Just like the Appalachian Trail, our history is long. But throughout the years, the heart of our organization has remained the same: to protect and manage over 2,190 miles of the A.T. footpath and its surrounding landscapes.
In October 1921, regional planner Benton MacKaye went public with his proposal for “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.” With publicity from a New York newspaper columnist (who himself blazed the first specifically A.T. section of trail), he then spent years working his network of trail and government contacts from Washington to Boston. By March 1925, MacKaye had generated enough support—for a hiking trail rather than his original utopian visions—to organize the Appalachian Trail Conference and present more specific plans.
Toward the end of the Twenties, retired Connecticut Judge Arthur Perkins of the Appalachian Mountain Club took over the reins of ATC from MacKaye after years of relatively little progress beyond linking existing trails and new footpaths in New York. Perkins soon drew the attention of federal admiralty lawyer Myron H. Avery and a small band of Washingtonians who had formed the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) and started blazing the path in West Virginia and northern Virginia. Avery succeeded Perkins as head of ATC (as well as PATC) and efforts to recruit more volunteer clubs and put the A.T. truly on the ground accelerated, although not without many hurdles and an internal schism between Avery and MacKaye circles. In August 1937, a footpath was indeed complete from Maine to Georgia, and Avery and National Park Service allies were well into a plan for overnight shelters along the 2,000-mile length of it, with some formal measure of federal protection on either side.
In 1938, a hurricane severely damaged the Trail, especially in New England. Before too long, Avery and many of other volunteers were being called to active duty to prepare for what became World War II—a time also of transportation-related rationing that sharply cut into the ability of other volunteers and national-forest crews to repair and maintain their footpath. Nonetheless, three years after the war, a recovering veteran, Earl V. Shaffer, was able to locate enough of the Trail to hike with spring from Georgia to Maine in a single journey—something the ATC believed could not be done. In the spring of 1951, Avery, suffering from (and hiding) a number of ailments, declared the A.T. again open continuously from Maine to Georgia. He gave up his leadership roles the following winter and died of a massive heart attack that spring.
A pair of leaders—Murray Stevens of New York and Stanley Murray of Tennessee—followed Avery in the Fifties and Sixties, convinced that only federal ownership of the land on which the footpath twisted could truly protect it for future generations of backpackers, hikers, and birders. Murray, becoming the ATC’s chair in 1961, shifted that talk and planning into high gear, building the ATC from 380 members to more than 10,000 while leading a small group working on federal legislation. With little-noticed direction from the office of First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, the legislation succeeded in 1968, and President Johnson signed into law the National Trails System Act 47 years after MacKaye’s original proposal was published. The A.T. became the first national scenic trail in place, a unit of the national park system.
The National Trails System Act called for state and federal purchases of a corridor for the footpath. In preparation for much more closely working with state and federal agencies, the ATC hired its first (and for a while only) employee and moved out of PATC headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the close-to-the-Trail town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. While several states and the USDA Forest Service commenced or sped up land acquisitions, the 40 percent of the A.T. on which the National Park Service (NPS) was to concentrate was basically neglected. The ATC pushed back, and in March 1978 Congress directed that agency to proactively buy lands, provided a budget to do so, and specified many key parameters for that program—which became the most complicated in NPS history.
After working on that appropriations and acquisition effort for eight years, David N. Startzell was named the ATC’s executive director in November 1986 with completing the effort his top priority. Slightly more than 100 miles were left. In the spring of 1998, Congress appropriated the last of the line-item funds specifically for the A.T. program, and President Clinton came out to Harpers Ferry for a morning of “trail work” several weeks before signing that legislation into law. Major negotiating battles remained—a protected route over Maine’s Saddleback Mountain the chief among them, settled in 2000—and the last major stretch would not be formally acquired until 2014.
The ATC has never had just one job as the project leader when it came to the protection, promotion, and management of the A.T. However, the accomplishment of the land-acquisition priority and the more elevated responsibilities given it by the 1968 and 1978 acts, along with unprecedented federal and state agreements under it, called for a repositioning. Years of discussions came to fruition in July 2005 when the leadership changed the ATC’s name to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. This name change reflects the new superior priority of preservation of the Trail corridor and its natural and cultural resources, which is essential to enhancing the A.T. experience.