LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF LONG-DISTANCE HIKING PERMITS
(My Unnecessarily Philosophical Exploration of America's Approach to Stewardship)
Words and Images by Taylor ”Haiku” Bell
"The mountains are calling, and I must go online to enter the JMT permit lottery."
If there's anything that we love in America more than our freedom, it's making a nice, well-timed joke about our freedom. After all, what are we free from? What are we free to do? Are some people freer than others? How many Kid Rock songs do we have to endure before we understand what our freedom truly entails and how much it truly costs?!
It might sound unorthodox, but I think a perfect example where a lot of concepts and approaches to freedom and civil liberty are being played out is on two of this country's most beloved long-distance hiking trails: the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail (referred to as the PCT and AT from here on out).
In short, the PCT requires a permit to hike, and the AT effectively does not. And although, to prevent crowding, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) still recommends that anyone wishing to hike the AT register on this website; there is no real known or enforced limit on the number of people who can hike.
(The ATC recommends no more than 50 hikers start per day)
How did these two trails arrive at such divergent forms of administration? On one trail, the number of hikers is essentially regulated, while the other has been left to largely regulate itself. On the surface, I'm reminded of the differences in laissez-faire and dirigiste economics. We either put our trust in each other, or we put our trust in certain agencies. Regardless, you've gotta do a trust fall. Cross those arms and hope those weird theater kids will catch you.
But, in terms of public recreation, which approach to freedom works better, or are they both simply failing in different ways? Does freedom mean the best trail experience possible for some people, or does it simply mean a trail experience for everyone? This article tries to make understanding these principles as simple as possible and to provide a bit of context to anyone who wishes to know more about these processes. And I think anyone who ever has or will do a thru hike should always consider what facilitates such a huge experience.
One of my favorite trail town and trail magic mottoes is "think of the hiker behind you." And I think that understanding how to keep these trails sustainably hike-able ensures that all of the hikers behind us will be able to have just as lovely an experience as we've had.
(credit: @stray_hiker & @hiker_royalty)
CONSERVATION AND UTILITARIANISM
Although the PCT is chiefly administered by the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), Scott Wilkinson, who is Content Development Director at the PCTA, makes an important distinction: "There is a very common misperception that PCTA makes permit decisions. We actually don't make any of those decisions—the USDA Forest Service makes them. We simply administer the permits on behalf of the Forest Service." In other words, even though you get your permits from the PCTA, the decision to implement permits, and how many are issued, was made by the USDA Forest Service. And attempting to contact them for a statement on their reasoning behind those choices (however evident) is like trying to navigate a certain circle of hell.
On the other hand, The AT is chiefly administered by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). Morgan Sommerville, who is director of visitor use at the ATC puts it like this: "A hiking permit goes against AT management philosophy (#6 on page 7), and because there are so many entrance points along the AT, it appears unenforceable." Thus, although attempts to spread out and mitigate crowds are made, there is no truly enforced method for either of those things on the AT.
Furthermore, as stated previously, the number of hikers registering on ATCamp for 2022 is recommended to be no more than 50 a day. Still, you'll see in that graph above that many days have already passed that limit in 2022. On top of this, Sommerville estimates that "in previous, non-Covid years, it appears that about 75-80% of NOBO thrus used ATCamp." And so, it seems like the numbers are well above the recommended averages. I don't really have a comment on that because I haven't been out to see what those kinds of numbers actually look like. This article is more concerned with whether that lack of regulation is sustainable or not. Ultimately we should be asking: what does it mean for future thru hikers?
While both agencies who manage these trails cite environmental impact, conservation, and public use as the driving force behind their policies, at some point, it becomes undeniable that a fundamental discrepancy–a philosophical dichotomy–is occurring here; In order to maximize public enjoyment of these trails, for the greatest number of people, these agencies have taken two completely different approaches to regulating the trail experience. And what's more, this feels like a perfect embodiment of the American dichotomy of liberty and a kind of perfect example of how governing bodies potentially apply utilitarian ethics in policy. I didn't take debate in high school, though, so sorry if this comes off as obvious or redundant to those of y'all who did.
