An Environmental Warning System

By Vicki Smith
Associated Press
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The Appalachian Trail gives hikers a nearly 2,200-mile trek through mountains, meadows and forests stretching from Georgia to Maine. But to scientists and land managers, it is also a living laboratory that could provide warnings of environmental problems while there is still time to fix them.

A diverse collection of organizations have launched a project to begin long-term monitoring of the trail's environmental health, with plans to tap into an army of volunteer "citizen scientists" and professionals.

Together, they will collect information about air and water quality, the health of plants, and animal migration patterns to build an early environmental warning system for the 120 million people along the Eastern Seaboard.

"It's somewhat like the canary in the coal mine in the sense of using it as a barometer for environmental and human health conditions," said Gregory Miller, president of the Silver Spring-based American Hiking Society.

The Appalachian Mountains are ideal for the project because they are home to one of the richest collections of temperate-zone species in the world. They also have a variety of ecosystems that blend into one another -- hardwood forests next to softwood forests next to alpine forests. The trail along the mountain chain passes through 14 states and eight national forests.

The idea for the project, the Appalachian Trail Mega-Transect, is in its infancy, but it has support from the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, Cornell University, the National Geographic Society and Aveda Corp., an environmentally conscious beauty-products company.

"We're really after two things," said Brian Mitchell, a coordinator with the Park Service's Northeast Temperate Network in Woodstock, Vt. "We want to get a better understanding of what's happening on the trail so we can better manage it. The other side is we want to take the lessons we learn from the trail and show people that what's happening on the trail does actually affect us."

High ozone levels, for example, can reduce plant photosynthesis and growth and speed up aging and leaf loss. In humans, they can affect the lungs, respiratory tract and eyes, and increase susceptibility to allergens. Atmospheric deposition -- airborne sulfur and nitrogen deposited in the soil by rain and snow -- can affect farming and crop growth.

An example of the environmental changes along the trail is smog in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, said David Startzell, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

"People will read that on 25 or 30 days in a given year, it's considered unhealthy to walk on the Appalachian Trail, and we think that's going to grab people's attention more than if they just read about air-quality trends in general," he said.

That is also why volunteers will be critical to the project's success. It's one thing for people to read about technical reports on bird migration, acid rain or air quality, Startzell says. "We think it's another thing when people learn about that firsthand by actually helping to collect that information," he said.

Mitchell hopes that within the next year, the project will have at least two flagship programs for volunteers. He says volunteers could help with such tasks as measuring tree diameters, taking photographs to illustrate visibility, tracking the arrival times of migratory birds and dating the blooming and leaf loss of trees.

Advocates hope the project will help drive changes in public policy and personal behavior.

"Part of our hope is that as people become more aware of trends affecting those lands, they'll be motivated to take action," Startzell said, "whether that means switching to a hybrid car or just conducting their own way of life in a little more energy-efficient manner, or going to a town hall meeting and advocating for more open space."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company