pinhoti national recreation trail / pinhoti millennium legacy trail
a 337.1 mile southern region appalachian trail connector
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the pinhoti story by mike leonard.
Mike Leonard and Carl Silverstein ~ Interview with AL.com
benton mckaye trail.
The Story Of The Pinhoti Trail
By Mike Leonard
Part One, Protecting The Cheaha Wilderness
The Pinhoti Trail was initially begun by the U.S. Forest Service in the early 1970s. Though I don’t know that much detail about its beginnings, the Pinhoti Trail was the brainchild of Jim Bylsma and Bobby Bledsoe of the U.S. Forest Service. The first portion of the trail was constructed in the Shoal Creek/Coleman Lake area north of U.S. 78 and I-20. By 1977 and 1978, that section and the section leading from Cheaha State Park south to Adams Gap were in place. By 1983 or 1984, the two sections were linked. All of this work on the Pinhoti was done, and done well, by the U.S. Forest Service.
Meanwhile, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Pinhoti was eclipsed by a debate over the fate of both the Odum Scout Trail (the Pinhoti’s predecessor south of Cheaha State Park) and the wild mountain ridge that now lies within the Cheaha Wilderness.
In the mid-1970s, the U.S. Forest Service began proposing and pushing for a paved Talladega Scenic Drive that was going to run south from Piedmont, Alabama, cross Dugger Mountain and then run all the way from Dugger to Cheaha and then south to Sylacauga.
Part of the plan was to run the paved highway right down the crest of the Talladega Mountains in what is now the Cheaha Wilderness. In 1977, the Alabama Conservancy (now the Alabama Environmental Coalition), the Sierra Club and a Boy Scout Troop from Montgomery sued, claiming that the Forest Service had to do an Environmental Impact Statement for the entire proposed highway instead of one small section at a time. The U.S. District Court in Birmingham agreed, and the highway was halted pending a complete Environmental Impact Statement.
Soon afterwards, the Carter administration began the RARE II process which was designed to inventory road-less areas that might be suitable for wilderness protection. The fate of the wild mountain ridge south of Cheaha State Park became central to the RARE II issues in Alabama.
At about the same time in 1978, I moved to Alabama, fresh out of law school in North Carolina. By that time, I had hiked much of the Appalachian Trail south of Virginia, and soon after I moved to Alabama, I was out looking for the State’s best hiking trails.
Of course that led me to Cheaha State Park, the Odum Scout Trail and the Pinhoti. Also, since I was eager to use my new law degree and Alabama law license in some pro bono, public oriented service, a news item about the proposed highway led me to call John Randolph and the Alabama Conservancy in the late fall of 1978.
To make a long story short, in 1980 or 1981, I became co-chair of the Alabama Wilderness Coalition with John Randolph. Initially, John focused on expanding the Sipsey Wilderness, and I focused on protecting the Cheaha Wilderness, which was then the home of Alabama’s only wilderness mountaintop hiking trail (the trails along ridges like Rebecca Mountain south of Cheaha and across mountains like Dugger Mountain, Oakey Mountain and Indian Mountain were all added later).
The Alabama Wilderness Coalition offered the compromise of building the paved scenic drive west of the Cheaha Wilderness, primarily along the route of an already existing gravel road. Despite this offer of compromise that would take the highway off the mountain ridge (and cost much less money), the arguments over creating the Cheaha Wilderness were surprisingly bitter.
Opponents of the Wilderness told nearby landowners that their farms would be condemned if the wilderness was established (the claim was not true – the wilderness has been there for over 20 years and not one acre of private land has ever been condemned). Opponents argued that the Cheaha Wilderness would become a place where “criminals would hide their victims’ bodies”. The U.S. Forest Service supported building the scenic highway down the ridge crest and through the middle of what is now the Cheaha Wilderness, and protecting the mountain ridge was by no means assured.
At one point, U.S. Forest Service personnel told us that if we would “back off” the opposition to the highway along the mountain tops south of Cheaha, they would support wilderness protection for Dugger Mountain. We decided not to back off, and I remember telling folks that, unlike the proposed Cheaha Wilderness, Dugger Mountain was not threatened by the imminent construction of a highway, and that conservationists could protect Dugger sometime in the next ten to twenty years. And it turned out that we were right.
Between 1980 and late 1982, I testified at least twice before Congress in favor of the Cheaha Wilderness. I made other trips to Washington, D.C. (all at my own expense) to lobby for the Cheaha Wilderness (and the integrity of the highest portion of the route for the Pinhoti). I and others went to Montgomery from Birmingham on quite a few occasions. I traveled to Atlanta to talk to the head of the Southeast Region of the U.S. Forest Service about the issue. I helped coordinate the efforts of many others who wanted to protect the wild mountain ridge south of Cheaha State Park and protect the Pinhoti. There is no telling how many letters and “alerts” that I sent (usually, again, at my own expense).
