Feb. 27, 2024

Becoming a National Park

Benton MacKaye wanted to be sure that anyone who chose to spend a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks on the trail would have the opportunity to really get away from civilization. However, most of the lands MacKaye hoped to route his future trail...

Benton MacKaye wanted to be sure that anyone who chose to spend a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks on the trail would have the opportunity to really get away from civilization. However, most of the lands MacKaye hoped to route his future trail through were in private hands, owned either by individuals or corporations. If an Appalachian Trail was really going to be built, then its leaders would have to find a way to reconcile their desire to build a trail with the rights of private landowners.


Further Reading:

Appalachian Trail Protected & Unprotected Areas

Sarah Mittlefehldt, Tangled Roots. The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics

Jeff Ryan, This Land Was Saved For You and Me

Colleen Goldhorn, “Closing the Gaps in Our National Scenic Trails: An Interview with Jim Kern,” The Trek

Mills Kelly, “Federalizing the Trail"

Lyndon Johnson, "Special Message to the Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty," February 8, 1965 


Note: This transcript was generated by Otter.ai with light human correction

Benton MacKaye by Nate Sleeter  00:06

Camping grounds, of course, require wild lands. These in America are fortunately still available in every main region of the country. They are the undeveloped or underdeveloped areas... It fortunately happens that we have throughout the most densely populated portion of the United States a fairly continuous belt of under-developed lands. These are contained in the several ranges which form the Appalachian chain of mountains.


Mills Kelly  00:42

Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I'm your host. When Benton MacKaye first proposed the creation of the Appalachian Trail in 1921. He wrote about camping grounds, requiring wild lands. MacKaye wanted to be sure that anyone who chose to spend a few hours, a few days or a few weeks on the trail would have the opportunity to really get away from civilization to breathe the fresh air of the forests, to see wildlife and wildflowers to hear the birds of the mountains and to cleanse themselves of the hustle and bustle of the cities, if only for a little while. Is Mackay correctly pointed out. on the East Coast such wild forests were found in the Appalachian Mountains, and much of that land was being added to the rapidly growing network of national forests and parks. But most of the lands Mackay hoped to route his future trail through were in private hands owned by either individuals or corporations, principally timber companies. If an Appalachian Trail was really going to be built, then its leaders would have to find a way to reconcile their desire to build a trail with the rights of private landowners. The early leaders of the trail project hit on a novel approach that would sustain the trail through its first four decades.


Sarah Mittlefehldt  02:14

I often think of the Appalachian Trail is one of the country's longest running experiments in public private partnership that


Mills Kelly  02:21

Sarah Mittlefehldt, a Professor of Environmental Studies and sustainability at Northern Michigan University, Sara is the author of Tangled Roots, the Appalachian Trail and American environmental politics, which to my mind, is still the best book on the history of the 88. According to Sarah, that public private partnership at two phases. The first began in 1925, when the network of local trail clubs began working out land use agreements with their local landowners. Typically, the clubs would pay a private landowner $1 per year for the right to run the trail across their property. Sometimes, those agreements were written, and sometimes they were just a handshake between neighbors. If the land was owned by a park or Forest Service, the clubs generally established more formal agreements. What this meant was that the Appalachian Trail was not really owned by anyone. Instead, it was just a giant spiderweb of formal and informal agreements that allowed hikers to hit the trail for some fun in the mountains.


Sarah Mittlefehldt  03:29

After World War Two, when the landscape of the United States really started to change with suburban sprawl, more people going out into the woods to engage in outdoor recreation, so more pressure on Parks and Trails like the Appalachian Trail and development, you know, roads and other commercial activities, in addition to the residential sprawl kind of placed all sorts of new pressure on the trail and really threatens the integrity of having a continuous National Trail from Georgia all the way up to Maine. And so it was kind of these economic changes and changes in land use that really put pressure on the trail. Those handshake agreements began to erode as new development pressures caused landowners to kick the trail off their properties on the roads into busy traffic to areas where it was unsafe for hikers.


