The Appalachian Trail gives hikers a nearly 2,200-mile trek through mountains, meadows and forests stretching from Georgia to Maine. But to scientists and land managers it's also a living laboratory that could provide warnings of looming environmental problems while there's still time to fix them.
A diverse group of organizations has launched a project to begin long-term monitoring of the trail's environmental health, with plans to tap into an army of volunteer "citizen scientists" and their professional counterparts.
Together, they will collect information about the health of plants, air and water quality, and animal migration patterns to build an early warning system for the 120 million people along the Eastern Seaboard.
"It's somewhat like the canary in the coal mine in the sense of using it as a barometer for environmental and human health conditions," says Gregory Miller, president of the Maryland-based American Hiking Society.
The Appalachian Mountains are ideal for the project because they are home to one of the richest collections of temperate zone species in the world. They also has a variety of ecosystems that blend into one another — hardwood forests next to softwood forests next to alpine forests. The trail along the mountain chain passes through 14 states and eight national forests.
Support from major organizations
The idea for the project, the Appalachian Trail Mega-Transect, is still in its infancy but it already has support from the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, Cornell University, the National Geographic Society and the environmentally conscious beauty products company Aveda Corp.
"We're really after two things," says Brian Mitchell, a coordinator with the park service's Northeast Temperate Network in Woodstock, Vt. "We want to get a better understanding of what's happening on the trail so we can better manage it. The other side is we want to take the lessons we learn from the trail and show people that what's happening on the trail does actually affect us."
Scientists will periodically issue reports aimed at helping average Americans understand how even small environmental changes can affect their lives.
High ozone levels, for example, can reduce plant photosynthesis and growth, and speed up aging and leaf loss. In humans, it can affect the lungs, respiratory tract and eyes, and increase susceptibility to allergens. Atmospheric deposition — airborne sulfur and nitrogen deposited in the soil by rain and snow — can affect farming and crop growth.
An example of the environmental changes apparent along the trail is smog in the Great Smoky
Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, said Dave Startzell, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry.
Hoping to attract volunteers
"People will read that on 25 or 30 days in a given year, it's considered unhealthy to walk on the Appalachian Trail, and we think that's going to grab people's attention more than if they just read about air quality trends in general," he said.
That's also why volunteers will be critical to the project's success.
It's one thing for people to read about technical reports on bird migrations, acid rain or air quality, Startzell says.
"We think it's another thing when people learn about that firsthand by actually helping to collect that information," he says.
Mitchell hopes that within the next year, the partners will have at least two flagship programs for volunteers.
Mitchell says volunteers could help with such tasks as measuring tree diameters, taking photographs to illustrate visibility, tracking the arrival times of migratory birds and dating the blooming and leaf loss of trees.
Advocates of the monitoring plan hope the project will help drive changes in public policy and personal behavior.
"Part of our hope is that as people become more aware of trends affecting those lands, they'll be motivated to take action," Startzell says, "whether that means switching to a hybrid car or just conducting their own way of life in a little more energy efficient manner, or going to a town hall meeting and advocating for more open space."