Frankly, I was fortunate that my law degree and legal career gave me the skills and funds to do these things.
Then, in December 1982, the Congress, with the help of Congressman Bill Nichols (who dies in office in the late 1980s), Senator Howell Heflin and Senator Jeremiah Denton, the Cheaha Wilderness Act passed Congress. In early January 1983, President Reagan signed the Act.
As a result, in the late fall of 1982, the Cheaha Wilderness Bill was moving forward, and I began to sense that we would succeed in passing the legislation to create the Cheaha Wilderness and thereby protect the highest, and most popular, portion of the Pinhoti. So, I began to have the time to think about, and explore, the possibility of connecting the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail.
And, in mid-August 1983, when we held the dedication of the Cheaha Wilderness at Cheaha State Park, I announced a plan to link the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail. I particularly remember two things about that announcement – the first being that the mention of linking the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail made both the television Evening News and the Birmingham News – the second being that a fellow who worked for the Southeast Regional Office of the U.S. Forest Service took me aside and said, “Interesting idea, but it’s impossible to make it happen”.
In the next part, I will tell the story of how we made the link between the Pinhoti Trail and the Appalachian Trail.
Part Two, Starting The Link Between The Pinhoti Trail & The Appalachian Trail
In the first article about the background of the Pinhoti, I mentioned how I moved to Birmingham in 1978 and became involved in the effort to protect the Cheaha Wilderness which is home to the highest and most popular portion of the Pinhoti Trail. That effort taught me a great deal about how Congress works and provided me with Congressional contacts that I later relied on as we began to work to link the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail.
But the background of my involvement in the Pinhoti began before the signing of the Cheaha Wilderness Legislation in January 2003. I took my first long hikes on the Appalachian Trail when I was 16 and 17 in 1969 and 1970. That led to a fascination with the Appalachian Trail, buying books about the Trail and reading the history of how the original planners and builders of the Trail routed the Appalachian Trail along spines of National Forest land between the Shenandoah National Park and Springer Mountain.
I distinctly remember pouring over a Road Atlas during a trip to Seattle and California in August 1970 and looking at how the Talladega National Forest runs southwest to northeast across east Alabama and points toward the southwest end of the Armuchee District of the Chattahoochee National Forest in northwest Georgia, to the west of I-75. I also saw how the Armuchee District leads southwest to northeast and points toward the large Cohutta region of the Chattahoochee National Forest which lies in the Blue Ridge east of the Conasauga River Valley. I noticed how a belt of the Chattahoochee National Forest runs northwest to southeast from the Cohutta area to Springer Mountain and the Appalachian Trail. And sitting there in the car somewhere between North Carolina and the Colorado Rockies, I took a pen and drew a line following the basic “spines” of National Forest land outlined above and first dreamed of the basic route that has ultimately been utilized to link Alabama’s mountains to the Appalachian Trail.
While I was in college and law school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina between September 1971 and May 1978, I focused on studies, fun and a good many hikes in the mountains of North Carolina. Meanwhile, unknown to me, the U.S. Forest Service in Alabama began planning the Pinhoti Trail along the length of the Talladega National Forest in Alabama. Thus, when I first spent time in Alabama during the summer of 1977 while working for Cabaniss Johnston, a Birmingham law firm, I realized that the Pinhoti was being constructed along the mountains in the Talladega National Forest. As a result, I first began to truly think and talk about the possibility of linking the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail. Indeed, in late 1977 and early 1978, when I was considering where to work after graduating from law school at the University of North Carolina, the thought of being able to work on linking Alabama to the Appalachian Trail had some influence on my taking the job offer in Birmingham (though the fact that in 1978 my Birmingham law firm paid more than any firm in North Carolina and as much as the biggest firms in Atlanta probably had more influence).
Regardless, I moved from North Carolina to Birmingham over Memorial Day weekend in 1978. Three weeks later, after a Father’s Day visit to my brother’s house in Atlanta, I drove back to Alabama through Cedartown, Georgia (instead of going back on I-20) and looked at the “lay of the land” between Indian Mountain, on the State line, and Dugger Mountain. I even drove gravel roads leading through the Talladega National Forest from Piedmont and Dugger Mountain south to Coleman Lake which was then the north end of the Pinhoti Trail.
Four years later, in September 1982, once it began to appear that the Cheaha Wilderness Bill would pass Congress, I returned to the mountains north of Dugger Mountain and the Talladega National Forest. This time, I did more than drive around. I began visiting county courthouses in Centre and Heflin, looking at tax maps and land records and figuring out who owned the land along several different possible routes between Dugger Mountain and the State line just east of the top of Indian Mountain. As a result, I learned that the land along the mountain ridges north of Dugger Mountain was owned in large blocks by timber companies and that you could cover all but a half mile of the 20 to 25 miles between Dugger Mountain and Indian Mountain by dealing with only four landowners. Other routes that I looked at (for example, trying to go from Dugger Mountain to public land at Little River Canyon involved dozens of landowners).
