Land Rights Battles Heat Up Along the Appalachian Trail

Along the mountainous Appalachian Trail, on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, some property owners say they're under attack by the federal government.

The U.S. Forest Service wants to make sure the view from the trail isn't obstructed by houses or cars, despite the fact that it's a footpath weaving alongside major highways and right through some towns.

The Appalachian Trail has been moved a number of times since it was established 40 years ago, often closer to private property – which the Forest Service then tries to buy or condemn to increase the 18-inch-wide path's perimeters.

Jack and Margaret Shell didn't want to sell their 50 acres in the North Carolina mountains – but when part of the trail was moved, cutting through nearby land, Forest Service officials told them they needed the Shell property for a buffer. If the Shells didn't sell, the government threatened it would condemn the land.

Frightened and worried about their financial future, the Shells gave in – selling the property for about half the going price of other land in the area.

"It got to the point where I didn't have any choice," said Jack Shell. "I was tired. I didn't want to mess with them anymore."

Congress established the trail, which stretches more than 2,100 miles down the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Georgia, in the 1960s.

"It's a National Scenic Trail, so the standards for protection are higher than for some other trails around," said John Byars of the Forest Service. "We try to minimize man's intrusion within the trail corridor."

Other property owners have said that once they refused to sell their land, they were hounded by Forest Service officials.

"Going to people's places where they work, banging on their neighbors' doors – it's really harassment," said property owner Billy Baulieu.

Pat Roark and her husband are finding themselves in a similar situation as that of the Shells.

"We got a letter condemning the land," she said.

Property owner Charles Gentry also said the government threatened him, warning "if you don't sell this, we're going to take it." If he refused, Forest Service personnel said they'd take him to court, he said.

The Forest Service says it is merely doing its job.

"We are simply trying to protect the trail and only acquiring those rights that are essential for trail protection," Byars said. "I think we fully consider the private property owners' rights and we try to equitably work with everybody. But we have a tremendous interest in this trail."

But it is an interest that conflicts with that of landowners, who are fighting to keep their property. It's a battle that will likely wind up in federal court.

Property rights activists say it's not just the Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail involved in land-rights wars.

"The administrative agencies have run amuck in grabbing land," said Bruce Vincent, president of the League of Rural Voters. "They have huge budgets to affect purchase, and for the good of all they claim to be doing it."

Some say the Clinton administration was extremely aggressive in trying to attain more public land and often ignored private property owner rights. Many of the battles are still being fought under the Bush administration.

"These things didn't happen under this president, but if he doesn't take corrective action soon, he's going to be saddled with the responsibility of not fixing it," Vincent said.

A spokesman for the Department of the Interior said the Bush camp is very sensitive to private property rights and is working to undo what he calls "the wrongs" of the past. But as more time passes, landowners who are still fighting the government to keep their property say their patriotism is being tested.

"There have been times when I wanted to hang a different flag," Gentry said.

Bret Baier is the Chief Political Anchor of Fox News Channel, and the Anchor & Executive Editor of "Special Report with Bret Baier.”  His book, "Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission," (William Morrow) is on sale now.