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A coordinated Appalachian Trail environmental monitoring program provides an unprecedented opportunity to track the condition of priority natural resources along 2,100 miles of green space.

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Studying the condition of natural resources along the Appalachian Trail

"Appalachian Trail Vital Signs," National Park Service Northeast Region (November 2005 )

photo of hiker and expanse of wilderness

Along the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail corridor


The purpose of this document is to present the list of Appalachian Trail Vital Signs and determine what existing information from ongoing monitoring programs could be used and interpreted for the Appalachian Trail. For years, managers and scientists have sought a way to characterize and determine trends in the condition of parks and other protected areas in order to assess the efficacy of management practices and restoration efforts, and to provide early warning of impending threats.

The challenge of protecting and managing a park’s natural resources requires a multiagency, ecosystem approach because most parks are open systems, with many threats, such as air and water pollution and invasive species, originating outside of park boundaries. Moreover, an ecosystem approach is needed because no single spatial or temporal scale is appropriate for all system components and processes.

The appropriate scale for understanding and effectively managing a resource might range spatially from site-specific to regional, and might vary temporally from sub-annual to decadal or more. In some cases a regional, national or international effort may be required to understand and manage the resource. National parks are part of larger ecosystems and must be managed in that context.

The National Park Service initiated a new “Vital Signs” monitoring program in 1998 to develop longterm monitoring of natural resources within 270 units of the national park system. These 270 units were organized into 32 Networks to share staff and design and implement long-term ecological monitoring. The AT is identified as a natural resource park and included in the NPS Inventory and Monitoring program (I&M).

The Appalachian Trail crosses 14 states, six NPS 30 Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) affiliated Trail Clubs, and five I&M networks. The geographic extent, number of partner agencies, and unique management structure of the AT requires an extensive amount of coordination to plan and design a program to monitor ecological changes along the AT. The results from such a large scale, standardized monitoring effort would provide the much needed information to better manage the AT’s natural resources as well as to better understand and track the condition of ecological systems along the eastern United States.

Vital signs are defined as a subset of physical, chemical, and biological elements and processes of park ecosystems that are selected to represent the overall health or condition of park resources, known or hypothesized effects of stressors, or elements that have important human values. This report documents the progress of the five Appalachian Trail Networks in selecting Vital Signs for the AT.

Planning for monitoring is one of the most important components in designing a successful, sustainable program. Oakley et al. (2003) liken the design of a monitoring program to getting a tattoo; “…you want to get it right the first time because making major changes later can be messy and painful.” To avoid painful changes to programs in the future, the I&M Vital Signs Program has developed a three-phase planning approach that each Network must complete prior to implementing any new monitoring programs.

Briefly, the process is as follows;

Phase 1 - define monitoring goals and objectives; begin the process of identifying, evaluating and synthesizing existing data; develop draft conceptual models; and complete other background work;

Phase 2 - prioritize and select vital signs and develop specific monitoring objectives for each park and the network; and,

Phase 3 - develop detailed plans to implement monitoring, including the development of sampling protocols, a statistical sampling design, a plan for data management and analysis, and expectations for reports and other presentation of results.

Natural resource monitoring provides site-specific information needed to identify and understand changes in complex, variable, and imperfectly understood natural systems and to provide insight into whether observed changes are within natural levels of variability or indicate undesirable human influence. Thus, monitoring provides a basis for identifying and understanding meaningful change in natural systems characterized by complexity, variability, and non-linear responses. Monitoring results can be used to identify threatened or impaired resources and initiate or change management practices. Understanding the dynamic nature of park ecosystems and the consequences of human activities is essential for management decisionmaking designed to maintain, enhance, or restore the ecological integrity of park ecosystems and to avoid, minimize, or mitigate ecological threats to these systems.

The intent of the NPS vital signs monitoring program is to track a subset of park resources and processes, representing significant indicators of ecological condition. Vital Signs must be a useful subset of the total suite of natural resources that park managers are directed to preserve “unimpaired for future generations,” including water, air, geological resources, plants and animals, and the various ecological, biological, and physical processes that act on these resources. By choosing a meaningful subset of ecological resources, NPS recognizes that tracking everything is neither possible nor desirable. In situations where natural areas have been so highly altered that physical and biological processes no longer operate (e.g., control of fires or floods in developed areas), information obtained through monitoring can help managers understand how to develop the most effective approach to restoration or, in cases where restoration is impossible, ecologically sound management.

The broad-based, scientifically sound information obtained through natural resource monitoring will have multiple applications for management decisionmaking, research, education, and promoting public understanding of park resources.

Planning for ecological monitoring on the AT is the most important step in laying a strong foundation for an AT ecological monitoring program. Presently, many initiatives related in some way to monitoring are ongoing. AT staff have initiated the process of developing a resource management plan, and the ATC recently started an Appalachian Trail Environmental Monitoring Initiative. The USDA Forest Service and NPS prototype parks that encompass parts of the AT are also involved in long-term ecological monitoring and many other groups are conducting biological inventories and monitoring programs along or adjacent to the AT. Coordinating these efforts and developing a framework that defines the roles of the many AT constituencies in ecological monitoring is a vital, early step in the planning process.

The AT Networks convened a meeting, 13-14 October 2004, where all five I&M Networks, AT staff, ATC staff, the regional air quality specialist, and the director of the I&M program met to discuss the coordination and direction of the AT Vital Signs program. Prior to the meeting, the Northeast Temperate, National Capital Region, and the Appalachian Highlands networks completed Phase II of the Inventory and Monitoring process and had therefore selected vital signs for monitoring. The vital signs from these three networks were compiled and summarized to provide a starting point for selecting AT Vital Signs (Table 1). Because of the substantial overlap among the three networks that had already prioritized vital signs, the group thought that this list was comprehensive and appropriate for the AT. It was decided that the group would rank the comprehensive list of vital signs to select the highest priority vital signs for the AT (Table 2). The prioritized list would then provide the foundation to focus the summary of existing information related to each selected vital sign. This document presents a summary of the existing information from ongoing monitoring programs that cover most of the selected Appalachian Trail Vital Signs. Water quality is an important AT vital sign and summarizing existing water quality information is a necessary step in designing a monitoring program but beyond the scope of this document.

A coordinated, unified, AT environmental monitoring program provides an unprecedented opportunity to track the condition of priority natural resources along over 2,100 miles of green space from Frasier Fir forests in the south to Balsam Fir forests in the north. A well designed and executed AT monitoring program can provide a unifying principle and a means of linking and strengthen existing programs though the interpretation of existing data in relation to the AT. This report is a step in this process where specific monitoring vital signs are identified and available information is summarized, providing a starting point to focus the development of the AT Vital Signs Program.

This excerpt is from Department of Conservation and Recreation "Trails Guidelines and Best Practices Manual," Jauary 2010

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