Benton MacKaye  04:23

By the 1960s, pressure on the wild lands of the United States was becoming so intense that advocates for trails, parks and other green spaces realized that they needed more than private initiatives and handshake agreements. If they're going to preserve those places for future generations. One of the leaders of the movement for wilderness preservation was none others invented MacKaye. If you've listened to episode one of our show, you'll know that in 1935 MacKaye and ATC Chairman Meyer Avery had a falling out over Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park and MacKaye essentially exiled himself from the AT project.


Jeffrey Ryan  05:09

As a result of that MacKaye was casting about for a new purpose, and ended up being one of the founders of the Wilderness Society, an organization devoted to establishing and protecting wilderness.


Mills Kelly  05:27

That was Jeff Ryan, an AT 2,000 miler who's written two books on the Appalachian Trail, and one on the establishment of the Wilderness Act of 1964.


Jeffrey Ryan  05:38

That all started in 1934 slash 35. And through the following decades, they had several fits and starts being successful on a piecemeal basis protecting different areas, largely areas that were threatened by dams. Some of their early successes were Dinosaur National Monument, among others. He also worked on saving an important deer yard up in the Adirondacks preceding that, around the end of the 1950s, MacKaye had realized that the organization was spending a lot of time playing Whack a Mole with individual initiatives that they were trying to put the halt to, in order to preserve wilderness areas. And it was MacKaye revelation that they should really start trying to federalize and formalize the establishment and protection of wilderness areas for the benefit of all.


Mills Kelly  06:44

The Wilderness Society, which MacKaye helped found, took the lead and pushing for federal protection of wild areas that were untouched, or mostly untouched by humans. some of America's most prominent conservationists, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Harvey Broome, and Harold Anderson were all founders of the Wilderness Society along with MacKaye. But it was Harold Zahniser, the group's executive director who led the charge for federalisation of wild lands. Eventually, his efforts paid off. Son Heiser wrote the draft of the Wilderness Act, which would provide federal protection to vast tracts of land, mostly west of the Mississippi and lobbied hard for the passage of the bill.


Jeffrey Ryan  07:30

Zahniser was inexhaustible. He spent time going to meetings with basically anyone who would listen to him not only in Washington, DC but garden clubs, Sierra Club, local hunting and fishing enthusiasts just basically everyone that he could garner support from and started building a 15 year long coalition of people some of whom were steadfastly against it at the beginning, and eventually came on board.


Mills Kelly  08:06

Zahniser's lobbying for the act was so effective that when it came up for a vote in the House of Representatives, there was only one dissenting vote. Imagine that happening today. Unfortunately, Zahniser did not live to see the Act signed into law. He died of a heart attack just a few months before the signing ceremony. The Wilderness Act of 1964 remains an enduring testament to his persistence and his love of nature. Today, there are more than 800 federally designated Wilderness Areas, preserving almost 112 million acres of land from any permanent encroachment by humans. None of the first wilderness areas preserved by the new law, we're along the Appalachian Trail. But today, the AT passes through 26 different wilderness areas from Georgia to New Hampshire. In our show notes for this episode, we've included a link to a database of all those federal and state protected areas along the Appalachian Trail. So you can explore for yourself the diversity of these areas. Much of the AT is not all that wild. So having these truly wild areas along the trail really helps make the hiking experience more in line with its original purpose.


Jeffrey Ryan  09:30

Because MacKaye envision the trail is a place to escape from society and regenerate ourselves. And it's hard to do that if we're in an urban environment or an urban eyes, or there's a lot of signs of humans. And so, having done the AT and having been through a lot of areas where you're passing under major highways or coming right smack dab in the middle of towns, it's important to have those places where you can sit and contemplate, without feeling the onslaught of human development or the potential onslaught of human development. There's a reason why the 100 Mile Wilderness so popular and that's because of its minimal impact from humankind. And we need that.