Regardless, just to make sure we're all on the same page, here is a definition. According to Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism is defined as: "the greatest good for the greatest number of people." And yes, I think it is fair to say that this principle is what underscores both the ATC and PCTA's approaches to stewardship. They would both like to maximize the enjoyment of the trail for the greatest number of people while also attempting to preserve the trail so that future hikers can experience that same enjoyment. A noble pursuit–one might even dare to say necessary.
I think that this is as good an approach to managing a trail as any. Everyone deserves equal access to the outdoors, and utilitarianism seems like the best way to facilitate a closeness to that. But maybe that existentialism class I took in college didn't open my mind as much as I was hoping it would, and there is some other approach that I'm staring straight through. Regardless, when it comes to the outdoors, I think that freedom means an abundance of public lands and as much access to those public lands as sustainably possible. And in the arena of hiking, both agencies certainly angle towards that, although at completely different degrees.
(credit: @disco_steww [me [the author]])
TELEOLOGY AND DEONTOLOGY
There are naturally going to be different approaches to achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Remember all those job applications you used to fill out for cashier positions at corporate grocery store chains? And they'd ask stuff like: are you more concerned with doing one thing well, or doing as many things as possible as quickly as possible? And you'd have to pretend that, at 17 years old, you'd performed enough self-analysis and introspection to really know something like that. Furthermore, you would also pretend that something like that could ever be a static personality trait in the first place?! I didn't know I needed to have really digested and understood Kant to push some carts around, but dang, okay, Target, set the bar high, I guess.
Anyways that's kind of the difference between teleology and deontology—which are two different ways to achieve the greatest good. In a simplified sense, a teleological approach to stewardship is driven by results. Teleology would say that the PCTA and ATC should do whatever is in their power to achieve that greatest good. This becomes an argument for permits since a potential infringement on "civil liberties" is a necessary means to justify the greatest good. It would make the argument that limiting the access of a certain number of people is necessary for keeping the trail "good."
A deontological approach says the opposite. Deontology would argue that the ends aren't always justified by the means, that the greatest good isn't worth achieving if too many of society's values are transgressed in the process. I don't necessarily see either the ATC or the PCTA as being completely deontological in their administrations, as I think that the idea of "civil liberties" being transgressed by permits is a slippery slope, and conservation efforts have always run pretty antithetical to this country's ideas of freedom, free enterprise, and free recreation anyways. You know? There is no tangible end, no actual "greatest good" to achieve if nothing is ultimately conserved. Nobody is having a "good" experience of a trail that is completely trampled, trashed, overcrowded, and on fire. Can people be trusted to collectively prevent all those things from happening? I don't know. I'm skeptical though since Smokey the Bear doesn't seem to have had quite the impact the Forest Service or NPS would've hoped for (although their own mismanagement policies are also a topic for another day, this meme comes close to speaking to the complexities of the problem).
(credit: u/nexus_galaxy on reddit)
The ATC comes closer to a deontological approach in their administration of the AT as, to a certain degree, they try to leave hikers to regulate it themselves. The previously referred National Park Service's management philosophy (refer specifically to page 11, number 6) states that they want as little regulation as possible. But, in the end, there are still permits required in the National Park sections of the AT. Also, if you'll recall, the Forest Service closed Max Patch to camping for two years after the number of visitors to the area failed to regulate itself. So it's deontology until deontology doesn't work, I guess. Hopefully, this is making sense.
