The Appalachian Trail courses for more than two-thousand miles through pristine “wilderness,” farms, small towns, and backyards from Georgia to Maine. Embedded in its tread, however, is a history of conflict and compromise that stretches over a century. Its creation, completion, and management—from the visions of its Progressive originators to the innovative public-private partnership that manages the trail today—mirrors the history of American environmental politics in the twentieth century and holds valuable lessons for how we approach environmental protection in the future. This is what Sarah Mittlefehldt argues and deftly demonstrates in Tangled Roots: The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics, which was painstakingly researched over ten months while she hiked the trail’s entire length.
The story begins in the early twentieth century with Progressive Benton MacKaye and his conception of the trail as a vehicle for social improvement and economic development. MacKaye’s ideal challenges our contemporary notions of pristine wilderness by casting the trail as a profoundly human construction meant for social betterment. Through MacKaye’s work and the Appalachian Trail Conference, construction and maintenance of the trail was distinctly voluntary and characterized by the work of private citizens and local nonprofit organizations. During the Great Depression, trail advocates realized the potential of enlisting the federal government to secure the trail corridor and complete the path. With the involvement of the Civilian Conservation Corps, trail building accelerated until it was finished in 1937. Informal “hand-shake” agreements were the norm for procuring right-of-ways and marked the collegial relations between landowners and trail advocates that predominated during this era.
During World War II and in the decades that followed, however, increased pressure for natural resources, expanding popularity in outdoor recreation, and new landowners threatened the trail and [End Page 703] its future. Trail advocates called for increased federal government involvement in securing the corridor. What Mittlefehldt describes as the “horizontal, dendritic roots of grassroots social action,” became further tangled with the “strong central taproot of federal authority” (p. 4). With the passage of the National Trails Act in 1968, the federal government increased and altered the relationship between trail advocates and landowners. Federal-land-acquisition efforts sparked a backlash by property owners coinciding with and connected to the burgeoning New Right during the 1970s and 1980s. Only through the evolution of a unique partnership between the National Park Service, the Appalachian Trail Conference, and local trail groups, was the trail’s future safeguarded. Instead of an anomaly in environmental protection, Mittlefehldt demonstrates that this public-private partnership was an innovative development deliberately crafted by trail advocates to adapt to the changing political, social, and economic landscape after the 1980s. Through this history, Mittlefehldt illuminates the importance of citizen participation in environmental decision making, the necessity of bi-partisan federal leadership for accomplishing large-scale environmental goals, the compatibility of conservation with conservative political ideology and working landscapes with wilderness, and the need for our political institutions to remain adaptable to new cultural and economic realities.
Extending from the nature of the trail itself, Tangled Roots reframes our understanding of American environmental politics. As the trail crosses diverse and contested terrain, Mittlefehldt’s history expands our understanding of the relationship between volunteerism and federalism in environmental protection and how environmental politics evolved in relation to changing conditions during the twentieth century, including the rise of the New Right. It helps us imagine new combinations of power and authority, and new roles for public and private institutions and citizens in addressing environmental issues in the twenty-first century. In these ways, and in its accessible and readable prose, Tangled Roots makes a valuable and welcome contribution to the history of American environmental politics. [End Page 704]
CODY FERGUSON is a postdoctoral scholar of environmental and public humanities at Arizona State University. His work focuses on the history of environmental activism and the intersections of democratic and environmental reform in the second half of the twentieth century. He is the author of the forthcoming monograph...