Mills Kelly  10:32

A few minutes ago, I mentioned that the Wilderness Act passed the House with only one no vote. That happened in part because in the 1960s, Americans were increasingly worried about the environment. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which called attention to the horrible effects of pesticides on birds, insects, and aquatic life. The success of her book helped spawn the modern environmental movement, and political leaders on both sides of the aisle, came together to pass a series of laws that sought to reduce pollution, preserve land for public recreation, and help beautify the country. The Wilderness Act was just one of several laws that resulted from this emerging national consensus that the federal government had to take a more direct role. President Lyndon Johnson and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, helped lead the charge for a new role for the federal government when it came to environmental protection. In February of 1965, Johnson sent his “Special Message to the Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty”, calling for a much more rapid action. In his message, Johnson wrote,


Lyndon Johnson by Jim Ambuske  11:48

 For centuries Americans have drawn strength and inspiration from the beauty of our country. It would be a neglectful generation indeed, indifferent alike to the judgment of history and the command of principle, which failed to preserve and extend such a heritage for its descendants. Yet the storm of modern change is threatening to blight and diminish in a few decades what has been cherished and protected for generations. A growing population is swallowing up areas of natural beauty with its demands for living space, and is placing increased demand on our overburdened areas of recreation and pleasure… The forgotten outdoorsmen of today are those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback or bicycle. For them, we must have trails as well as highways. Nor should motor vehicles be permitted to tyrannize the more leisurely human traffic… I am requesting, therefore, that the Secretary of the Interior work with his colleagues in the federal government and with state and local leaders and recommend to me a cooperative program to encourage a national system of trails, building up the more than hundred thousand miles of trails in our National Forests and Parks… 


Mills Kelly  13:13

In another part of the message Johnson specifically referenced the great Appalachian Trail is a model for that national system of trails. Three years later, Congress passed the National Scenic Trails Act, designating the AT and the Pacific Crest Trail as the first two trails in a new national system of trails. Today, more than 1300 trails have some sort of federal designation. But of all those trails, the Appalachian Trail is the oddest of them all.


Mills Kelly  13:52

Well, before the trails Act passed, the ATC and the various trail clubs had to change the way that they thought about the Appalachian Trail. Since its founding four decades earlier, the AT had been a private endeavor run entirely by volunteers. But it did become apparent to anyone who was paying attention that the project was in trouble. Up and down the trail. Landowners, many of whom had purchased land in the mountains since the Second World War, were less happy about having a hiking trail pass through their property, as some of those new landowners began canceling long standing easements for the at. At the southern end of the trail, the Georgia ATC pushed for the abandonment of the last 37 miles of the trail between Springer Mountain and mount Oglethorpe, then the trails southern terminus as we discussed in an iconic locations episode about Oglethorpe, a combination of real estate development and a growing number of chicken farms made that last 37 miles untenable. In a 1957 the terminus moved into the Cherokee National Forest to Springer Mountain. In the northern third of the trail, ski areas began to press against the trail corridor, and lumber and paper companies were cutting more and more tracks in Maine. The trails leaders ultimately decided that the only way to preserve the AT is a hiking trail was to seek federal protection. So they began lobbying Congress and various federal agencies for a takeover of the Appalachian Trail by the National Park Service.


Sarah Mittlefehldt  15:31

1968 was when the National Trails Act was passed. It created both the Appalachian Trail in the East and the Pacific Trail in the West is the first to kind of flagship national scenic trails in the system. But of course, unlike the PCT, which was kind of carved out of existing public ownerships, the AT existed on some parts through the national forests of the south and the north, and some other protected areas, but involved a lot more turning private land into this public corridor.


Mills Kelly  16:02

Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail, the AT was still substantially on private land, either land owned by individuals or land owned by corporations, especially timber and paper companies. For the Appalachian Trail to be turned into a federally owned trail, all that private land had to be acquired by the National Park Service. But has too often been the case with ambitious federal legislation. The National Scenic Trails Act provided only $5 million to fund that acquisition program. In other words, a very small drop in a very large bucket.