IT'S JUST A NUMBERS GAME, MAN
Let's imagine something completely ridiculous: What if the entire Pacific Crest Trail corridor was totally closed to public access–except for ONE PERSON. That's right, imagine that each year the PCTA & USDA Forest Service issued one, single, coveted permit, for one, single lucky-ass jabroni mofo to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, and everything within miles of the trail in any direction was completely closed to everybody for every reason. What would happen? Well, a lot of things, maybe. Secret auctions, agency infighting, lottery algorithm manipulations on a scale we haven't seen since McDonald's Monopoly, outdoor social media influencer implosions, etc., etc. But ultimately, I don't think that anyone could really, in good faith, argue that this would be an example of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It would probably be a really really great hike for that one person, but what purpose would it serve if nobody else was getting to experience or enjoy it? Especially when it is within our means to allow more people to enjoy those spaces without destroying them.
At a certain point, however, it becomes undeniable that too many people on a trail will diminish the "good-ness" of it. What's that number? I have no idea. I've never been much for keeping the gate. But, given that the PCTA issues 50 permits a day during the traditional hiking season, and the ATC suggests that no more than 50 people a day start during the high season, I guess the arbitrary number is 50? I thought it might help to visualize that idea. This graph is an entirely theoretical representation of that principle.
The reason behind these seemingly artificial impositions is, of course, to diminish the impact that we have on the land, the trail, and the towns we pass through. Sommerville with the ATC says that they suggest a limit of 50 hikers per day because "that is the AT campsite and shelter capacity for each of three adjacent eight-mile sections of the AT approach Trail and AT, starting at Amicalola Falls State Park and going to Gooch Gap." And this makes teleological sense to me. After all, if the trail was designed to accommodate that number, then traditional problems related to overcrowding can be avoided. Although, on the other hand, if you've ever seen some of those privys on the southern half of the AT, or if you ventured 20 yards in any direction from Deep Creek Hot Springs on the PCT, you know how arbitrary 49 can be in some places, baby.
Wilkinson at the PCTA is also optimistic about the number 50. "Anecdotally, I can say that it seems conditions on the trail have improved in the past few years—possibly a result of permit numbers, but also a result of everyone (including us) really focusing on Leave No Trace education." He also raises a good point about what LNT education can potentially do: "As LNT education and awareness goes up, impact goes down—possibly increasing the capacity of the trail (whatever that capacity is)." It's an interesting thought. It's always cool to get more people out there when it's possible.
SO WHICH APPROACH WORKS?
It's a hard pill to swallow, but it seems to me that America's hiking trails will probably always require a certain amount of regulation. When it comes to the outdoors, a teleological approach seems to be the way forward if we truly want the greatest good for the greatest number. Permits are, in a general sense, always exclusive. And the debate about privilege and access to those permits is definitely something else worth exploring. But for the time being, they feel quite necessary. Although, if what Wilkinson says about "everyone (including the PCTA) really focusing on Leave No Trace education" indeed diminishes impact on the PCT, then it's possible to imagine that, one day, trails would regulate themselves if everybody was educated enough in how to keep them sustainable. And until then, Wilkinson is also optimistic about the permit process itself. "We don't view the permit system as a problem to be addressed—more like a work in progress," he says, which echoes the idea of education increasing potential access along the PCT.
In regards to the piecemeal approach to permits on the AT, Sommerville says this, "Currently, permits are required for three sections of the AT. Those were decisions made independently by those agencies. In the case of the Smokies, their permit system began in the '70s before the AT Plan was published [by the NPS in 1981]. I'm not sure how long Shenandoah NP or Baxter SP have had permits, but quite a while and probably when the Comp Plan was signed." In other words, in the same way that the Forest Service has closed camping at Max Patch for two years, the AT can only regulate itself until it can't. And then it institutes a permit system or camping ban where necessary. So perhaps, as stated before, future generations of hikers and trail-users will be more informed on the impact that too many people can have on an ecosystem or trail, and those types of prohibitions will be lifted. But in the meantime, it's important to remember how selfish and destructive a purely deontological approach to civil liberties and freedom can be.
(a photo I took in SoCal on the PCT)