The setting is southeastern New York State along a section of the revered Appalachian Trail. This popular trail has a proud history of extremely cordial relations between private landowners, managers of public holdings, and individuals and groups who find enjoyment in hiking. It should serve as a model of cooperation in the truly American way.
Out of the kindness of the hearts of the various property holders, hikers have been able to traverse the 2,144 miles from northern Georgia to Mount Katahkin in northern Maine. The unique blend of a wide variety of natural and cultural elements provides infinite opportunities to enjoy nature, while affording conveniences that enable individuals' basic needs to be satisfied. Obviously, the intention was never to have the trail in a totally wild state.
What has transpired in connection with the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement Graymoor property near Garrison raises questions as to just what the NPS (National Park Service) has in mind. The Friars own 400 acres, with a mile of the trail running through a 58-acre Service easement. Their ministries include a shelter for homeless men, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, an AIDS ministry, and a retreat center.
The institution was founded in 1898 and since 1923, beginning with a handshake agreement, has allowed the Appalachian Trail to run through their property. The Franciscans have provided meals, showers, and a place to stay for over 400 hikers a year, free of charge. The Friars say they have had many rewarding experiences, meeting many interesting people with all kinds of stories.
Things apparently were going too smoothly. Back came NPS in 2000 demanding 20 more acres, threatening to take this land by eminent domain. They claimed that since the trail corridor is only 50 feet wide in some spots it is too close to the outside world. The disdain of the Service for the distasteful elements is well known.
The Franciscans made it clear that they could not afford to give up any more of their land. Not only did they need it to maintain the infrastructure, but such a concession would prevent them from carrying out essential future expansion. They stated that they were unwilling to give up what they call their heritage, their patrimony.
All of this has the taint of so many governmental power grabs and disregard for private property rights, and of course the insatiable appetites. It used to be that people could do anything with their property that they wanted, as long as it did not have a significant adverse effect on neighbors or public interests. In this age, however, one must be on the lookout for ultra-liberal interpretations of "significant." In respect to Graymoor, what is the problem?
The Franciscans were supported and given assistance by numerous state and national political figures and private organizations. NPS has retreated, but the Fathers feel that it is just a matter of time before they attack again. One of the Fathers was quoted as saying that they are like a weekend guest who claims squatter's rights on Monday morning. Another said that when they come up with their next agreement, which supposedly will be acceptable to all, he hopes the devil does not show up in the details.
Tracing the route of the Appalachian Trail through New York State might provide some clues as to where the next new battleground might be. It crosses from New Jersey in close proximity to the intensely developed Upper Greenwood Lake. Then it proceeds by Mt. St. Peter Ski Area and through the somewhat wild parts of Sterling Forest. It then intersects busy little I-87, goes through popular Bear Mountain-Harriman Park and necessarily crosses the heavily traveled Palisades Interstate parkway. From there it makes it across the Hudson River on the not very rustic Bear Mountain Bridge. On to Route 9, through the village of Gilbert and then Fahnstock State park, across I-84, through West Pawling and then Hurd Corners, where it has busy U. S. Route 22 to contend with, and thence into Massachusetts.
Indeed, in this wide range of settings, many are undoubtedly non-conforming or unacceptable by NPS standards. Be on guard. Lord knows what the Service has in mind. And this is only New York State. It is a long ways from Georgia to Maine.
It is unfortunate that big brother is trying to rewrite the meaning of a great trail that has such a fine tradition. Maybe a gale will prevail and blow all this away.
Wildlife biologist and author
Altamont, New York
Email Nate Dickinson: firstname.lastname@example.org