Max Patch, a prized mountain bald on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail on the North Carolina/Tennessee border, has been violated.
Vandals downed barbed wire fences and knocked over U.S. Forest Service posts and signs. They've driven up the face of the bald in ATVs, their tires leaving hollowed out ruts. They've added insult to injury by performing “doughnuts,” going round and round in their vehicles to gouge furrows in the muddy ground.
Volunteers from local trail-maintaining clubs take care of the Appalachian Trail, which meanders 2,185 miles from Georgia to Maine. A Carolina Mountain Club maintenance volunteer discovered the destruction in late December 2012. Dwayne Stutzman, one of three volunteers who adopted this A.T. section, says, "In almost 20 years as a volunteer A. T. maintainer at Max Patch, I've never seen such brazen, senseless vandalism. This is the first time we’ve had a bad situation up there. The ruts were almost five inches deep, with lots of mud.”
Mr. Stutzman, who retired as an outdoor recreational planner for the North Carolina State Park System, and a co-maintainer, David Kendall, who lives near Max Patch, rebuilt the fences and fixed the step-over stile. The vandals on their machines tore down their work, ignoring Carsonite posts clearly stating "no motorized vehicles beyond this point."
A Fantastic View As Payoff For The Hike
The 360-degree panoramic views from Max Patch, which is said to have gotten its name from a farmer who cleared it in the 1870s, are glorious. From the top on a clear day you can see west to Mt. Cammerer and Mt. Sterling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Balsam Range to the east. Appalachian Trail hikers consider Max Patch one of the highlights of their journey and a spot they'll remember, long after they’ve forgotten the details of most of their adventure. You can see the whole world from up here.
Visitors walk the steep quarter-mile up to the bald to exercise their dogs, fly kites, picnic, and just hang out. It might be the perfect place to propose and even get married.
For Sarah Davis, a lawyer in private practice who's married to Mr. Stutzman, it's personal. "I have not seen the tranquility violated in such a way since the 1980s. They tore out barriers, went past signs that say no ATV. It's just wanton destruction."
Ms. Davis has lived in Western North Carolina since 1975. Her father, Jack Davis, was one of two Carolina Mountain Club activists who worked on getting the US Forest Service to buy Max Patch. The bald had been a grazing area since the 1800s. Later it was also used as a landing strip for small planes. Until the early 1980s, Max Patch was privately owned and in danger of becoming a ski development.
At the time, the A.T. was on a nearby road. "Jack was determined to get the trail built. After the Forest Service flagged the route, they worked on it all winter long, through snow and freezing rain."
The Forest Service bought the 392 acres and, in 1984, the Appalachian Trail was relocated to go over the top of Max Patch. If the area was left alone, trees would fill the field and cut out the views. Now the Forest Service manages the bald by mowing and prescribed fires.
"The horseback rider community had used the area for years," Ms. Davis recalls. "When the trail was built across Max Patch, we went through a very long protracted process to make it clear that the top of the bald was off limits to horses and wagons. We provided other alternatives for them to ride in the area. The first year, it was difficult to keep horses off the top. With the work of Carolina Mountain Club, Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Forest Service, the damage from the horses went away."
Searching For Reasons
Why would ATV riders do this?
According to Mr. Stutzman and Ms. Davis, the answer is simple. Max Patch is a beautiful place. It's a challenge to ride up there in muddy conditions. It's joy riding. People are doing it for fun. They wanted to be up there and they didn't care how they got up there.
Tina Tilley, Appalachian District Ranger of Pisgah National Forest Service, thinks that the damage is severe enough that it might be considered a felony. The trail maintainers are hopeful that the publicity will deter further vandalism.
Comments in the local press can be summed up as follows: "I hope they catch the vandals and make them repair all the damage they have caused. Max Patch is a beautiful family hike!"
Others are angrier: "As if there aren't enough roads and streets to drive on, as if unpaid volunteers aren't already swamped with work, as if Forest Service employees who have survived periodic layoffs, wage reductions, budget eliminations had plenty of funds to fix such damage and keep replacing fences and signs."
The land need helps to heal itself. Andrew Downs, Trail Resources Manager for the Southern Region of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, is working with various groups to remediate the problem. The Forest Service will install boulders at the start of the access trail to block off any vehicles from going up the bald. Native plants will be added to soften the effect. Maybe they'll add a split rail fence and redesign the information kiosk. The Forest Service wants to move fast on this repair work.
The Carolina Mountain Club has offered to help remediate the damage. So has the local ATV club. "These vandals were probably not part of any organized group. The ATV clubs are self-policing," Mr. Stutzman says. Most people who ride 4-wheel drive are fine folks."
How to get to Max Patch
From the North Carolina/Tennessee border, take I-40 to exit 7 (Harmon Den). Turn right at the exit and follow Cold Spring Creek Rd. for 6.7 miles. Stay left and on the main gravel road. Turn left on SR 1182 and drive for less than 2 miles to the Max Patch parking area.