Sarah Mittlefehldt  16:43

What happened after the National Trails Act of 1968. It was great on paper, they had this national status, but there wasn't a lot of funding attached to it. And there wasn't a clear delegation of authority. So some states, like Massachusetts took a little bit of a like a leadership role and tried to move forward with it. But other states were not as invested in it and trail efforts kind of lagged. And so when the real rubber hit the road was in 1978, when the trails Act was amended, and the real key aspects of that amendment were, first of all, it said, okay, the National Park Service is going to be the clear sort of leader and responsible party for a three year land acquisition program, which was an incredibly ambitious to acquire the whole trail in three years, increasing funding from 5 million to $90 million to acquire land for the trail, and expanding the power of eminent domain from 25 acres per square mile up to 125 acres per square mile. That really gave the Park Service more authority and actually going out and trying to acquire land.


Mills Kelly  17:50

With more money and clear authority, the Park Service did something strange and unprecedented. Rather than send their own staff to meet with landowners, the Park Service deputized the ATC and the local trail clubs to work on his behalf. This delegation of authority to local volunteers wasn't a universal success. But it did work very well in other cases.


Sarah Mittlefehldt  18:15

One of the kinds of great examples that the National Park Service point to as like, kind of their model of what they were hoping for was in New York with Elizabeth Levers who was this tiny old, you know, retired teacher and then had become like a school administrator, then was just very passionate about the trail and conservation. You know, her demeanor, she was as you can imagine, this tiny old woman like knocking on the door, she would often bring brownies and baked goods, and you know, introduce herself as a volunteer with a New York New Jersey trail conference. Kind of because of her unassuming nature. She really was not the picture of the strong arm government official coming in to take your land, and was very successful and building consensus amongst landowners through New York, New Jersey.


Mills Kelly  19:06

Of course, not every club had an Elizabeth Levers they could send out to meet with landowners. Sometimes, things went sideways. One example where things went poorly was in the Carlisle Valley of Pennsylvania. If you've hiked the AT in that section, you may wonder why the trail just traverses mile after mile of cornfields in a very narrow corridor. According to Sarah, that was one of the places where local volunteers took their responsibilities a little too seriously and managed to offend local landowners. As a result, the park service ended up exercising eminent domain to force the sale of land for the trail. Almost every time I give a public lecture about the trails history, someone asks me how much of the trail corridor was the result of federal land taking through eminent domain The short answer is very, very little. Obtaining the trail corridor required more than 2200 separate acquisitions, but only around 100 of those were adversarial, meaning the landowner went to court to resist being forced to sell. But in cases like the Carlisle Valley, I think it's pretty easy to imagine how unhappy landowners were when they were forced to sell. Perhaps the most famous example as a park service, forcing the issue was McAfee knob in Virginia, the most photographed and possibly the most visited location on the entire trail. The issue was that the knob was on private land, and the landowners on the mountain were not interested in selling their land to the park service. And those landowners were very well connected in the state capitol. As we discussed in some detail in our iconic locations episode about McAfee knob, those landowners kick the trail off the mountain and threaten anyone attempting to reach the famous promontory with arrest and prosecution. From 1978 to 1987, the AT was forced to cut across the Catawba Valley, then it ran along North Mountain for more than 10 miles, and then cut back across the valley to its current route. That hike on North Mountain was pretty miserable. And of course, didn't include the view that has become so famous. According to Sarah, when Park Service staffer Bob Proudman, went to visit the knob in the 1980s. He reported that the good news was that the knob was beautiful. And the bad news was that the knob was beautiful. Problem and recognized that the knob just had to be part of the AT. As in the case of the Carlisle Valley, the Park Service ultimately had to use eminent domain to acquire the knob in the land surrounding it.


Sarah Mittlefehldt  22:01

When they found that overlook and realize that that was what they had to do to meet the objectives of the legislation because according to the National Trails Act, the AT was part of the National Scenic Trail System, and so it was really prioritizing the best scenery that would be possible to include for hikers walking on this trail.


Mills Kelly  22:23

Finding that balance between the rights of landowners and making the at the best possible National Recreation resource was never easy, and in some cases, left the landowners feeling bitter for reasons I think we can all imagine. But without that relatively small number of land takings, we wouldn't have the trail enjoyed by more than 3 million hikers every year. It really was unprecedented for the Park Service to hand over so much authority over a national park to a cluster of volunteer organizations. But as Sarah points out, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the local trail clubs were often very connected to federal and state government power.


