Trails Benton MacKaye Appalachian Trail

“One big job”: The long reach of Benton MacKaye’s conception of the Appalachian Trail

My book Benton MacKaye: Conservationist, Planner, and Creator of the Appalachian Trail was published exactly twenty years ago this month. MacKaye is best known for his conception of the Appalachian Trail, which he introduced just over a century ago in a 1921 article in the Journal in the American Institute of Architects, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.” Public awareness of MacKaye’s name and reputation remains somewhat limited, though, at least beyond Appalachian Trail hikers and enthusiasts, environmental historians, and land-use planners.

MacKaye’s original map depicting his conception of the Appalachian Trail, which accompanied his 1921 article titled “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects.

I have a Google Alert set for “Benton MacKaye.” His name and life story often turn up in various media in sometimes surprising ways. These days, many of the alerts link to events involving the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT), a 287-mile footpath that has been created by southern hiking enthusiasts over the last four decades. The BMT originates at Springer Mountain in northern Georgia, which is also the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail (AT). From there, the trail northward mostly traverses federal lands, including several National Forests and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail crosses the AT in the national park, then terminates when it reaches the AT again at the park’s northeastern boundary. The Benton MacKaye Trail Association, the nonprofit organization that maintains the trail, has recently won Congressional sponsorship for the introduction of a bill to designate the Benton MacKaye Trail as what would be the 12th National Scenic Trail under the provisions of the National Trails System Act. The legislation has not been acted on during the current session of Congress, which will soon adjourn.

My “Benton MacKaye” Google Alert often brings other news, though, about the reach of MacKaye’s legacy and the significant, inspirational influence of the Appalachian Trail, not only in the United States but throughout the world.

“Conference builds international ties among hiking trails,” reads a headline in today’s edition of the Taipei Times, above the Taiwanese newspaper’s report on the fourth annual Asian Trail Conference that has just taken place in Taipei. The five-day gathering, according to the story, “celebrates the world’s greenways and the pairing of hiking trails in Taiwan with those from around the world, [and] underscores ways to make the routes more resilient and accessible, particularly in the face of challenges such as global warming and pandemics.”

The international reach of the conference included attendance “by 84 international experts from nine countries and regions,” the Taipei Times reports. Attendees also witnessed the signing of an agreement between the Taiwanese Forestry Bureau and Canada’s Bruce Trail Conservancy to establish the island nation’s 110-mile Mountains to Sea National Greenway as a sister trail to southern Ontario’s 550-mile Bruce Trail along the province’s Niagara Escarpment.

The Bruce Trail, Ontario, Canada (Bruce Trail Conservancy)

As another expression of the event’s international perspective, the Asian Trail Conference “also paid tribute to 100 years of trail history since the establishment of the Appalachian Trail in the eastern US in 1921,” the Times added. “The 3,500km [2,175-mile] trail, an initiative led by forest conservationist Benton MacKaye, helped develop a legacy of long-distance hiking and became an inspiration for wilderness protection, said Laura Belleville, vice president of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Conservation and Policy Division.” In 2005, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy changed its name from the “Appalachian Trail Conference.” MacKaye had been instrumental in creating the ATC in 1925. Ever since, the nonprofit organization, which comprises a federation of 31 individual trail clubs spanning the trail’s length, has overseen management of the Appalachian Trail, in partnership with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and many state agencies. 

In December, 1922–exactly a century ago–Benton MacKaye wrote an article for Appalachia, journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club, titled “Progress Toward the Appalachian Trail,” reporting on what had occurred since he’d proposed his bold grassroots project a year earlier. In terse, easily comprehensible, and characteristically optimistic terms, he also offered a strategy for the unprecedented task of creating a public foot trail that would span some 2,000 miles across 14 eastern states, relying primarily on volunteer efforts. 

“In almost every locality along the Appalachian ranges a greater or less amount of trail-making is going on anyhow from year to year,” he wrote. “Various local projects are being organized, and in one way or other financed, by local outing groups. The bright idea, then, is to combine these local projects—to do one big job instead of forty small ones.”

MacKaye’s model for citizen trailmaking initiative and responsibility has been replicated far and wide. Taiwan’s “Thousand Miles Association and the [Asian] trails conference are part of the Asia Trails Network, the regional body of the World Trails Network,” the Taipei Times reports, “which connects and advocates for hiking and scenic trail experiences internationally.”

In the century since MacKaye presented his conception of the Appalachian Trail and how it could be created, the movement to create other public trails and greenways has reached around the world. His idealistic grassroots trailmaking strategy has proven to be realistic and practical, with ever-expanding results on the ground. Trail and greenways activists across the globe continue to be inspired by and are united in practicing Benton MacKaye’s trailbreaking philosophy for accomplishing the “one big job.” ♦