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Volunteers preserve nation's fading trails

Hikers on the Austin Brook Trail earlier this summer might have been surprised to see people working instead of hiking. Austin Brook Trail is a branch of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. Part of the trail was located too close to a weekend cabin. The owner asked to have the trail moved to another part of his property.

Rather than lose the trail, a group of 30 volunteers (including teen-agers and senior citizens) from the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) spent their weekend sawing, chopping, trimming, raking, shoveling, and pounding, rerouting a half mile of the trail a few hundred yards from the cabin.

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The National Park Service estimates that more than 180 million people use over a 100,000 miles of trails annually. But it's volunteers who take care of most of these trails.

``If there are going to be any trails, someone's got to build them and maintain them,'' says Carolyn Crowell, a retired 4-H Club executive. On the weekends, Ms. Crowell becomes part of an army of thousands of people who help fix trails.

The volunteers say they feel they are fighting a losing battle. Trails nationwide are being closed because of building development or neglect, says Bob Karotko, trails coordinator for the National Park Service.

To emphasize his point, Mr. Karotko shows a Park Service map detailing a system of national trails designated by Congress. These trails make it possible to hike from Florida or Maine all the way to California, without ever leaving a trail. But don't try doing it. The only trails even near completion are the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest, which all go north-south. All told, only 10,374 of 23,620 planned miles are actually hikeable.

But recent progress has been made. The House of Representatives voted last month to almost double money in the 1988 budget going to trail maintenance and construction for the Park and Forest Services. According to Susan Henley, executive director of the American Hiking Society (AHA), of the $1.6 million that went to trails and rivers conservation studies for the Park Service in 1986-87, 90 percent went to rivers. The House has increased the sum to $2.6 million, ``the difference should go to trails,'' says Ms. Henley.

If the Senate approves in September, the Forest Service is slated to receive $34 million for its trails, up from $19 million last year.

The increase ``means that we will do the maintenance that needs to be done every year, instead of adding to the backlog,'' says Tom Lennon, national trails coordinator for the Forest Service. There is an estimated $100 million backlog of repairs needed on the Forest Service's nearly 100,000 miles of trails.

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Volunteers maintained 11,000 miles on Forest Service trails last year. ``With the additional money,'' says Mr. Lennon, ``we will be able to provide more supervision to increase that number.'' Trail building is a slow enterprise. Karotko says that in the last few years, more trail miles have been lost than built. ``The only opportunities for new trails have been the indirect result of construction roads built for timber purposes.''

Trails not on government land, however, are not only neglected, but endangered. More than 75 percent of the national trails pass through private land and can't be protected.

This is the case where the Appalachian Trail crosses through the Cumberland Valley in south-central Pennsylvania. The trail was relocated five times as the valley developed, and you can now drive the route in your car. The trail goes through the town, and then along the Harrisburg Pike.

To counter this, groups like AMC are pushing Congress to purchase the land through which the trails pass to prevent building development. Congress has spent $86 million purchasing the 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail. With 199 miles left to purchase, the Appalachian Trail Project is almost complete.

Once the land is purchased, the trails must be maintained. One approach is the AMC sponsored ``Adopt a Trail'' program where individuals or groups can adopt orbe responsible for a portion of a trail. Robert Divine and his family of four have adopted Wildcat Ridge, a six-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. ``It is a little spot on earth that we have fallen in love with,'' he says.

Meanwhile, the new Austin Brook Trail is now in place and the land owner is happy. But moving it wasn't easy. The new trail had to be diverted to a marshy area that required the group to build bog bridges of logs as big as telephone poles over the marsh. Trees of the same size had to be chopped, stripped, then fastened together with 10-inch nails - all by volunteers working in mud.

But that is only one job for trail workers. There is plenty of brush to be cleared, bushes to be cut, fallen trees to be moved, and erosion to be prevented. In addition, volunteers say commercial development on private land complicates the task of keeping the trails open.

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