MORGANTOWN, West Virginia (AP) -- The Appalachian Trail gives hikers a nearly 2,200-mile trek through mountains, meadows and forests stretching from Georgia to Maine.
But to scientists and land managers, it's also a living laboratory that could provide warnings of looming environmental problems while there's still time to fix them.
A diverse group of organizations has launched a project to begin long-term monitoring of the trail's environmental health, with plans to tap into an army of volunteer "citizen scientists" and their professional counterparts.
Together, they will collect information about the health of plants, air and water quality, and animal migration patterns to build an early warning system for the 120 million people along the Eastern Seaboard.
"It's somewhat like the canary in the coal mine in the sense of using it as a barometer for environmental and human health conditions," says Gregory Miller, president of the Maryland-based American Hiking Society.
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