mountain in mid-February, a group of 32 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 5th Ranger Training Battalion at Camp Frank D. Merrill and 10 members from the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club (GATC) gather to begin a full day of volunteer work. GATC project leader David Stelts briefs the gathering on the morning’s mission: hand carry three 150 pound bear-resistant food storage boxes, over 100 pieces of lumber, and ten sheets of plywood for 30 new sustainable campsites and a moldering privy.
As Army Rangers carry heavy beams along the mountainside, the signs of damaging sprawl near the Hawk Mountain shelter are everywhere: stripped rhododendron, campfire scars and trampled vegetation. As a popular stop along the first section of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) for thousands of hikers a year, this beloved area has been increasingly strained as use continues to grow.
“A camping area originally designed for ten hikers may now have 75 or more on a busy spring weekend,” said Morgan Sommerville, Southern Director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). “The Hawk Mountain shelter area was seriously deteriorated – large areas down to bare soil caused by heavy, concentrated use and some campers’ failure to follow leave no trace principles.”
A survey by GATC in 2015 documented 202 user-created campsites in the first 30 miles of the A.T. including many in the popular Hawk Mountain area. During the busiest spring weeks in 2015, an estimated 200 plus hikers per day traversed this southern-most section of the A.T., with up to three pounds of garbage left in their wake each day.
In a collaborative effort to find solutions to the growing problem, ATC, GATC and the Forest Service developed the Hawk Mountain sustainability plan. Additional partners, including the Army’s 5th Ranger Training Battalion and university student volunteers, are helping to realize the project on the ground. According to Stelts, more than 1,000 volunteer hours have already been logged on this project.
“This effort is a great example of partners leveraging strengths to ensure the sustainability of this National Scenic Trail for future generations,” said Andy Baker, Blue Ridge District Ranger for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests. “By combining the expertise and tireless spirit of our trail volunteers with the muscle and ingenuity of the Army Rangers, this critical project will be complete in time for peak season this year.”
This spring, the new camping area, privy, and drinking water source at Hawk Mountain will be put to the test as thousands of hikers—many beginning their long journeys as northbound thru-hikers—alight at Springer Mountain, the A.T.’s southern terminus. If successful, the project will serve as a model for sustainable use along the entire A.T. as the Forest Service and partners continue working toward the right balance of current use and future trail preservation.
“This is a wild and wonderful place in our forest and in our hearts,” added Baker. “It’s up to all of us to restore the social and ecological health of the A.T.”
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