Face Of This Place

Mike Leonard on the Pinhoti Trail

You have been a force for conservation in the Southeast for decades. How did you become so involved with protecting the Pinhoti Trail?
When I was 16 and 17 years old, I took my first big hikes on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT) in the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains. Those summers are when I became absolutely fascinated with the AT—reading books about Benton MacKaye, who first proposed the idea of the AT, and how it was created in the 1920s and 1930s. I loved maps and geography and I knew that the Appalachian Mountains went all the way south to Alabama. Although at that point in my life, I had never been there.

During the summer of 1970, my family drove out to Seattle to pick up my older brother after he served in Vietnam. I rode in the car and poured over maps the whole time. I took a pencil and drew a route for a trail through Alabama’s Talladega National Forest and Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest, passing from Alabama to the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. This was when I began day dreaming with my teenage hiking friends about linking Alabama to the AT.

I started practicing law in Alabama in the late 1970s after going to UNC Chapel Hill. I found out that the U.S. Forest Service had started building the Pinhoti Trail along the north to south length of Alabama’s Talladega National Forest. That spurred me to start thinking about how to create a trail route across the 60 or so mile stretch  of privately owned lands between the Talladega National Forest and Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. I continued thinking about linking the two trails. I got involved in land conservation issues in Alabama, and as one thing led to another, my teenage, doodling pipe dream began to come to life. This was when there weren’t laptops or computerized maps, so I would get up on Saturday mornings and drive to a few of the counties in Alabama that the Pinhoti Trail ran through. The courthouses and tax offices were open, so I would go in and look at maps to see who owned what pieces of land. I was excited to be able to say that the plan was to link an already existing trail in Alabama to the AT.  It made the linkage idea sound a good bit less “pie-in-the-sky”.

In 1983, when I was 30 years old, I stood up and spoke at a wilderness area opening and for the first time talked publicly about my dream to link the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail. And 32 years later, I’m working with The Conservation Fund on improving the Pinhoti, moving it off of the roadside and into the woods. I feel incredibly blessed to have had this dream when I was 17 years old and now be able to sit here, 45 years later, and talk about it happening.

What’s special about the Pinhoti Trail?
If you look at the Talladega National Forest, its main 100-mile ridge is one of the most protected of any of the main ridges in the Appalachian Mountains outside of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, the Blue Ridge in the Shenandoah National Park of Virginia, and the Great Smokies. This ridge is nearly 100% in public ownership and protected from any form of development. On top of the rugged, natural landscape, plant life exists that isn’t found anywhere north of there. There are oak leaf hydrangeas, a rather beautiful plant, but you won’t find them in the Blue Ridge Mountains because the altitude is too high. There’s longleaf pine growing on mountaintops and cliff tops–this species of tree is normally found on the coastal plain, but it grows on mountain tops along the Alabama portion of the Pinhoti. You can be hiking around the north side of the mountaintop in the Talladega and find flame azalea and rhododendron blooming in early May, then hike through a gap and find yourself hiking a south facing slope that is all longleaf pine. The mix of southern coastal plain plant life with plants common in the northern Blue Ridge Mountains is what makes this such a special place. It’s also a lot less crowded than many other trails.

What inspired you to join the Fund’s board? And why are you so passionate about conservation?
I had been serving on an Advisory Council within the Fund for a while when I was asked to join the Board in 2004. By that time, I realized that the Fund was very direct and very effective. The Fund also works directly towards results rather than going off into the weeds. This appealed to me. My passion for conservation goes back to my days as a teenager and my fascination and appreciation for trails and hiking.

This year the Fund celebrates its 30th anniversary, what impact do you think the Fund has had these last three decades?
I immediately think of two things. The first is the Fund’s incredible legacy of lands that it has protected, ranging from the Gettysburg Battlefield and Flight 93 site, to the Pinhoti, Chimney Rock and Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, Delaware’s First State National Historical Park, Arizona’s Petrified National Park, and South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park. There is an incredible list. Frankly, any land conservation effort ought to be having that kind of impact.

Second, as time has gone on, and I think this has been particularly true in the last decade, the Fund has embodied a notion of transformational conservation, and what I mean by that is making conservation work for America. Doing so revolutionizes how conservation is done, and leads to quantifiable and concrete conservation results that can, for example, protect large forested tracts along the Appalachian Trail near the Maine-New Hampshire state line while also providing the timber needed to sustain an entrepreneurial saw mill that provides 80 or 90 jobs in an area that really needs those jobs.  The Fund is moving into very strategic goals, like protecting large swaths of working forests and helping companies mitigate their impacts in a positive way. Fund programs like NCIF and Resourceful Communities aim to have a much more direct economic impact. To me, that is what I am seeing as the Fund’s greatest impact—the opportunity to make conservation work for America. 

In June 2016, Mike Leonard was honored as a recipient of Wild South's Friend of Wilderness Award. 

Learn More

Pinhoti Trail
Our work in Alabama
Making Conservation Work For America
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