For 75 years, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has maintained 2,100 miles of footpath through mountain wilderness. A sustainable volunteer strategy carries the load.
“Needed: People to work for free in high heat or freezing, wet weather in wilderness conditions. May encounter bears, snakes, bugs, wild pigs, and stinging plants. Few to no toilets. Could require carrying 30-pound backpacks to high altitudes.”
Sound appealing? For some, definitely: Last year more than 6,000 people donated 239,000 hours to maintain, repair, and patrol a footpath known as the Appalachian Trail. What attracts so many volunteers to one of the most challenging volunteer positions on offer?
Just as important, how does the trail’s leading stewardship organization, the 75-year-old Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), recruit, train, and coordinate these volunteers across 14 states and along almost 2,100 rugged miles?
The answers to those questions have much to do with the kind of passion the trail inspires. More than 2 million people hike the trail each year, with an estimated 2,000 determined to venture its entire length. From high peaks to wildflower-filled valleys to quiet, shadowy forests, the trail is a balm to hikers, whether for an afternoon or the typical five to seven months needed to walk the distance.
David Startzell understands the lure. He joined ATC in 1978 as director of trail management services, ultimately becoming executive director for 25 years before his retirement in 2011. He oversaw an adaptive management framework that emphasizes volunteers, with ATC’s 45 paid staff serving primarily as a support team.
Most of ATC’s momentum comes from its 31 trail clubs, some of which have their own offshoot chapters. They form a network of donors, supporters, and volunteers responsible for designated trail sections ranging from two miles to several hundred. Regional partnership committees—a mix of natural resource agency partners and club and community leaders—help ensure a holistic management strategy for the trail.
Julie Judkins, who leads two ATC community-based programs, emphasizes the importance of those committees. “From a volunteer perspective, it keeps our organization and the national scenic trails efforts very grassroots” and substantively involved in policymaking, she says. “From the community level, the committee includes a diverse makeup like town leaders, planners, businesses, and teachers.”
ATC spokesperson Javier Folgar says keeping the trail open is “like a three-legged stool with federal and state agencies, ATC clubs, and ATC headquarters. It sounds more organized than it is, though. A lot of it is just tradition. Volunteers have a real pride of ownership.”
Which is why clubs and their volunteers still bear the heaviest responsibility for all 2,175 ever- changing Appalachian Trail miles, from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia.
A Trip Back
While pride in the trail may remain unchanged, ATC’s approach to volunteer management and the maturing needs of the trail have shifted. As more people used the trail, says Startzell, ATC had to educate itself about reducing erosion and improving drainage.
“We made substantial investments in the early ’80s in trail skills training with our clubs and their volunteers, and that included everything from installing water bars to divert water and reduce erosion, digging drainage ditches, and a lot of log work,” he says. “Now, the tendency is rock work, because rocks last longer than logs, so ATC has added anywhere from 30 to 50 training programs in different regions along the trail on a full range of trail construction techniques.”
That can be sweaty, challenging work for a volunteer, which prompted ATC to dig up new opportunities to ease the load and strengthen volunteer recruitment and retention.
“What we’ve been finding, particularly in the last five to 10 years, is that people are more attracted to episodic volunteering, typically shorter-term volunteerism, than they once were,” Startzell says.
Busier lifestyles also drive ATC’s efforts to repackage volunteer opportunities. Startzell notes that ATC has long used one-week or season-long trail crew programs to attract non-club-affiliated volunteers, “but now—especially to attract younger folks—we have to design them so they can be done in a weekend or three days. The time may even come when we have to provide some kind of daycare if we hope to attract young families.” (See “Boots on the Ground,” page 52.)
ATC now also offers volunteer opportunities beyond trail construction and maintenance. Participants in its environmental-monitoring program keep tabs on leaf budding, air and water quality, visibility, and rare and endangered species. Training is generally minimal, so even children can get involved, which appeals to young families and “somebody who just wants to be in the outdoors for a day or two and who may never be drawn to digging in the dirt with trail crews,” says Startzell.
All 2,100 miles of the trail, as well as side trails, footbridges, signs, blazes, and shelters, are maintained by volunteers—indeed,the [Appalachian Trail] is said to be the largest volunteer-run undertaking on the planet. — Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods
Aligning new volunteer trends with current trail needs is the major challenge for ATC’s current CEO, Mark Wenger, who previously spent 30 years leading the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
“Many people think it’s technical skill sets we need,” Wenger says. “No, it’s being flexible and adaptable. It’s become a more fast-paced environment … so we’re asking club volunteers for flexibility in terms of how, when, and what we do and adaptability to understand that just because we did it this way, we may not always do it that way. That’s not necessarily easy, especially for people who are longtime volunteers.”
To that end, Wenger shares five tips for managing volunteers:
Go back to basics. “It’s very important to have a written framework, [even though] that seems old-fashioned,” he says. “It can be a few bullet points, but that sets the tone of the activity and gives people reference points.”
Rethink training. Provide training for both the volunteer event and follow-up reporting.
Give volunteers a chance to be heard—and listen. “I’ve gotten so many great ideas from the volunteers,” says Wenger. “I have to be out there with my staff and ensure that we learn to listen. That’s a skill set that doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but it’s amazing the buy-in you get and the cooperative feeling that you’re really a team.”
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Different clubs prefer different modes of communication. Some want more face time; others prefer an app, social media outreach, or a website. “It’s not one-size-fits-all,” says Wenger, warning that communication preferences may change as leaders do.
Choose partners that understand volunteerism. “It would be difficult for a nonprofit group to work with an official partner who may not have a volunteerism culture,” says Wenger. “To people like that, I say, ‘Get back to listening and put together an outline of what volunteers and employees each will do.’”
Two longtime ATC volunteers—John Hedrick, president of ATC’s largest club, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in Virginia, and Shelley Rose, president of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club—offer three more tips:
Treat volunteers as pseudo-staff. “Volunteers are an important part of organizations,” says Hedrick. “They’re even more important today, because budgets are being cut, and if groups want to maintain their same levels of service, they have to look outside of their staffs or organizations.”
Recognize volunteers’ work and reiterate its value. The power of a thank-you cannot be overstated. ATC’s multitiered recognition program includes volunteer pins.
Add fun, structure, and a big welcome. “You have to make people feel welcome and give them some structure and training, so they can later see what they’ve accomplished and want to do something else,” says Rose.