View Full Version : Benton MacKaye Trail in the news

06-04-2005, 07:25
Here's an article from todays Atlanta Journal Constitution. Enjoy!

Trail: Labor of love took 25 years

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/04/05
Twenty-five years after a group of 50 hikers marked the Benton MacKaye Trail through Georgia in a day, their journey through trail construction and forest politics is finally over.

Starting this month, volunteers who built the 290-mile walking path named for the father of the Appalachian Trail will celebrate its completion. The trail, which incorporates existing routes, old logging roads and newly cut pathways, is open from the top of Springer Mountain near Amicalola Falls through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

It's the first long-distance hiking trail completed in the United States since the 150-mile Tahoe Rim Trail in Nevada was finished in 2001, according to the American Hiking Society.

Over the years, hundreds of volunteers have built the Benton MacKaye by hand through Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. More will continue to maintain it when trees fall over it, rains wash portions of it away and blueberry bushes conceal it. But only a handful of stalwarts can say they participatedthroughout the 25-year quest to build the trail that MacKaye (pronounced Mc-EYE) thought would make a good southern route for his Appalachian Trail.

"We wanted to see the woods, not the people. That's really what started our trail," said Darcy Douglas, 55, of Sandy Springs, a member of the Benton MacKaye Trail Association since 1982 and a Cobb County special education teacher and classical musician. "It doesn't have shelters, it doesn't have lots of established campsites, and when you get there, you don't see so many signs and blazes that you think you're on 285. . . . We see bears, snakes, beaver more animals than people."

Heartily fortified

It's easy to spot BMTA's Georgia work group at the Waffle King in East Ellijay on a drizzly Saturday morning.

There are 16 of them, wearing various drab colors of wet-weather gear and hiking boots. Crammed four to a booth, they're shoveling down stacks of pancakes, waffles, sausage and toast dripping with egg yolk.

The day will end at their traditional spot, the Pink Pig BBQ in Cherry Log. In between, on the trail, the hiking workers will tear into bag lunches and energy bars. Food and water are as essential to the BMTA as hiking and trail maintenance.

After a drive into the mountains, Walt Cook, 73, a retired professor from UGA's Warnell School of Forest Resources and a BMTA member since 1980, gives final instructions: "We need more Pulaski [axes] and fewer swing blades. Most of this job is going to be digging digging in the dirt."

It takes about an hour of hiking up and down the mountain path to reach the work site in one of the most remote sections of the trail in the Chattahoochee National Forest near Blue Ridge.

In 25 years, the group has missed only two of its scheduled monthly work trips, both because of snowstorms.

But there was a time when only a few people showed up to work. Dr. Edwin Dale of Athens, a doctor-turned-forester and a BMTA member from 1980 to 1987, was in his fifth year as president in 1984, an especially low point for the group's active roster.

Dale, now retired from the U.S. Forest Service, recalls that spring as a particularly cold one for the South. "When it's Saturday morning and 26 degrees in Atlanta, and even colder in the mountains," it's hard to roll out of bed to go work in the woods, he said. "I still invited people to come on work trips, but they didn't want to, so I would go with one person or two or three, and they had fun, so we just sort of kept the string going. . . . It was just a low point; it happens in every organization."

Dale had joined the group after seeing an announcement about its formation in a sports store at Lenox Square. "I had no idea what they were doing, but I had been hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Well, you know the AT was built by a bunch of dedicated people, so I said, 'I think I'll just get in on the ground floor here and see what I can do to help them.' "

He stayed with it, he said, because he was working 60 to 80 hours a week at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta. "When I got a chance to get away, I did," he said. "It was therapy. It was recreation."

Volunteers also say they are motivated by camaraderie and a sense of accomplishment.

Tom Keene, 59, a history professor at Kennesaw State University and a BMTA member since 1996, said getting into the woods "tuned me back in to the natural world in a noticeable way. Made me feel more alive, I guess."

'Volunteer work is play'

MacKaye himself provided some insight into what would motivate a stressed-out doctor and a busy college professor to pick up heavy tools and disappear for a day into the forest, month after month, year after year.

"Volunteer work is really play," MacKaye wrote more than 80 years ago.

MacKaye, a New Englander, Harvard-trained federal forester and socialist, detailed his idea for a long-distance hiking trail along the Appalachian mountain range in 1921 article for the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. He died in 1975.

That year, Dave Sherman, who had recently left C&S National Bank to handle land acquisitions for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, went on a search for historical materials related to the Appalachian Trail. He was hiking pieces of the trail and wanted to learn its history.

In a garage belonging to the secretary of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, Sherman discovered records indicating that MacKaye wanted the Appalachian Trail routed through the Cohutta Mountains.

"When you looked it on [topographical] and relief maps, it looked like a very logical route," said Sherman, who joined the Carter administration in Washington in 1978 and retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 2004. "The idea I got was plagiarized from Benton MacKaye himself."

By 1977, Sherman had sketched out a rough map and proposed building MacKaye's route. He also recruited the early volunteers.

Georgia's 82-mile section of the trail was completed in 1989. The trail work was stalled for most of the next 14 years, waiting on federal approvals to push northward through wilderness areas in the Cherokee National Forest.

Federal funding for national recreational trails was eroding, and a debate over whether trails should be cut into protected wilderness had heated up. Retired forester Sherman, 62, said one of the best pieces of advice he ever got was that in the forest service, "decisions aren't made. They evolve. It explained a lot. . . . What always got me on this stuff, though, was how a forest logging road can be approved in a year or less and a trail that has minimum impact can take many years."

Roy Arnold was the first to walk the proposed route 27 years ago as a DNR intern.

"I wish I had been independently wealthy and could have spent my life working on it," said Arnold, now 55 and a program analyst for the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington. "All that trail hiking makes for a long life. They tend to die off in their 90s. That's why I intend to go back to it when I retire."