Sarah Mittlefehldt  23:05

That balance of power between sort of the decentralized local citizen volunteers who were instrumental in the development were not ever completely separate from the power of the federal government, many of them like Myron Avery had positions with the government, but sort of worked on the Appalachian Trail as sort of their civic volunteer side of their life, so that that balance of power was never fully separate.


Mills Kelly  23:31

In other words, throughout its history, the AT has been connected to federal agencies, especially the US Forest Service, and many, many AT volunteers were or had been federal employees. They were used to working with federal agencies, and their federal experience meant that the Forest Service and Park Service officials they dealt with often felt a high level of comfort working with those volunteers. Still, I don't know of any other example of a large national park like the Appalachian Trail being managed almost entirely by volunteers. That the relationship has worked well is evidenced by the fact that the Park Service has continued its delegation of authority to the ATC and through the ATC, to the local clubs. I'm one of the tens of thousands of volunteers who work on the at every year. And I could say that if someone hadn't told me that really, I'm volunteering for the National Park Service. I wouldn't know that. When I need permission to do something. I asked my local trail boss. If John doesn't know the answer, he asks our district manager if that person doesn't know, they asked Potomac Appalachian Trail club Supervisor of trails. If they don't know, they asked the ATCs regional office, if they don't know they context headquarters in Harpers Ferry, and if they don't know, they asked the Park Service by my count that's five layers of authority between my boots on the ground and the federal government. Nothing about this arrangement is simple or can be taken for granted. It requires constant massaging and care to make it work. But over the last 56 years, the Park Service to ATC, a local trail clubs and their volunteers who have figured it out, and the beneficiaries are all those millions of hikers who hit the trail every year. The story I've just told you is a really high level look at how the 80 became a national park, and how it turned into the trail we'd love today. But I hope it's also clear that without the tens of thousands of volunteers who helped on the trail each year, the Appalachian Trail wouldn't be the trail that it is. Speaking for just a minute as one of those volunteers, I want to urge you to contact your local trail club and offer to help. You don't have to go and get dirty up in the mountains. Although getting dirty up in the mountains is a lot of fun. There many other ways to help your local club: manning an information booth at a local event, writing copy for the club newsletter, helping with the website. Really, the list is very long. And if you're a thru hiker who might live a long way from the trail, you can help to pick a section of the trail you especially enjoyed and send the club responsible for that section a donation. Trust me, they'll be happy with any amount. Or arranged to come back to the trail for a few days during a trail work event. And they go hike for a day or two to relive some of your experiences. And take it from me. Volunteering on the trail makes you feel good in ways you didn't know it could.


Mills Kelly  26:57

The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today's episode was produced by me, Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. We want to offer a special thanks to Jeff Ryan and Sarah Mittlefehldt for sharing their insights into how the Appalachian Trail became a national park. We also want to thank the Luxembourg Center for Contemporary and Digital History for making it possible for us to use the recording studio. Original Music for our show is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia, and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. We're able to bring you this show through the generosity of the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, and many individual donors like you. To help us continue to produce the world's best podcast on the Appalachian Trail. Please visit our website at R2studios.org and click on the Support Us link to make a donation of any amount. We really appreciate it. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you soon.

Sarah Mittlefehldt

Sarah Mittlefehldt is an environmental historian and a professor in the Earth, Environmental & Geographical Sciences (EEGS) Department, at Northern Michigan University. She is the author of Tangled Roots: The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics (2013), the definite study of the interconnections between environmental politics and the creation and eventual completion of the Appalachian Trail. Mittlefehldt completed the research for her book while thru-hiking the AT, stopping at trail club archives as she worked her way from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin.

Jeff Ryan

Jeff Ryan is the author of This Land Was Made For You and Me (2022) on the Wilderness Society and the Wilderness Act of 1964. He is also the author of Blazing Ahead: Benton MacKaye, Myron Avery, and the Rivalry That Built the Appalachian Trail (2017), Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-Year Hike on America’s Trail (2016) that chronicles his section-hike of the Appalachian Trail.