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The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has Requested Closure of the Appalachian Trail

"Bella" on Mount Minsi in the Delaware Water Gap, overlooking Mount Tammany across the Delaware in New Jersey. Both are on the Appalachian Trail. The organization responsible for maintaining the trail has asked that it be temporarily closed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. (M.Cosgrove Photo)

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. (APR 6 2020) – The reach of the novel coronavirus has now extended the entire length of an almost 2,200 mile-long trail, mostly through remote areas along the eastern seaboard, resulting in an unusual call for it to be closed by the organization that built and maintains the trail.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) last week formally requested the official closure of the 2,193-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail (A.T.) due to the growing risk of visitors spreading COVID-19 among other hikers, nearby communities and beyond.

The ATC delivered a formal letter to the Secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture, the Deputy Director of the National Park Service (NPS), and Chief of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), recommending the Trail’s closure effective immediately until April 30, 2020, with intermittent convening of the cooperative managers of the Trail to determine whether it is safe to reopen it again.

The request for closure came after the ATC instructed all staff and volunteers, as well as all visitors (both day and overnight hikers), to stay off the Trail, and the NPS office administering the Trail closed all shelters and privies it manages. The ATC coordinated the planning and construction of the Trail and is currently responsible for managing and protecting it. The maintaining clubs of volunteers built the Trail and are currently responsible for the day-to-day management and maintenance of the footpath. The administration of the Trail statutorily belongs to the Secretary of the Interior.

The unprecedented request from the ATC and clubs comes on the heels of a surge in visitor use despite multiple social-distancing guidance issued by state and local governments. The Trail, which spans 14 states and passes through 88 counties, is within a day’s drive for half of the U.S. population. Crowding at iconic and well-known A.T. locations — including Mount Tammany in New Jersey, when traffic heading to the trail head backed up on Route 80 causing substantial traffic delays became unsafe as many believed they could avoid COVID-19 by journeying to public lands. As the ATC and clubs explained in their closure request to the federal government, the threat to government and ATC/club employees, other visitors and residents of gateway communities along the trail was heightened, rather than lowered, by the Trail remaining officially open.

“Since its creation in 1925, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has always promoted the benefits of experiencing nature and hiking, both physically and mentally,” said Sandra Marra, President and CEO of the ATC. “However, the past few weeks have shown that the A.T. is no longer a place where effective social distancing can take place, and that drastic action must be taken to help limit the spread of this highly contagious virus both on and off the Trail.”

The trail includes man-made and natural benches and tables frequently used by hikers to rest and take refreshment. Those areas become unintended sources of infection as succeeding hikers use them unaware that prior hikers who may be infected had used them. The surge has also resulted in crowding at trailheads and at many portions of the trails, especially the popular overlooks and rock outcropping where physical distancing is not possible.

The ATC's informal plea to its members and hikers did not result in improvement, leading them to make this unusual request.

Several National Park Service units the Trail passes through have already closed as of the sending of the letter. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has closed all facilities and hiking trails, and the Delaware Gap National Recreation Area, Blue Ridge Parkway, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historical Park have closed all buildings to the public. Shenandoah National Park is closed to all camping and is also seeking approval to close completely. Six of the eight national forests the Trail passes through had also closed their connecting Trails to the A.T. prior to the request, effectively removing access. The ATC’s guidance during this time is for trail users to stay at home and wait for it to be safe to no longer be socially distant, even in the great outdoors.

For more information on the guidance issued by the ATC and current park and business closures along the A.T., visit the ATC MAJOR UPDATES PAGE.

ATC was founded in 1925 by volunteers and federal officials working to build a continuous footpath along the Appalachian Mountains. A unit of the National Park System, the A.T. ranges from Maine to Georgia and is approximately 2,190 miles in length. It is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. The mission of the ATC is to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail. For more information, visit www.appalachiantrail.org.

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