Are hikers loving the Appalachian Trail to death? We examine the history of hiker trash - as in actual trash - on the trail.
We look at a moment when the trashing of the trail got so bad that the trail clubs almost did something radical, something that would have changed the hiker experience forever. And we examine the many ways that community organizations have tackled the persistent problems of overuse, vandalism, and litter on the trail.
Appalachian Trail Conservancy, “Tips for Applying Leave No Trace to Hiking Adventures,” Blog Post (2022)
David Cole, Leave No Trace: How It Came to Be, International Journal of Wilderness (2018)
Jeffrey L. Marion and Scott E. Reid, Development of the U.S. Leave No Trace Program: An Historical Perspective, (2001)
MILLS KELLY: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly and I’ll be your host. Before we start, I want to say something to the listeners who are paying for the premium version of our show.
[screeching sounds of a record needle]
KELLY: Actually no one pays for our episodes because every podcast we create here at R2 studios is free and will always be free.
KELLY: But… shows like the Green Tunnel aren’t free to create. We put a lot of time into bringing you our show and so today I’m going to ask you to consider supporting our work with a donation. It’s easy. Just go to our website greentunnel.rrchnm.org and click on the “become a member” link in the upper right hand corner. That will take you to a page where you can sign up for our newsletter and there’s a link to our donation page. On that page you will be able to donate and you can learn what types of gifts we have for our supporters.
KELLY: All of us in the team would really appreciate your support.
KELLY: Now, on with the show.
KELLY: On today’s show, we’re talking trash.
[Sounds of trash truck]
KELLY: If you’ve hiked on the Appalachian Trail, you’ve seen litter–maybe a lot of it. Candy wrappers, water bottles, bagged dog poop, and lately, face masks. The trailheads can sometimes feel like trash dumps. You might also see a lot of graffiti in shelters, on trees, on rocks, and on bridges.
KELLY: Nobody likes walking past other people’s dog poop bags. We all probably have similar reactions when we see things like that. But when you’re the one with the dog, or the one eating the granola bar as you walk–surely one little wrapper left on the side of the trail isn’t going to make a huge difference, right? If you’ve had these thoughts, you’re not alone. A lot of people discard their trash wherever they feel like it.
[Classical music begins]
KELLY: Piles of trash at trailheads and along the trail are nothing new. Neither is graffiti. But the amount of trash is starting to have a serious impact on the environment of the trail and on the hiker experience–and people are noticing. People who are concerned about the trash problem have had to take two approaches to dealing with the issue. First, they’ve had to consider making substantial changes to the trail itself in order to protect the environment. And second, community organizations have sprung up to help teach new hikers about how to take care of the places they’re hiking in. Maybe the best known example of such an organization is the Leave No Trace Foundation.
KELLY: In these covid times, hundreds of thousands of people have found refuge along the Appalachian Trail–the kind of refuge that Benton MacKaye hoped the trail would provide when he first proposed it in 1921. We’re stressed out. We’re afraid. We need to find some way to escape our problems for a few hours or a few days–which is exactly the kind of “problem of living” that MacKaye wanted his trail to help solve.
KELLY: The Appalachian Trail is and always will be a public trail–anyone can hike on it whenever they want. Throughout the trail’s history, leaders of the AT movement have tried hard to make it an inviting place, to encourage more people to come and hike. And that’s the crux of the challenge. The more hikers there are, the more pressure there is on the environment. But without hikers, there would be no reason for the trail to exist.
KELLY: A lot of hikers don’t know a lot about how to protect the lands and the environments that they’re in. Take the example of the banana peel.
[Classical music ends]
BRICE ESPLIN: You know a lot of folks maybe think that natural food items are okay to leave out. So say, I’m finished with my banana and throw out that banana peel. No harm done. It actually probably feeds the wildlife. A lot of people will do that thinking they’re helping the natural ecosystem when in reality it’s quite the opposite, it has a huge detrimental effect. Even things as small and benign-seeming as sunflower seeds can really change wildlife’s behavior draw them to humans. And remember we’re talking about cumulative impacts millions and millions of people doing this in one area. That’s where it makes huge systemic change in our outdoor ecosystems.
