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Hikers want to recognize Appalachian Trail with new car tag

POSTED: May 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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If you’re a bicyclist in Georgia, you can get a license plate for your car reminding others to "Share the road." You can also get specialty plates proclaiming your love for NASCAR or for your alma mater.

But if you’re a hiker, there is no plate that depicts your favorite pastime. That could soon change, however.

A group of hiking enthusiasts, mostly members of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, is working to get state approval for an Appalachian Trail license plate in Georgia.

"We’re known across the world as the starting place for the A.T.," said Ball Ground resident Scott Barnes, an organizer and trail volunteer.

The 2,175-mile footpath begins at Springer Mountain, near Amicalola Falls, and ends at Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Of course, the word "begins" applies only if you’re walking the trail south to north. But that’s how 90 percent of "thru-hikers" do it.

North Carolina already has an Appalachian Trail license plate available. Tennessee and Virginia are in the process of getting approval for theirs.

Barnes believes Georgia needs a plate of its own to help people understand what an asset the trail is to the state.

"There’s been a lot of bad press lately about the A.T., with the Hilton incident," he said.

On New Year’s Day, hiker Meredith Emerson was abducted from an approach trail near the Appalachian Trail. The body of the 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate was later found in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area. Gary Michael Hilton, a 61-year-old drifter, pleaded guilty to her murder.

Barnes said people who weren’t familiar with the Appalachian Trail now associate it with this tragedy and don’t know anything else about it.

They may not realize, for example, that it is part of the National Park Service and was designated 40 years ago as the first national scenic trail.

They also may not know that the Appalachian Trail is maintained by volunteers and could use some financial help.

"Proceeds collected from the Georgia license plate will go to the (75-mile) Georgia portion of the trail," Barnes said.

Motorists who buy a specialty plate in Georgia typically pay $25 more than for a standard plate. Under a proposed agreement, $10 of that fee would be returned to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that oversees the trail.

"The money would go to education programs and to maintenance on the trail and shelters," said Barnes.

But getting a new specialty plate approved in Georgia is not as easy as in some other states.

"Georgia is unique," said Leanna Joyner, spokeswoman for the Trail Conservancy’s Southern regional office in Asheville.

In Virginia, she said, a new plate proposal has to be approved by the legislature, and then 350 people must submit applications before the plates will be manufactured. Tennessee works the same way, except that 1,000 applications are required.

In Georgia, the process is reversed: The state wants 1,000 applications up front before the General Assembly will consider passing a law to allow the plate.

"We’re not to the stage where we can take money or accept applications," Joyner said. But she encourages anyone who thinks they might be interested in getting a plate to get on the mailing list.

People can also go online to the Trail Conservancy’s Web site and vote on one of four proposed designs for the Georgia plate. Votes can be submitted until May 23.

After a design is chosen, organizers will have up to two years to collect 1,000 paid applications. But Barnes doesn’t think it will take that long.

"I’m confident that there will be a market for this plate," he said. "There are so many hikers out there."

Since hikers tend to be involved in environmental causes, some of them may already have specialty plates, such as the "hummingbird" plate that urges Georgians to "give wildlife a chance."

But Barnes doesn’t think this will be a problem.

"I have a Trout Unlimited plate, but I would swap that for the A.T. plate, because that’s more dear to my heart," he said.

Winton Porter, owner of Mountain Crossings, a hiking gear store located directly on the Appalachian Trail near Blood Mountain, believes there is more than enough interest to support the new plate.

"Once people know it’s available, I definitely think they’ll want to go out and get one," he said. "I’d certainly sign up."



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