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Volunteers help relocate section of Appalachian Trail

Crews of volunteers have been hard at work this fall building a new path for the Appalachian Trail in Carbon County.

Volunteers with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s mid-Atlantic Trail crew are cutting a new, permanent path for the trail after it was relocated during remediation work for the Palmerton Zinc Pile.

The new path will provide better views for hikers and hopefully less maintenance for local trail clubs.

“The way we like to think of it is — it’s a relocation, but it’s going to be a better trail when it’s done,” said Jim Foster of the Keystone Trails Association.

The Appalachian Trail is maintained by local trail clubs, with oversight from ATC and the National Park Service.

As remediation work on the zinc pile took place, ATC and NPS developed a plan for a permanent trail stretching between Blue Mountain Ski Area and Lehigh Furnace Gap, where Ashfield/Blue Mountain Road crosses the trail.

During the remediation, the trail was moved to a fire road slightly off the ridge. The project will eventually relocate it back into a more permanent location within the corridor owned by the National Park Service.

So how often is the Appalachian Trail moved? Pretty often, but it’s often only a few feet based on property lines, or an effort to improve drainage.

“Every year, some of the trail gets moved,” said Bob Sickley of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “It may only be one small piece, but relocations do happen pretty regularly.”

This is a pretty significant alteration — and it’s unique because there is dedicated Superfund money from cleaning up the zinc plant.

The EPA used money from the current owner of the Superfund site, a division of CBS, to provide funding to ATC and NPS to get a professional trail builder — basically an architect — for the new section.

Volunteer trail crews will perform most of the heavy lifting.

Since last month, crews of volunteers have been coming to the area six at a time to split rocks, remove ground cover and construct a permanent trail.

Trail crew leader Jerry Kyle said when his crew makes a trail they aim at having the stone features last for about 50 years. Kyle said the existing trail was temporary, and rather than replace it, they want to build something more sustainable.

“You want the trail you build to be safe, simple, sustainable,” he said.

The work doesn’t progress fast by any stretch. After two and a half weeks, they had completed about 300 feet of trail.

But they are operating mostly by hand and teamwork. Trail crew members regularly volunteer to return because they like the tangible work that they get done with their hands, and the camaraderie of working on the trail crew.

“It just gets into your blood, and you love it. You go home and you have to live in a box again, and deal with all that other stuff and you think, ‘Damn, I want to be out on the mountain crushing rock,’ ” said Nancy Mooney, a Virginia native.

The Appalachian trail has established that the standard for the trail is a path approximately 18 to 24 inches wide, versus the old trail bed where the trail will be relocated from.

It should provide even better views than the current section.

“It will be more scenic, it will go to places that we’re fairly confident that vegetation won’t screen out views,” Sickley said.

Once the trail is completed, it will become the responsibility of the local maintaining trail club, which in this case is Keystone Trails Association. A few years ago, a group known as the Philadelphia Hiking Club decided they could no longer care for the trail.

KTA stepped up, forming a local group of about 30 volunteers who have pledged to maintain the trail.

“We’re very grateful for the amount of support we’ve gotten from the volunteers in the Lehigh Valley area, and we think it’s been very successful,” Foster said.

The new section of trail won’t open until 2019 at the earliest. After that, work will move to the other side of the Lehigh Gap.

For more information about the trail crew, look up “ATC mid-Atlantic trail crew.” For more information about the local maintaining club, Keystone Trails Association, visit https://www.kta-hike.org.

Trail crew members remove topsoil for the new trail because it is susceptible to erosion. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS
Volunteers with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Mid-Atlantic Trail Crew work together to carry a rock which will be used as a step along a relocated section of trail near Palmerton. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS
Trail crew leader Jerry Kyle, right, directs volunteers as they put the rock they carried into place as a step along the new section of trail.