Explore hiking trails, environmental issues, recreational funding challenges and trail maintenance in Central Pennsylvania with Jim Foster.
If you've been on the Appalachian Trail lately you've probably seen a notice like this.
OK, the federal government is partially shut down because Congress can’t agree to fund it. Many of us are pretty frustrated about this. One good way to work off this frustration would be to take a hike on the Appalachian Trail. But, isn’t much of the A.T. on federal land? Doesn’t this mean that the A.T. is shut down as well while our esteemed representatives squabble?
Well, the best answer reminds me of the Facebook relationship status “It’s complicated”. I’ll try to sort it out for you. Let me start out by saying that the following represents my personal view. Though I am an experienced A.T. hiker (I thru-hiked in 2007) and I’m past President of an A.T. maintaining club, this article does NOT represent the views of Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) or any of the 31 A.T. maintaining clubs. If you want to read ATC’s official position, follow THIS LINK. Also, I am NOT recommending that you hike in an area where the A.T. is officially closed. I am simply giving you my best educated guess as to what you are likely to find out there.
This is the symbol of the Appalachian Trail, which is officially known as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
It’s probably a good idea to start by briefly describing how the A.T. is organized and maintained. The A.T. is unique among long distance trails in that over 99% of it is within a protected corridor throughout its 2,184 mile length. But, this corridor is really a patchwork of various kinds of protected lands. Some of the A.T. is actually within a separate national park. Examples are Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park. Some of it is within National Forests, such as the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Virginia. Approximately 700 miles of it is within a separate federally owned corridor under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, but not within a distinct national park like the Smokies or Shenandoah. A good example of this is the 17 miles of the A.T. in Cumberland County, PA from South Mountain north to Blue Mountain. Still other portions are within state parks, such as Pine Grove Furnace in Pennsylvania and Baxter State Park in Maine. Other portions are within state forests, such as the Michaux State Forest in south central Pennsylvania. As I said, it’s complicated.
As a practical matter, the present status of a particular section of the A.T. depends largely on the type of corridor through which that A.T. section travels. First, you will probably see very few folks maintaining the A.T. right now. The vast majority of the maintaining work on the A.T. is done by volunteers (like me, by the way). Two programs have been established to protect us volunteers from injuries and other problems that might arise while we are maintaining our favorite trail. One is called “Volunteers In The Park” insurance, or VIP. (Yes, we A.T. volunteers DO like to think of ourselves as VIPs.) The other is called “Volunteers In The Forest” insurance, or VIF. During the federal shutdown, both the VIP and VIF programs are suspended. Though the official position of the trail organizations is that A.T. volunteers are not to be doing any work during the shutdown, you might see a few of us out there, mostly because we can’t help ourselves. (Shhh, don’t tell anyone.)
But, you aren’t interested in volunteering on the A.T right now. You want to hike it. Here is where I think things stand right now. First, if you want to hike the A.T. sections within an official national park like the Smokies or Shenandoah, it’s simple, you can’t. A skeleton crew of rangers is stopping people from entering these parks. By the way, please don’t blame the rangers. They are just doing what for them is a very distasteful job. Write your member of Congress instead.
If you want to hike the A.T. within a national forest, there’s a good chance you will be able to do so. The feds’ official position is that the national forests are closed, but it appears that no one is stopping hikers from getting on the trails in these sections. You will probably see some signs that say the national forest is closed. If you want to hike the A.T. within the federal corridor, but outside of a national park or forest, you should be able to do so. You will see signs indicating that the trail is officially closed, but it’s very unlikely that you will be prevented from accessing the A.T.
The news is best if you want to hike the A.T. within a state park, state forest, or in PA, state game land. Since the state is not shut down, it should be business as usual, except that there will be fewer volunteers on the A.T., for the reasons described earlier. Here are some good places to hike on the A.T. in the Central PA region within state lands: Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Swatara State Park, Michaux State Forest, as well as the state game lands extending from Blue Mountain to Duncannon and north of Duncannon around Peters Mountain.
A final word of caution. During this time of political silliness, there will be many fewer volunteers, federal employees and employees of trail organizations out on the A.T. This means that if you need help, there are not likely to be many folks around to aid you. Be very careful out there.