WASHINGTON -- By 2000, the Clinton administration hopes to bring the last few sections of the Appalachian Trail under public control, completing the longest natural thoroughfare in the world after a campaign of more than seven decades.
A total of about 33 miles of the trail remain to be protected - along a footpath that runs 2,158 miles from northern Georgia to central Maine. And these little ellipses, scattered across a dozen states, are featured prominently on the wish lists of federal agencies that are in the middle of a burst of spending to acquire environmentally sensitive parcels of land.
The trail is best known for its recreational values; millions use it every year, and two-thirds of the nation's population live within a day's drive of it. But increasingly, the trail is also seen as a reservoir of biological diversity, passing through four of the seven primary forested habitats of North America and sheltering rare plants and animals at well over 1,000 sites along the route.
Cost put at $15 million
It will cost about $15 million to buy the final parcels along the trail, according to the Clinton administration, which recently issued a list of all the properties it wants to buy this year with money in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, under the control of various federal agencies.
The fund got a big infusion of money - $699 million - this year as part of the balanced-budget agreement reached in 1997 between Congress and the White House. Now, the administration has sent its shopping list to congressional committees for review and approval. Heading the list in the coming two years, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service have plans to buy about 330 parcels totaling 13,000 acres along the trail, officials said.
Twenty years ago, 800 miles of the trail were on private lands, including more than 200 miles along roads. Since then, the agencies have acquired almost 150,000 acres outright and have protected the right of way along almost the entire distance. In many cases, the purchases have allowed the agencies to shift the trail to better routes; in others, adjacent land has been protected to save its scenic qualities.
The Appalachian Trail is notable for the partnership of private and public interests that has brought it to the brink of completion. "First of all is the leadership provided by the Appalachian Trail Club," said Jim Lyons, the top forestry official at the Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service. "Then, there is the mix of federal ownership, state ownership and private conservation easement that protects the trail. It took a mix of tools and a real commitment on the part of the hiking community and other people to bring this about."
But there are some obstacles on the path ahead.
Among the prime parcels the Park Service wants to acquire is nearly 900 acres and 2.5 miles of trail on Saddleback Mountain in Maine. Negotiations with the owners, who run a ski area there, are continuing. It is one of the finest alpine sites in the state, with spectacular views of Saddleback Lake.
The trail runs along the summit, clean-shaven by glaciers. Although the ski resort has long allowed hikers through, for more than a decade it has resisted selling.
"Unfortunately, the ski area and the park service are competing for the same land," said Don King, a Park Service official in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. "At issue is what Saddleback wants to retain for possible future expansion, and what they are willing to give up."
Other sites being considered for conservation include:
* John Muir's burial site in Martinez, Calif.
* Royal Teton Ranch outside Yellowstone to provide a winter haven for bison.
* Bodie Bowl. This California gold-mining district in the Sierra Nevada is the site of the biggest and best-preserved ghost town in the West.
* Cumberland Island. The government is gradually buying 1,386 acres for the national seashore area in Georgia.
* Baca Ranch. A 100,000-acre scenic ranch full of meadows and forested slopes in the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico, this ranch contains the Valles Caldera, one of the largest volcanic craters in the United States. With abundant elk and trout, the ranch could offer fine recreational opportunities.
Pub Date: 5/03/98