KELLY: That’s Brice Esplin, a Subaru/ Leave Not Trace Team member with the Leave No Trace Foundation. Brice wants people to be in the outdoors and sees their time outside as a chance for education.
ESPLIN: It is a lot more people enjoying these outdoor spaces that we’re sharing them with, but giving them space to learn and and you know, giving that education in a kind, friendly way is going to really make us all better in the long run.
ESPLIN: So we’re perpetually striking this balance of humans interacting with enjoying recreating in nature, but not loving it to death, at the same time. And that’s had its challenges the last 25 years.
KELLY: It is possible to love the trail to death–in fact, in the last few years, several popular places along the trail have been threatened when too many people came and not enough took care of their surroundings. One of those places is Max Patch Mountain in North Carolina.
KELLY: Max Patch is one of the most beautiful spots anywhere along the Appalachian Trail. From the summit you get 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. Wildflowers carpet the bald at the top of the mountain. The sunrises and sunsets are so spectacular that many hikers plan to spend the night on Max Patch so they can watch the sun set over Tennessee and rise over North Carolina.
KELLY: But in 2020, the beauty wasn’t what people were seeing on Max Patch Mountain.
[Sounds of crowds, children playing]
KELLY: That spring, during the worst part of the early phases of the Covid-19 pandemic, North Carolina artist Mike Wurman drove up to the mountain with a friend who was working on a film about the mountain. When they got there, they found a horrifying situation. Instead of being carpeted by wildflowers, the summit of Max Patch was carpeted with tents. There may have been as many as 200 people camped up on the summit that day. Cars were parked illegally all along the access road. Mounds of trash filled the parking lot. Music blared from the campsites.
KELLY: Mike decided he needed a better view of what was happening up on the summit.
[Sounds of a drone flying]
MICHAEL WURMAN: I had my drone because we’re doing shoots earlier in the day and it’s like I need to see what’s going on. So I just took the drone up real quick and covered the whole mountain. I flew down the mountain or the bald and it’s just unbelievable the number of tents, and I mean trash obviously. And I took a photograph and I showed it to Sarah when I brought it back down and she said, let me have that. And the rest is history.
KELLY: The Sarah he mentioned is Marshall, North Carolina-based photographer, author, and friend of our show Sarah Jones-Decker. Sarah put the photograph of all those tents and all that trash on her social media and a firestorm ensued. Many people demanded immediate action. They were furious over what they saw as the desecration of one of the Trail’s most beautiful places. Others accused Sarah and Mike of doctoring the photograph to make things look worse than they really were.
KELLY: We have Mike’s original drone footage in the show notes and on our YouTube channel so you can see for yourself what the mountain looked like that spring morning. It was not PhotoShopped.
KELLY: For Mike, what was happening on Max Patch that day was not just a problem with trash on the mountain. It was deeply personal.
WURMAN: It was upsetting because Max Patch has, is very, very near and dear to my heart, because it was on one day I hiked Max Patch went to the summit and that’s where I got the calling to hike the trail myself. And really to bring myself back to being an artist again. At that point I had already quit being an artist, because I had a lot of self-doubt in my abilities and something about walking the summit of Max Patch, and this is back when it was still pristine, you could go up there, and you know you find a handful of people, not you know truckloads and buses loads. So it’s always been special to me and every once while I go back on my anniversary of my calling to hike the AT and just go out and hand out trail magic to other thru hikers that come through. And that just was upsetting to see all the trash. And you see that place that used to be pristine turn into a basically Woodstock, a party area.
KELLY: Mike’s video that day had a significant impact on Max Patch. Since July 1, 2021, the mountain has been closed to camping. The AT still passes across the summit and hikers can still enjoy the views, but they cannot camp on the mountain at least until July of 2023. The U.S. Forest Service will wait to see if the mountain has sufficiently recovered from the abuse it suffered before deciding whether to reopen the summit for camping. Only then will this beautiful place be available again.
KELLY: Some of the trash on the mountain was from campers who were just trying to see the views. But the problems on Max Patch were mostly caused by Covid-related shut downs of on-campus parties at nearby universities. Students were banned from having parties on campus, so they moved the party to Max Patch. Just to be clear, most people hiking on the AT don’t do this kind of damage.
