CATAWBA — With cicadas buzzing above their heads and a splash of a nearby stream providing the metronome to their march, two men document the details of a section of the Appalachian Trail in Craig County in hopes of earning the recognition they say it deserves.
They wake up early, prepare for a long day of hiking through the woods and traipse through a different stretch of the trail each day. These excursions are not for fun. This is business.
Jim Webb, volunteer trail supervisor with the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, and Conner McBane, invasive species coordinator for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, are conducting an in-depth inventory of various man-made features along the trail near Roanoke.
“It gives you a new appreciation for what is out here,” said McBane, who has hiked various sections of the trail. “I think it really shows all the work that all the volunteers have put in for decades and decades.”
The section the pair was studying last week stretches about 120 miles and holds shelters, bridges, campsites and parking lots.
The goal is to get a thorough documentation of what the section of trail in Southwest Virginia holds. McBane is studying an additional 280 miles in Virginia with the help of trail clubs that maintain those sections.
Their endeavor is part of a larger effort to assess the value of the 2,190-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail through 14 states as a whole and make it more competitive for federal funding through the National Parks Association.
Currently, the Appalachian Trail is valued at about $7 per square foot, which is based on mileage alone. For comparison, the Pacific Crest Trail in California, Oregon and Washington is valued at about $47 per square foot, McBane said.
The Appalachian Trail surveying project began in August 2015 and is expected to be completed by the end of the trail season this year.
“It’s an eye-opener,” Webb said. “I didn’t realize how many features we have on the trail until we started. That’s a lot of work. (The $7 per square foot figure) is not adequate. Just in one-seven-tenths of a mile, there were 200 rock steps.”
Webb estimated each rock step can be valued at about $300 each.
Keith Stegall is facilities manager for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and said four regions are conducting similar area surveys. Once all the data are submitted to national parks, the trail’s overall current replacement value will be calculated. Then, the various assets will be prioritized in terms of maintenance budget.
“We really do not know what we have until we get all the surveying done,” Stegall said.
Gary Werner, the executive director of the Partnership for the National Trail System, said the inventory such as the one taking place on the trail “needs to happen.”
“A lot of the volunteers who maintain the various trails are not necessarily interested in keeping records (of value),” he said. “The entire system relies heavily on volunteers. While that is appreciated, sometimes it can be taken for granted.”
McBane said that until an updated value can be placed on the trail, man-made structures must serve in and of themselves as a testament to thousands of hours of volunteer effort.
“People step over things on the trail and they don’t even know what they are stepping over,” he said. “An inventory of this scale has never been done. That’s why we are doing this.”