SMITHSBURG, Md. (AP) A limestone cliff called Raven Rock juts over hardwoods and hemlocks in the Catoctin Mountains, near the midpoint of the Appalachian Trail.
From its 1,640-foot height, David Startzell can see the end of a 25-year effort to protect the more than 2,167-mile footpath through public acquisitions.
Almost all of the Maine-to-Georgia trail has been secured, largely through federal purchases of property and easements. Little more than 10 miles remain unprotected, including a 2-mile stretch near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.
Startzell, who heads the Appalachian Trail Conference and has worked for it for 25 years, said this task is almost done.
Completion will likely go unnoticed by the trail's thousands of users, including the 300 to 400 each year who go the entire distance. The trail was completed in 1937, and public access was guaranteed by the National Trails System Act 35 years ago, which made the narrow, rocky path part of the national park system. It also authorized the money to surround the trail with public lands, protected from incompatible uses.
Slow progress toward that goal prompted amendments that increased federal funding authority for land acquisition. Since then, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and some of the 14 states the trail crosses have been bargaining, wheedling and sometimes suing adjacent landowners to secure a corridor about 1,000 feet wide.
''You'll make an initial contact and if, for whatever reason, the timing is not right, then come back a year or two later and resume negotiations,'' said Startzell.
The conference is a largely volunteer nonprofit organization based in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., that manages and maintains the trail and helps the government acquire land.
Its affiliate, the ATC Land Trust, uses public and private funds to expand the protected area beyond the designated trail corridor. Those projects have protected 22,867 acres, including a Superfund toxic waste site near Palmerton, Pa., and a nuclear waste site at Nuclear Lake, N.Y.
The conference has been trying for 14 years to reroute seven miles of trail past another jarring feature, a Hoechst-Celanese Corp. factory in Pearisburg, Va., that makes cigarette filters.
''There are all sorts of noxious things buried in the ground. We're trying to thread our way through,'' Startzell said.
The Maryland corridor section has been a problem for other reasons. The land is owned by Hagerstown as part of its reservoir system and isn't protected from logging.
After more than 10 years of haggling, the sides are close to an agreement under which the National Park Service would buy an easement providing for a 300-foot no-cut zone on either side of the trail, Startzell said. The deal would ban new roads across the trail and bar loggers from dragging timber through the corridor.
The city wants assurances that no permanent campsites will be built in the area, said David Shindle, Hagerstown's water and sewer manager.
''The use of the trail is not an issue with the water quality, but this allows us to limit the use of the trail for certain things,'' Shindle said. ''It protects them and protects us, too.''
Fifty miles to the south, near Paris, Va., the National Park Service is set to acquire 440 privately owned acres in a $1.2 million deal for relocation of a mile-long section through prettier scenery along the spine of the Blue Ridge.
The prospective seller is the Piedmont Environmental Council, a Warrenton, Va.-based group that acquired the land as part of a purchase in December 2000.
''When we started this project, we were not aware that they had any particular interest,'' said Gray Coyner, a Piedmont Environmental Council member. ''It's a real plus for both sides.''
Startzell said such deals demonstrate that protecting land and improving the hiking experience won't stop even after the trail corridor is secured.
''Our efforts to acquire lands through the land trust will continue forever,'' he said. ''Preserving what we now have as a public estate is kind of a continual process. We can't rest on our laurels.''
On the Net:
Appalachian Trail Conference: http://www.appalachiantrail.org
Piedmont Environmental Council: http://www.pecva.org
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