[Guitar music begins]
KELLY: Closing Max Patch might seem extreme. But it’s not the first time that the abuse of a mountain has affected the hiker experience on the Appalachian Trail.
[Guitar music ends]
KELLY: In 2015, ultra distance runner Scott Jurek set out to break the record for the fastest known time for an AT thru hike., Most people just walk when they’re hiking. But Jurek decided to run the trail. A crew drove his gear and food up the trail for him each day. Jurek did it. He set a new record for the traverse of the trail – 46 days, 8 hours, and 8 minutes from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. He surpassed the previous record set by Jennifer Pharr Davis by just a little over three hours.
KELLY: But a speed record wasn’t the only thing Jurek left at Katahdin. He also left a public controversy behind, one that almost radically changed the hiker experience on the Appalachian Trail.
KELLY: For northbound hikers, the AT ends on the summit of Mount Katahdin. It’s in Baxter State Park in Maine. The mountain is also a holy mountain of the Abenaki people. So the park has set a number of rules to try to minimize damage to this sacred space and to its fragile environment. These rules include things like limiting the number of people who can go up to the summit at any one time, and prohibiting alcohol. When Jurek reached the summit of Katahdin, he brought a big group of people–and champagne. To celebrate his achievement, Jurek and his group sprayed a lot of that champagne. So much of it that park rangers said it smelled like a returnable bottle redemption facility at the summit.
KELLY: All of this celebration was recorded by the film crew there to mark his achievement. Jurek admitted to breaking park rules – it was all on film, after all. But his attorney denied that he knew alcohol was prohibited. He also had no control over the media crew that trailed him to the summit, he said. And he denied that his group exceeded the size limits imposed by the park. Nevertheless, he agreed to pay a $500 fine for his violations of park rules.
[Classical music begins]
KELLY: Scott Jurek’s antics happened at a particularly difficult time for the Appalachian Trail. The previous summer, the trustees of Baxter State Park wrote to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the National Park Service. They had two complaints: one was about the rapidly growing number of AT hikers wanting to go to the summit, and two, the misbehavior of some of those hikers on the mountain.
KELLY: The park’s Director, Jensen Bissell, complained that hikers were insisting on summiting in large groups despite the park’s rules. There were also a growing number of hikers who openly consumed alcohol and drugs in view of the summit, and there were many who generally disregarded park rules altogether. According to Bissell, “We are concerned that the use of the AT within Baxter State Park is nearing, or may have surpassed, an acceptable limit for the facilities and effort available for the Park to accommodate AT hikers…Options to address these concerns would require a commitment to sustainable use of the AT and preserving the wild experience along the trail. Permit systems are in place on other popular long-distance trails in the United States. Relocating key portions of the trail or the trail terminus would be another option.”
KELLY: Think about that last sentence for just a minute. Relocating the terminus of the trail would mean taking that iconic sign off of Katahdin’s summit and putting it somewhere else…like the parking lot at the base of the mountain. That sign is the goal northbound thru hikers hold in their minds as they slog northward for almost 2,200 miles. It just wouldn’t feel quite the same if the Appalachian Trail ended in a campground parking area.
KELLY: When the ATC received Bissell’s letter, the Conservancy’s leadership had to act right away. So they called a meeting of organizations that work to provide stewardship for the AT. Their goal was to figure out how to manage hiker pressure on the resources at Baxter State Park while still encouraging people to hike the trail. One of their first steps was to establish a visitor center at Monson, Maine, 100 miles south of Baxter. They also agreed to increase the presence of ATC staff and volunteers at the park, and to try to better educate hikers before they even begin their hikes. All of that happened before Scott Jurek’s day on Katahdin. And then he demonstrated just how big a problem this bad behavior might turn out to be.
HAWK METHENY: You know, the response from the team was after the Jurek incident, so it was that summer, right after when we got the national media attention because of the citations that were issued to Mr Jurek.
KELLY: Hawk Metheny is the ATC’s regional director for New England who was one of the people who received that letter from Jensen Bissell. We spoke with Hawk about the impact of Bissell’s letter and the Jurek incident to see what has happened since 2015.
