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Runners, conservationists really can get along

December 10, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND

As a hiker, climber and all-around mountain rat, I certainly understand concerns about trail conditions on public land. Thousands of feet on a hillside trample fragile root systems and open small fissures that are exploited by rainwater until a tiny break erodes into a major gash and then a virtual landslide, leaving the trail a horrible mess of rocks and exposed tree roots.

Further, permits limiting mass access on environmentally sensitive public lands, including mountain trails, are the rule, not the exception. Groups of 10 or more hikers in state or national parks are frequently required to register before going out on the trail. The point isn't to block access, it's to protect the environment from more use than it can handle.

So those members of the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon who say it's "time for the gloves to come off" in their fight against Appalachian National Scenic Trail Superintendent Pamela Underhill should consider that she's only doing her job by restricting the number of runners in the popular and historic event.

She is speaking for those who hike the trail in the way in which it was intended, and count on it to be sound and safe.

Underhill wants the event limited to 1,000 participants (if the Appalachian Trail is to be used), and doesn't even seem real happy about that. JFK organizers want 2,000 and seem to be put out that anyone would dare stand in their way.

There's a significant financial component in place, as there usually is when people get their backs up this much about something. The entry fee is $195 per runner, meaning that the event could bring in an added $200,000 if allowed to expand the way its organizers want.

If Underhill is concluding that the JFK has become more about money than about sports and nature trails, it's easy to see why. And public lands are for public use, not as an agent of private profit.

But with all that said, it's terribly discouraging when two groups that ought to be on the same side come to blows.

The JFK champions fitness, recreation and the outdoors. Any event that gets 1,000 (or 2,000) people out to enjoy the Appalachian Trail should be celebrated, not hounded.

Exercise and the outdoors go hand in hand. It's confounding that runners would be so hard-headed as to not understand conservationists, and that conservationists would be so hard-headed as not to understand runners.

In normal times, this might not be so damaging, but we're currently — maybe you've heard — running a national deficit. Money for all outdoor pursuits and parks is going to be seriously pinched in a political atmosphere where certain people in power believe that no unessential service is worthy of government spending.

The upshot is that the leaders of the JFK and the Appalachian Trail will find that their voices carry far more power as one, as opposed to using their time and energies to fight each other.

Up north, where I hike a lot, there is a natural conflict between human and mechanical propulsion. Hikers, skiers and canoers frown disdainfully at snowmobilers, powerboaters and ATV riders — and vice versa.

But slowly, all sides are starting to realize that a trail that must be shared with their erstwhile enemies is better than no trail at all.

A cross-country skier out in the wilds might be mildly irked by the sound of an occasional snowmobile. But in the halls of state legislatures, those same snowmobilers are a most powerful and welcome force for the outdoors. A proposed rail-trail might be dependent on their political clout.

So the Appalachian Trail might consider that a thousand or two ardent supporters might not be a bad thing to have in its hip pocket, especially at budget-hearing time.

And the JFK might consider that a greater donation of resources toward trail improvement might make other trails across the land more open to runners.

So many good and wonderful stories of triumph and humanity come out of the JFK that it would be a shame to see its historical integrity damaged by steering the course away from the Appalachian Trail. It would also be a loss for the runners and for the trail itself — there is no greater advertisement for the AT than the JFK.

But the JFK needs to recognize that thousands of pounding feet do not come without an environmental cost, and that the trail must be protected for the enjoyment of others.

So why not conduct an environmental study to determine how much trail maintenance is needed to mitigate the effect of 2,000 runners, and pay for needed repairs, if any, out of the ample revenue an extra thousand runners will generate.

There, was that so hard?

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. Reach him at

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