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Trials of the Appalachian Trail

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For much of its 2,030-mile stretch it is a pinched slice of boot-packed earth graced by arching groves of hemlock, swaying stands of yellow birch, and bear-clawed clusters of beech.

It twists and turns past wind-buffeted cornices and sluggish brooks -- through the stony bunkers of America's battleground for independence, past the rumpled hills of Thoreau country, and on to pristine outposts such as Chimney Rock, Va., and Keys Gap, W. Va.

The Appalachian Trail is a retreat for more than 4 million nature-hungry people each year.Yet even this, the world's most famous footpath, isn't without its squabbles.

Small plumes of protest have erupted here and there over federal efforts to buy up land and permanently protect the trail. The hubbub surrounds the National Park Service's efforts to widen the corridor and relocate it in areas threatened by development. A few spirited landowners affected by the project are battling what they see as a land-grabbing National Park Service.

The controversy has particularly rocked this steeple-dotted town, through which the corridor has run with the blessing of townsfolk for more than half a century on its wooded journey from Mt. Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia.

"It's just one of those that keeps coming back like a bad dream," James Campion, chairman of the board of selectmen, observes.

The Appalachian Trail protection project here is a tale of big government and small landowners, of wilderness ethics and stubborn attachment to the land. The battle symbolizes some of the fruits and frustrations the federal government and hiking groups have encountered in trying to permanently protect "one of the seven wonders of the outdoorsman's world."

And now the project might also become a Park Service tale of the survival of the fittest, as the Reagan administration casts its money-conscious eye around for expendable projects.

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