METHENY: Yeah, it was a little bit of, the momentum was starting to build, we were addressing the issues that occurred and then, and then we really had to step up after that. And you know, to a degree, they took kind of a high profile hike and made a high profile example out of it. And got the attention that at the time they were seeking and the response.
HAWK METHANY: So the incidents were reduced. I think the appreciation that people had going into the park and realizing that, essentially, it was a gift from Percival Baxter to first, the people of Maine, but then you know to everyone. And that alone, I think, began people understand that they had a responsibility to respect that gift and follow the park guidelines. So to your question, what the outcomes, first the visitor Center and then, I have to really give credit to this group, we formed a Baxter Task Force, which is made up of some of those partners that I mentioned, and they’ve met by conference call every month since 2015.
KELLY: The problems on Max Patch and Katahdin are just two recent examples of how hikers themselves have threatened the hiker experience. But litter and vandalism have been a constant issue on the trail for the past 60 years. In the early 1970s, vandalism and trash had become such a huge problem that the ATC and trail clubs considered something really drastic–removing every single shelter on the Appalachian Trail.
KELLY: Before the backpacking boom began in the late 1960s, most hikers on the Appalachian Trail went into the mountains as part of a club or group activity. Most of the time, hiking in groups keeps people from littering or vandalizing things. We tend to not throw trash or engage in vandalism when other people are watching. But during the 1960s backpacking transitioned from a club activity to something that people tended to do by themselves or with one or two friends. Fewer people watching…more bad behavior.
KELLY: There was another factor that played a big role in the rise of litter and vandalism at the trail shelters: a lot of the shelters were located close to roads. So they were ideal spots for a weekend party – kind of like Max Patch in 2020. We have some photos in the show notes of what some of the shelters looked like during the early 1970s. Be sure to check them out.
KELLY: Faced with this problem, the ATC decided to survey the trail clubs and the ATC membership to see what ought to be done about the growing problems at the trail shelters. Here are some samples from letters ATC members wrote in response.
W. GALIGHTLY: I would strongly urge the continuation of the shelter system for a number of reasons. If you hike with family, including young children, it is reassuring to know there is a stable structure somewhere in case of emergency…I rather enjoy the company of meeting other hikers at the shelters (as do my children also).
B. HOLMAN: Recently four friends and I hiked in the Cherokee section of the Appalachian Trail from Tennessee 67 to the Nolichucky River. Three of the five shelters which we visited were inhabitable for a night. The other two were unbelievable. We collected everything from one gallon Coleman fluid cans to ex-wire bunks for over an hour…If a shelter cannot be maintained it should be destroyed.
R. GOLDSMITH: I have experienced a great sadness and anger over the destruction by vandals now so well known along the Trail. It has appeared to me that clearly the damage occurs at shelters located conveniently close to roads and that it is related almost exclusively to the Saturday night local youth outings….I would suggest the removal and relocation of shelters to more difficult locations requiring a little more hiking or climbing.
R. COCO: Vandalism is a growing, unchecked problem and one of the main reasons why our shelters have a dubious future. I have seen many shelters that have more bullet holes in them than the Alamo…This problem is not only a difficult one but an emotional one as well. If all shelters were removed…only those that were physically capable…would be able to utilize backcountry wilderness areas for extended durations.
E. MOTT: It seems to me that we need to prepare for greater use of the trails and shelters by more people. We should realize that more persons are interested in hiking and make more trails available and more facilities. An outreach program is necessary, and not one criticizing those who do not know how to cooperate in trail and shelter use. We have to reach them before they are on the trail and we have to reach them on the trail.
KELLY: Ultimately, the ATC and the trail clubs decided not to scrape off all the shelters. Instead, they chose to make it a little harder to party: they removed some of the problem shelters, especially those too close to roads. They relocated others to make them harder to get to and they also began teaching people about stewardship.
