Appalachian Trail To Become Living Environmental Lab

The famed Appalachian Trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine may just become America"s largest living laboratory for environmental science, if an unlikely grouping of institutions has its way. The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service are teaming up with Cornell University, the National Geographic Society, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the American Hiking Society to launch the Appalachian Trail Mega-Transect, a comprehensive and ongoing assessment of various environmental indicators along the 2,200-mile hiking trail.

“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 of the nonprofit American Hiking Society.

Project organizers plan to tap into a network of thousands of volunteer professional and "citizen" scientists to glean information on the trail"s environmental health in hopes of creating a credible environmental "early warning system" for the 120 million or so human inhabitants of the U.S. eastern seaboard.

Proponents like David Startzell of the West Virginia-based Appalachian Trail Conservancy 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,” he says. “Whether that means switching to a hybrid car, 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.”