In south-central Pennsylvania, the population is expanding rapidly and wilderness is disappearing. As more people crowd in, open spaces and fresh air may seem hard to come by.
That’s why the Appalachian Trail Conversancy (ATC) launched its “Wild East” initiative. It wants to remind nature-lovers and city slicks alike that there are still serene and bucolic places in the neighborhood—but they need our awareness and protection.
“Wild East” is meant to direct attention to the Appalachian Trail (AT) landscape—its miles of untamed forests, diverse wildlife and dark, unpolluted night skies. These are key attributes and attractions, whether you’re an avid naturalist, an occasional hiker or someone with an interest in healthy and sustainable local economies and communities.
“What we are doing is defining the fact that the AT traverses one of the most important open spaces in the eastern U.S.,” said Lynn Davis, the ATC’s director of federal and legislative policy. “People need to be aware of it.”
Davis is referring to the opportunities for recreation along the trail, but also to the cultural, economic and environmental benefits it provides to surrounding communities. The conservancy hopes to reignite interest in the trail and its landscape, as well as drum up volunteer and advocacy interest.
The Central Pennsylvania Conservancy is joining in this effort.
“Wild East” furthers their existing partnership with “mutually supportive” objectives and an increased focus on land protection and stewardship, as well as funding—something that is hard to accomplish as a smaller, local nonprofit, said Anna Yelk, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy.
“Protection and stewardship relies on partners,” she said.
Spanning 14 states and 2,200 miles, the Appalachian Trail is one of the last natural corridors left along the densely developed East Coast. Nearly 230 miles of the trail runs through central Pennsylvania, a flat but rocky section of the path. The midpoint of the AT runs at or just south of Pine Grove Furnace State Park, offering many hikers a much-needed break before tackling the hardest section of the Pennsylvania AT—the northwestern portion of the trail beginning in Boiling Springs.
As it traverses the farmlands of the Cumberland Valley and crawls along the ridge south of Duncannon, this section of the AT is at risk of encroachment from urban and industrial sprawl. The trail’s landscape offers respite and solitude to through-hikers and day-trippers alike, but also an opportunity to get people thinking about what the future will be like.
“This is especially for those who may just go for a short time, to get them to say, ‘Wow, I get it,’” Davis said.
This forest corridor is important for alleviating the effects of carbon emissions and climate change, as well as for providing a home for numerous wildlife species, including migratory birds whose populations are at risk, such as the cerulean warbler, which nests along the Kittatinny Ridge.
Though still a working concept, the “Wild East” initiative is intended to prompt conversation about the trail and its landscape, reintroducing concepts that should be important to people, according to Marian Orlousky, director of science and stewardship at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of the conservancy, located in Boiling Springs.
“We are putting a new name to something we have been doing a long time,” Orlousky said. “It means we are thinking on a larger scale.”
With heightened awareness of the Appalachian Trail comes an increase in foot traffic, something that is not lost on the conservancy’s organizational community.
“We are walking a very fine line, and we know it,” Davis said. “We hope to build the trail’s profile and educate the public to be prepared and be respectful.”
Just as its construction was largely the work of volunteers, local trail clubs headed up by private citizens donate their time and in-kind contributions to maintain the trail and service its visitors.
Joe Neville, president of the Keystone Trails Association (KTA), expressed concern about the long-term impact on the trail itself, due to the hard work required to maintain it at the current traffic volume. Overall, Neville wants his organization to support the ATC’s efforts, as they are much aligned with KTA’s own mission.
With all “human” issues considered, ATC and its local partner organizations hope that supporting the “Wild East” will do the Pennsylvania AT and its greater landscape a lot of good.
“Part of our goal is to create conservation stakeholders,” Yelk said, referring to people who care about and use the land. “You don’t protect what you don’t love.”
For more information about the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the “Wild East” initiative, visit www.appalachiantrail.org.