The Human Aspect of Conservation: Interview with Laura Belleville of ATC

Ever wondered what it would be like to have a career in trail conservation? Laura Belleville of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is the Director of Conservation for the long 2,180 miles of winding trails, and she can tell you it’s not the easiest job – but one of the most rewarding.

James Kennedy: What is it like directing conservation for such a long trail?

Laura Belleville: My responsibilities are supporting staff – both on the ground and in the office – with lots of management. The trail runs through many jurisdictions (federal and state) and each one we traverse through we have to subscribe to the laws that the land owners have in place. This can mean working on really specific issues on the ground with the trail itself, or with broader policies that can affect unprotected land.

An example of something we are trying to work on right now is influencing some new wind power development projects. The wind towers used to be around 200 to 250 feet high, and now they can up to 500. The lights that go into the towers can damage the hiker experience. What we do is try our best to influence the legislation on some of the cumulative impacts, such as getting the forest service to consider the possibility of working with new lights that only blink when there is a plane directly in the area. We also have a presence in DC working at getting the public to know and understand how important the trails are.

JK: Some people say that helping with conservation is their way of giving back to the places they love. Is it the same story for you?

LB:  I’ve worked in conservation my whole career. I was professionally intrigued with the ATC because of the conservation legacy that it holds.My inspiration has been about giving back the whole time, and the fact that the trail was conceived by Benton MacKaye – and his idea that the rural communities that the trail goes through should be the ones to help maintain it – is what drew me to it. The human aspect makes the entire project really interesting. They are all connected to these various landscapes and communities because they hike it. There are agencies that help run the place, but they don’t have the same capacity to work as much as the volunteers.

JK: I’ve heard it can be hard getting the younger generations involved with the every day trail work – what would you say the biggest challenge to that is?

LB: I have two kids, and they are still pretty young, but I’m watching them reach the age where there is so much opportunity right at their finger tips. Part of the problem might be solved by giving out more information about the trails, but I think fundamentally the problem is that the youth have lost touch with the outdoors. One of the most important things we can do for our kids is to get them out from behind the screens and into the outdoors. It needs to be something that they want to do.

I think fundamentally the problem is that the youth have lost touch with the outdoors

A lot of organizations and civic groups have an ebb and flow of volunteerism. Our volunteers are mostly older or retired. They grew up back in a time where giving back was just expected, and they chose to help the AT. The idea that they could help out with something that was akin to a community was a project they could latch on to. Of course, these dedicated volunteers have been around for 20 plus years, so that has some presented it’s own barriers. We’ve started getting younger people around them to show the older volunteers where the youth are coming from so that hopefully they wont run away screaming.

The family is another factor that we are starting to really reach out to. We have family trail days and programs that are family oriented. Often times the parents start to lose touch with the outdoors, or they just run out of time to plan trips, and that filters in to their kids as well. Backpacking and camping becomes a foreign concept to them.

A program that we’re excited about is the Trail To Every Classroom Program which gets teachers really involved with the AT, and provides them with information and opportunities to show their classes the outdoors in a learning environment. This is a great way to get the kids outside. There is always the possibility of the trails suddenly getting too much use, but we don’t have to worry about that for now. In terms of getting youth outdoors I don’t think there’s enough that we could do right now to get them out there on their own terms. I think it’s very important. They are the future stewards of not just the Appalachian Trail, but all of our public trails and lands.

By James Kennedy