KELLY: The passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, caused momentum to build for change began to build, especially after federal land managers began to see what was happening to newly designated wilderness areas. What we think of these days as the Leave No Trace movement arose from conversations among staff at the United States Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and various outdoor organizations like the ATC, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society. All of these organizations and agencies were concerned by the kinds of problems Appalachian Trail volunteers described in those letters we just read. The first result of those conversations was a series of educational brochures with titles like Wilderness Manners, Wilderness Ethics, Minimum Impact Camping, and No Trace Camping.
KELLY: These educational efforts ran into what might be called the “Too Many Cooks” problem – too many different agencies and organizations giving slightly different messages to the public. To address this confusion, the Forest Service formed a partnership with the National Outdoor Leadership School (or NOLS), to create a more unified Leave No Trace curriculum. Here’s Brice Esplin again.
ESPLIN: After that Wilderness Act, you know people started realizing that a lot of these more backcountry areas we need to start learning ways to treat these these places, and so it started with you know programs that were called like wilderness manners or nature etiquette. None of them had that sticking power of Leave No Trace quite yet, but it was the the early bones of what would become leave no trace.
KELLY: According to Brice, the Leave No Trace curriculum has evolved a lot over the decades.
ESPLIN: Throughout the 70s and the 80s, the Forest Service spearheaded the leave no trace program which kind of became the default for this ethic that would eventually build over time. Throughout the 70s and 80s, though it didn’t perfectly fit with say the BLM or the National Park Service, even though that information was distributed.
KELLY: The BLM Brice is referring to here is the Bureau of Land Management.
ESPLIN: So in 1993, there was an outdoor recreation summit in DC and NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, and quite a few other organizations and stakeholders recommended that an independent nonprofit be created to spread this information, this research to all federal land management agencies and beyond, right to work with NGOs, friends of groups, other partners and organizations and businesses in the outdoor sphere. And you know, for the last 25 years Leave No Trace has been centered in experiential hands-on education and is really you know striving to just build that collective outdoor ethic between all of us who enjoy the outdoors. And something that’s really taken off the last 25 years, is that it’s no longer just something we do in the backcountry. It’s something that applies to any natural space we get outside.
KELLY: If you’ve spent any time on the Appalachian Trail in the past few years, you know that the fight against litter and vandalism is one that isn’t going to end anytime soon. Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, a lot more people have been out on the trail. And a lot of these people are first time hikers and they may be new to Leave No Trace ethics. So it’s no surprise that litter on the Trail has also increased in the past couple of years.
ESPLIN: We were talking before about how Covid, you know, brought a lot more people in the outdoors. They feel more busy, and maybe more trashed. But in reality we want those people to connect with nature, because in the future we’re going to need as many, you know, allies and stewards as we can, especially as populations soar, climate change is an issue in our world, we’re going to need as many people on board as we possibly can. So, you know, introducing these people to nature in a welcoming way and making sure they have that right information that’s going to be the best way for us to do it.
[Bluegrass music begins]
KELLY: And we’re starting to see some changes already. A new generation of hikers are now forming volunteer organizations from one end of the trail to the other to address the problem head on. Groups like Keep Virginia Cozy, Save Our Smokies, and Responsible Stewardship are just a few of the many volunteer groups working to uphold Leave No Trace principles today.
KELLY: In July 2021, I took part in a Save Our Smokies clean up event on Max Patch Mountain the weekend after it had been closed to camping for two years. I spoke with some of the volunteers that day. I asked them why they were taking their weekend to pick up other people’s trash?
MELISSA: Um, so I enjoy doing cleanups. I have never been to Max Patch before and I heard about the shutdown for two years. So I wanted to come out and volunteer and help and actually see it in its current state. And then, you know, two years come back and experience it then.
ALEX GARCIA: I have had a love affair with the AT for a few years now. And as much time as I spend on the trails, I have started to understand that I really need to give back to the trail. It’s given me so much, that it’s only fair that I have a reciprocal relationship with it. And that’s why I’m here. I’m here to one really do my part to conserve the trails I love and to to represent Puerto Ricans and Latino people on the trail.
