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Preservationists are trying to restore national park trails destroyed by the weather

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Intense rainfall in the Northeast in recent weeks has wiped out roads and bridges. The storms have also taken a toll on hiking trails. Many were already under pressure from a surge in use. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman takes us to the White Mountains, where efforts are underway to preserve a popular trail.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: Most days, you can pull into the Franconia Ridge trailhead parking lot, look up and see alpine peaks well above tree line, but not this day with all the haze in the air.

ALEX DELUCIA: That's the wildfire smoke from Canada. Yeah, really wild.

BOOKMAN: This is Alex DeLucia. He's with the Appalachian Mountain Club. It's one of the many groups that cares for and about the White Mountains. This national forest draws millions of visitors annually to hike, fish, ski and camp. The Franconia Loop is one of its calling cards.

DELUCIA: The Franconia Loop Trail is rated some - the best loop hike in the country, or it's been featured in Backpacker Magazine. I mean, this - it is phenomenal.

BOOKMAN: The trail was established 200 years ago. But beginning with Indigenous people, humans have been visiting these woods for thousands of years. Today, the loop is around 9 miles in total. It crosses streams and climbs peaks and, with no smoke, offers views for days. Now, on a busy weekend, as many as a thousand hikers come here. DeLucia says they leave their mark.

DELUCIA: You know, and then we add, you know, the climate-related, you know, weather impacts that are more frequent and more severe. And it's like this perfect storm in the Whites that we're trying to constantly battle.

BOOKMAN: Trail systems and national parks around the country are facing these same dual pressures, crowds and changing weather. Visits to national parks have doubled in the past 50 years to more than 300 million people annually.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BOOKMAN: The results are evident here, heading up the ridge, exposed rocks in the middle of the path, muddy sections and washouts from recent storms.

ANNIE DUMAIS: It had water running down the middle of it and kind of washing away material.

BOOKMAN: This is Annie Dumais. She's on one of the trail crews that's spending the next four summers rebuilding every foot of this hillside. The federal government, along with private foundations, the World Trails Network and the AMC, are spending about $1.8 million to make this path more resilient.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

DUMAIS: So we are both widening the trail and hardening the trail.

BOOKMAN: Dumais is pounding crushed stone with a hammer. She's laying in a wider, more gradual set of stone stairs than what was here before. Trail design and building is evolving. It has to.

DELUCIA: Long gone are the days of just, like, rolling rocks around in the woods for fun. It's like, this is trade work now.

BOOKMAN: Other stretches of this trail are being completely repositioned to follow natural contours. This helps with drainage. Back in the day, trails were often about getting from the base to the top as fast as possible, but then they become rivers during a big storm.

DUMAIS: Sustainable trails tend to be longer because they switch back and forth a lot. They don't shoot straight up the mountain.

BOOKMAN: With no intervention, the trail will continue to deteriorate, meaning people will head off trail, stomping on plants to get up the mountain. Experts from the Forest Service say they need to protect this delicate ecosystem.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER RUMBLING)

BOOKMAN: Like it has all summer, this day hike didn't escape without a passing thunderstorm.

DUMAIS: A lot of feet have tread this path.

BOOKMAN: As the dirt turns to mud, Annie Dumais doesn't flinch. She's down on all fours, positioning stones one by one.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAINFALL)

DUMAIS: So it feels really cool to be hopefully, like, just investing a lot of my own energy and my crewmates' energy into something that will last that long. It's cool.

BOOKMAN: Not every trail is lucky enough to have caretakers like Dumais. There's no pile of money for this kind of work. It takes people to recognize the threat and act to preserve the trail's beauty. For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in the White Mountains.

(SOUNDBITE OF M83 SONG, "DECEIVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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