JOHNSON CITY, TENN. -- Appalachian Trail hikers have been urged not to stop or stray along a 14-mile stretch of the Maine-to-Georgia route because of a series of suspicious fires and booby traps.
U.S. Forest Service officials blame the incidents, which include the stringing of fishhooks at eye and hip level across paths, on a dispute between the government and landowners who fear their land will be seized to create a 500-foot buffer along the trail.
The Forest Service has put up signs encouraging hikers not to stop or leave the trail in the Buck Mountain area between Roan Mountain and the North Carolina state line, Forest Service spokesman Bill Sweet said.
"Hikers have been scared by them and since we don't know what we're dealing with, that's a good thing," said Brian King, public affairs director for the Appalachian Trail Conference, based in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
"We haven't had any problems there since late April," King said yesterday. No decision has been made on when the signs may be removed.
King said that in April a shelter on the trail was destroyed by fire. Authorities determined that someone had pulled brush into the shelter and ignited it. Suspicious brush fires also were reported in the area.
King said no injuries were reported.
Sweet said no arrests have been made and none are expected. Congress has mandated that the Forest Service acquire about 500 feet on each side of the 2,143-mile trail. But Sweet said the Forest Service does not intend to take anyone's land in the disputed area, and is looking at an alternate route for that part of the trail to comply with federal law.
He said he believed that message had gotten through to landowners.
"We don't think the trail hikers are in any danger," Sweet said. "We just don't want to encourage people to get off the trail" for those 14 miles.