The Appalachian Trail’s (A.T.) 250,000 acre corridor and surrounding landscape are rich in natural and cultural resources. Running primarily along the Appalachian highlands, Trail lands protect headwater streams for major east coast watersheds. These high elevation lands also host a living catalog of hundreds of rare species, some of which are Federal or state protected threatened and endangered species.
The A.T. is also receiving attention for its role as an ecological connector that helps to link otherwise disconnected conservation lands. In 2005, National Park Service partners developed the A.T. Vital Signs report that looked at the status of key environmental indicators of Trail lands. The report provided the impetus to convene a gathering of scientists in 2006 to explore the opportunity of using Trail lands as a large, collaborative environmental monitoring and research effort.
This collaborative effort earned the name A.T. MEGA-transect. A transect is a scientific monitoring term involving measurements taken along a line, and this transect – from Maine to Georgia – is certainly a significant undertaking. In 2008, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) produced a report describing the program, and then in 2009, the National Park Service completed the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Natural Resource Management Plan which describes the important resources of the Trail and suggests management actions.
The ATC, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service as well as other agencies and organizations work cooperatively to understand the status of these resources and to engage volunteers (citizen scientists) in monitoring natural resources. Monitoring projects are aimed at assisting cooperative management partners in the development of effective adaptive management strategies, ensuring the long-term health of significant resources. A.T. lands also host numerous cultural heritage sites.
While our knowledge about these resources is not as robust as our understanding of natural resources, several cultural resource surveys have been conducted along the corridor, including Cultural Landscape Inventories in Shenandoah National Park and western Massachusetts. Preserved within the A.T. greenway is the remarkable story of citizen action in the public interest and one of the first major acts of regional conservation planning making the A.T. a valuable part of America’s heritage. Trail managers are examining the process for nominating the A.T. to the National Register of Historic Places.
Environmental Monitoring and Research
The Trail’s north-south alignment across 14 eastern states represents a cross-section of the eastern United States and offers a perfect setting for collecting relevant and scientifically valid data on the health of the landscape and species it fosters.
Threats to the environment of the Appalachian Trail include: encroaching development; acid rain, invasive species; polluted water, and climate change. Roughly one third of the U.S. population lives in close proximity to A.T. In many respects, threats to the health of A.T. lands also represent environmental challenges to everyone downwind and downstream of the A.T. This makes the Trail and its protected corridor an ideal indicator for environmental conditions that directly affect more than 120 million Americans.
With respect to climate change in particular, the A.T. MEGA-Transect provides a unique opportunity to study the effects at a large scale, and the alignment of the mountain range with the predicted migration of species in response to climate change makes it an important place to monitor plants and animals. Adaptive responses to climate change at this large scale should be anticipated and facilitated, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and Appalachian Trail Park Office (ATPO) have fostered collaborative relationships with other land managers to coordinate cooperative management where necessary to support ecological adaptation to climate change.
Today, A.T. MEGA-transect partners appreciate that the magnitude of this project requires collaborating with numerous partners, and engaging citizen scientists united with professionals, to achieve the following goals:
- Monitor – Collect and analyze new and existing data on key indicators of environmental health from agencies, organizations, researchers, and citizen scientists.
- Understand – Transform data into status reports and track trends through analysis, synthesis, and modeling.
- Inform and Engage – Inform and engage the American public, decision-makers and stakeholder organizations to manage and protect the A.T. environment, attain the goals of existing natural resources and environmental legislation, and to make sound decisions for positive change.
Current Citizen-Science Monitoring Projects
The following monitoring projects offer opportunities to engage with scientific partners at the National Park Service and other organizations. Monitoring protocols have been developed by these science partners to ensure scientific standards are met.