Volunteer-Based Recreation Land Management

By Bristow, Robert S. | Parks & Recreation, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Volunteer-Based Recreation Land Management


Bristow, Robert S., Parks & Recreation


Monitoring land use in parks is a concern for resource managers. Faced with limited budgets, management efforts concentrate on the areas with the heaviest use, while the "back 40" is untouched. Park managers have often solicited the help of quasi-public groups, or "Friends of the Park," to help provide support for parks and recreation areas. However, this help is often limited to the visitor-center staff or environmental programs for school children.

Protection and inspection of the large, undeveloped park properties is one area where a partnership between public agencies and the local concerned citizens can help park managers. One such partnership that exemplifies cooperation to the fullest potential is the working relationship between the Appalachian Trail Conference and the National Park Service.

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail (or AT) is the longest continuously maintained foot trail in the world. It stretches along the Appalachian Mountains some 2,100 miles between Springer Mountain in northern Georgia and Mt. Katahdin in central Maine.

The AT was the inspiration of regional planner Benton MacKaye, who proposed the idea in "The Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning" in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects (MacKaye, 1921). Shortly after his proposal, a group of Boy Scouts cleared the first mile of trail near Bear Mountain, New York. In 1937, 15 years later, the trail was completed when volunteers blazed the last mile on Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine. From its humble beginnings to present day, the volunteer work ethic made the AT a possibility (Floyd, 1979).

The original plan was further developed in MacKaye's seminal work, The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning (MacKaye, 1962), which sought to build a "dam" to the encroaching urban landscape. The AT greenway provides habitats for wildlife as well as recreation opportunities for the large neighboring population. This greenway corridor is also important to the health of the trail since it provides a buffer from neighboring land uses.

In 1968, the National Trails System Act recognized the importance of the trail and, through an amendment to the act in 1978, provided funds to secure a permanent right of way (ROW) or "dams" that would preserve the route and character of the corridor (Foster, 1987). The law enhanced the working relationship between the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) and federal land management agencies, principally the National Park Service (NPS). In 1984, the NPS took an equally historic step by delegating to the ATC and its member trail-maintaining clubs the responsibility of managing NPS-acquired AT lands. This formalized a long-term relationship that has made the AT one of the best hiking experiences available to the American public and a model for other long-distance trails in the world. In fact, the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail is the only National Park system area created and managed by volunteers (Sloan, 1986).

The School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University recognized the lack of research on long-distance trails and held a conference, publishing the proceedings in the late 1970s (Burch, 1979). The report highlighted future research and management needs for the Appalachian Trail. Of particular note in the proceedings were the volunteer trail workers, individuals found to be so important in the history of the AT This support, as well as public financing, was plentiful during the 1960s and '70s, but waned during the economic slump of the '80s. A resurgence occurred in the mid-'80s, when the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors (PCAO, 1986) reintroduced the need to develop partnerships in order to maintain and protect outdoor recreation opportunities in America. Organized and well-in formed volunteer initiatives in the area of public land monitoring would play a pivotal and crucial role within this framework of public and private partnerships.

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