WILL: So just making it like, more, I guess, like, cool to get involved in that way and care. You know, I think it’s important for young people to do that, because our generation is going to be the next generation that has kids and that grows up outdoors, you know. So if we, if we teach them young, you know, I think that’s where it starts. Because what I remember as a kid, being 15 years old, throwing a bottle out the window into a sewer system in North Carolina, where I grew up. My mom said, “You’re gonna go and pick that up right now.” And she stopped the car right in the middle of the road, you know, and I knew from there, it was bad, you know? So, you know, it’s one of those things where it’s like, when it starts encroaching into our trail systems, then it becomes a problem. Because everyone’s trying to recreate outside to get away from people, you know. So, you know, I think that’s where people started getting a little more fed up with litter.
[Crowd sounds end]
KELLY: Benny Braden is the founder of the non-profit Responsible Stewardship and was the organizer of that Max Patch clean up event.
BENNY BRADEN: And we feel like that’s what makes Responsible Stewardship different than most other organizations is where we’re educating through our actions are out there every day, you know, picking up litter here or doing something there. We’re getting people involved with bringing people together, because we feel like if we’re fostering stewardship together for the betterment for public lands. And that means more people are going to be involved, that means more people are going to be able to enjoy it responsibly, because it’s going to be in better shape.
BRADEN: Our thing is, we want everyone to feel like they have an investment, they have an investment in those public lands, and not even just public lands, in our own communities too. Because we see trash on the side of the road every day. You know going to work or whatever. Your own community, there’s trash that needs to be taken care of. There’s situations that need to be rectified and we feel like it for empowering, you know everyone around us, and that means that area around us is going to be better because they are going to be involved. So our big thing is about fostering stewardship together to get people you know coming together for the betterment of our public lands and communities.
KELLY: The efforts of groups like Save Our Smokies and Responsible Stewardship are bearing fruit. Already, the environment on the summit of Max Patch is returning to something like the way it was five or ten years ago. Where last summer’s volunteers removed fire rings, new grass has grown in. Where the volunteers removed beer cans, discarded wigs, and old broken tents, birds have returned.
KELLY: Mike Wurman went back to Max Patch this past fall, just a few months after the camping ban had taken effect.
WURMAN: And I said when I expect to hear some crickets and they laughed and my wife laughs like, why did you say crickets that’s like that’s crickets I mean, when’s the last time you heard crickets and Max Patch? And probably two weeks after that I went up there with the Carolina Mountain Club to do a little trail maintenance and after digging on the trail all of a sudden, I start hearing crickets in the middle of the day. And I stopped and took out my camera and videotape just the audio the crickets. And it’s like see that’s why I said crickets and it’s just it felt good just to know that it’s on the right path.
KELLY: Here’s hoping that the crickets keep singing on Max Patch for a very long time.
[Nature sounds end]
ELEANOR MAGNESS: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me, Eleanor Magness. Abby Mullen is our executive producer and she also did the audio production for this episode.
MAGNESS: Our music is performed by Scott Miller of Staunton, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia.
MAGNESS: We want to offer a special thank you to all our guests for this episode: Mike Wurman, Brice Esplin, Hawk Metheny, Benny Braden, Alex Garcia, Will, and Melissa. Members of our team – Eleanor Magness, Jeanette Patrick, Bridget Bukovich, and Brandon Tachco read from the ATC survey responses.
MAGNESS: Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you soon!
MAGNESS: Oh, and one more thing…if you see any trash along the trail, please pick it up…
Benny Braiden is an avid hiker, advocate for public lands, and the founder of Responsible Stewardship. Check out Responsible Stewardship for educational resources and scheduled volunteer opportunities.
Brice Esplin is a Subaru/Leave No Trace team member. He educates communities across the United States on responsible recreation techniques and Leave No Trace ethics to encourage the protection of public lands.
Alex Garcia is a section speed hiker, who hiked the Appalachian Trail section of Shenandoah National Park from north to south in under 60 hours. She was recently featured in Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine for her difficult pursuits.
Hawk Metheny is the New England Regional Director and oversees the management and protection of the Appalachian Trail in New England. He has served as a staff member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy since 2010, and has held multiple terms on the ATC’s Board of Directors. Hawk also thru-hiked the AT in 1993.
Mike Wurman is an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, artist, and author in the Asheville area. He is continuously inspired by the beauty of the Appalachian Trail, which is reflected in his art.