Known best as the man who developed the idea for the Appalachian Trail, Benton MacKaye also co-founded the Wilderness Society, showing his equal dedication to recreation and conservation on public lands. As a Harvard forestry professor who regularly worked with relevant federal agencies on public land-management plans, he performed significant research on the role of forest cover on runoff and erosion in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, among other field-advancing projects. As a nature enthusiast, MacKaye saw the need for carefully managed forestry projects firsthand, and he used his observations to shape his direction for his entire career.
The concept for the Appalachian Trail came forth in his article, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” published in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. A planner, MacKaye envisioned his trail would provide respite and recreation for the work-weary, serenity recuperation for the mentally afflicted, and jobs and fulfillment for the unemployed, particularly those affected by WWI. As part of his plan, MacKaye also saw the trail as a connection tool for a cooperative series of camps and farms to grow food and reintroduce people to the natural processes they had become so separated from in their urban, industrial existence.
Momentum grew for the trail in the 1920s and 1930s, and through the efforts of the Appalachian Trail Conference and the various hiking clubs it included, the first version of the trail opened in 1937.
In 1935, MacKaye helped found the Wilderness Society and dedicated the remainder of his life to its mission of wilderness preservation. He passed away in 1975, and in 1979, the Benton MacKaye Trail Association convened to map out a trail in his honor along the route of his original plan. The nearly 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail opened in its full form in 2005, running from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Great Smoky Mountains Park in North Carolina.