SMITHSBURG -- Joe and Audrey Willard hope public opinion will persuade state officials to reconsider plans to relocate the Appalachian Trail through the family farm.
"They're going to come right through my timberland," said Mr. Willard, whose crop and hog farm -- which straddles the Frederick and Washington county line -- lies one mile east of the existing footpath.
"They're going to cut off my access to my timber. I can't afford to lose something like that."
The state Department of Natural Resources is studying several alternative routes -- including one that would cross the Willard farm -- for the Appalachian Trail because it now crosses Route 77 at an unsafe location.
DNR's efforts are part of a much larger plan by the National Park Service to buy land to create 500-foot buffer zones on either side of the 2,144-mile trail, which stretches along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.
About 54 miles of the trail remain unprotected, including about six of the 38 miles that cross Maryland.
"The trail needs to be protected," said Donald H. White, supervisor of trails for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.
"We're not opposed to the interest of landowners. We'd like to work with them. From our perspective, if the trail is not completely protected, it could be broken by development."
Mr. White, whose organization maintains the trail through Maryland, said that the majority of trail users are local residents, including Boy and Girl Scout groups, day hikers, bird watchers and senior citizens.
"It's not just people hiking through," he said.
Several homes and a private firing range crowd the existing trail, state officials said. Hikers have complained that these modern infringements spoil the trail experience.
"They've been wanting to move the trail for years," Mrs. Willard said.
"This is their sixth [proposed] route. It's the route that they say is going to affect the least number of people. That's true, but it involves the most amount of land."
The proposal would relocate about two miles of the trail south of Route 77 and affect three property owners -- the Willards; Mr. Willard's brother, T. C.; and neighbor Sara Jane Ridenour.
Mr. Willard contends that DNR's plans to relocate the trail would mean the loss of about 38 acres of his 63-acre farm and 24 acres of the 100-acre woodland he owns with his brother.
DNR is negotiating various options with the owners, including conservation easements that would allow them to continue farming the land. The amount of acreage needed to reroute the trail is not known, said Mark Spencer, a greenways and resources planner for DNR's western region.
"The method to protect the trail is subject to negotiations with the landowners at this point," said Patty Manown, DNR's Western Maryland public affairs officer.
State officials believe that it would cost at least $7 million in state and federal funds to protect six miles of the trail in Maryland.
"A decision has not been made yet on the route," Ms. Manown said.
"Some of the earlier proposals have been thrown out. DNR is looking for a route that has the least impact."
In an effort to rally public support, the Willards have written to local and state officials, newspapers and Baltimore television stations.
Their efforts also have included the erection along Route 77 of a homemade billboard that reads: "Attention Taxpayers. The State Maryland wants to use your tax dollars to take this farm and make it part of the Appalachian Trail. For more information, call 416-0669."
The Willards and Mrs. Ridenour have found an ally in state Sen. John W. Derr, the Frederick Republican who has lobbied DNR to leave the trail "exactly the way it is now and not disrupt any property."
"People don't want it moved. This is no time for additional federal or state monies to be spent on it," Mr. Derr said, citing federal and state budget deficits. "I just don't think we have that luxury right now."
Mr. Derr said one of the options before DNR is to leave the trail where it is and to make minimal changes.
However, Ms. Manown said that relocating the trail is a "fairly high" priority for DNR. Protecting the trail along the existing path would involve more property owners.
"No matter where we put this trail, it's going to affect somebody," DNR's Mr. Spencer said.
"Those parts of Frederick and Washington counties are becoming a suburb of Washington. Development is coming on so fast that we must go ahead and protect the trail."
Relocation efforts have been a longtime process. Each time DNR proposes an alternative route, affected property owners raise objections.
"Now we're stuck with it"
"People along the other routes have complained, so now we're stuck with it," said Mrs. Ridenour, whose family has been working her 125-acre farm for a century.
"I don't understand why Washington County let all those people build along the trail in the first place."
The trail's relocation would mean the loss of about 15 acres of her farm, Mrs. Ridenour said.
Mr. Willard said he would lose not only access to timberland, which supplements his income, but also acreage on which to spread manure.
"It would be devastating," Mr. Willard said.
Both families want DNR to make a decision soon.
"This whole thing has been very stressful," Mrs. Ridenour said.
Said Mrs. Willard: "I want them to make a decision and get on with it. People who live along the trail have been dealing with this for 20 years. You can't live like that. I'm not going to let them do
that to us."