Overuse of Appalachian Trail raising conservation concerns for Roanoke Valley leaders

Sen. Kaine and local leaders talk maintenance and sustainable funding for outdoor amenities

ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. – The Roanoke Valley has marketed itself as an outdoor destination, from biking to kayaking to hiking.

Wednesday afternoon, Senator Tim Kaine joined the Roanoke Regional Partnership and local leaders to discuss how to further that effort to grow the economy and attract jobs.

“I want to make sure that we’re doing what we can at the federal level,” said Kaine.

But the renewed push raises concerns for local conservationists: How do they maintain those outdoor amenities without turning visitors away?

The Appalachian Trail saw a surge of hikers during COVID-19 lockdowns, and not just on weekends.

“Any place on the trail where you can do like a two to four-mile hike to a beautiful vista was suddenly overflowing parking lots,” said Kathryn Herndon-Powell, the Central Virginia Regional Manager of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

She said this year’s just as busy overall and the burden of maintaining the trail falls on volunteers.

While plans to improve other amenities like Explore Park and rail trails are underway, federal funding for the AT is tight. The National Park Service has more than $11.9 billion in deferred maintenance.

“We have to figure out ways may be to spread out visitation more throughout other times of the year and have appropriate staff and maintenance budgets to maintain these assets,” said Kaine. “But there has to be sustainable funding too and that’s just going to be on our shoulders to do it.”

Finding a sustainable way to maintain the AT for hikers like Brian Hall.

“I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was treated for that over 2 years and so that’s in remission. But I’m 60 years old and I’m retired and none of us really know how long we’ve got, so you’ve got to do things while you can,” said Hall.

Leaders said getting a lump sum of federal money to start a sustainable endowment fund specifically set aside for trail maintenance would be beneficial.

They also talked about the importance of increasing diversity among people who use outdoor amenities.

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