The analysis, therefore, became simple: imagine putting together a real estate transaction with one owner who owns several thousand acres that will provide several miles of trail versus putting together transactions with fourteen owners to put an equivalent amount of trail on the ground. From the simple standpoint of the best utilization of limited time and resources available, we had to choose the route that involved four owners instead of dozens of owners.
It just so happened that the route with the fewest owners was also a high, mountain crest route. Thus, the choice became even easier.
And, as it turned out, the most practical route was also the route I had drawn on the maps in the Road Atlas when I was 17, the route from Dugger Mountain north and east to Indian Mountain and then into Georgia.
Before starting to work on the Pinhoti north of the Talladega Forest, we needed to have a non-profit committed to pursuing the goal of connecting the Pinhoti to the Appalachian Trail. It was not really a suitable task for advocacy groups like the Sierra Club or the Alabama Conservancy (which later became the Alabama Environmental Coalition). Thus, I began to work with a trail group in Birmingham in 1983 and 1984 to see if that group could effectively take up the “cause”.
For various reasons, that group’s focus was elsewhere, and I ultimately decided that getting the group to change its focus was taking energy and time that needed to be spent on the trail effort.
Thus, in early 1985, George Blynn, Steve Spencer and I incorporated the Alabama Hiking Association which later changes its name to the Alabama Trails Association and which has played the major role constructing the trail between the Talladega National Forest and the Georgia state line. Of course, the Alabama Trails Association continues to work on the Pinhoti today. Indeed, I am still on the board of the Alabama Trails Association.
At the same time, Alabama Conservation magazine ran an article entitled: “It’s About Time! For A Plan To Link Alabama’s Mountains To The Appalachian Trail”. In many ways, I date the formal effort to link Alabama to the Appalachian Trail from the incorporation of the Alabama Trails Association and the publication of that article in February 1985.
In the next article, I will provide a history of how the Alabama Trails Association worked with the Conservation Fund, Gerald Willis, members of Congress, the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Alabama to secure the trail route between Dugger Mountain and the Georgia/Alabama state line.
Part Three, Two “Great Leaps Forward” In Securing The Trail Corridor In Alabama
In February 1985, we incorporated the Alabama Hiking Association (which later changed its name to the Alabama Trails Association) and Alabama Conservation magazine published an article about the plan to link the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail. At that point, the effort to establish that link began in earnest.
The first thing that we needed to do was secure trail corridor leading northeast from Dugger Mountain. At that time, the northern limit of the Talladega National Forest was just north of Dugger Mountain. In fact, the forest purchase or “proclamation” boundary did not include the north two-thirds of Oakey Mountain. We determined that one major company owned large blocks of land (several thousand acres) which included Oakey Mountain to the east/northeast of Dugger Mountain and Wilson Ridge and Augusta Mine Ridge stretching several miles north to the Cleburne County/Cherokee County line. We began talking to that company about the trail, and they were at least willing to listen to us though non-committal.
Then, in early 1986, I was offered an opportunity to practice law with the largest law firm in North Carolina. I wanted to move back to North Carolina to be near my family and the places where I grew up, but I was worried about leaving Alabama right when we were starting both the Alabama Trails Association and the effort to link Alabama to the Appalachian Trail. But, in 1984 and 1985, while living in Alabama, I had played a key role in the effort to protect the Horsepasture River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, so I had learned that with long distance telephone, fax and FED EX (this was before e-mail), you could work across state lines to make conservation happen.
So, I moved to North Carolina and continued to work on securing trail corridor for the Pinhoti Trail. At some point after I moved, the major timber company that owned the first five or six miles of trail north of Dugger Mountain told me that they had given the land involved to the Nature Conservancy. Interestingly, that did not automatically ensure a trail route. The land had been given to the Nature Conservancy as “trade land” – land which would be sold by the Conservancy to raise money for its other programs. Thus, the Nature Conservancy was receptive to (but not thrilled about) granting an easement for the Pinhoti Trail. Basically, if a trail easement would interfere with their ability to sell the land, they might not grant the easement.
Then, at one point, I asked the Conservancy whether they would be open to the U.S. Forest Service buying their land for addition to the Talladega National Forest. They said that they would but that the Nature Conservancy could not assist in lobbying Congress to obtain the needed funds. Through some projects that I had worked on in North Carolina, I had learned how the Federal appropriations process works for land acquisition. Absolutely key was the support of the local Congressperson and the support of either a member of the Appropriations Committee or at least one of the Senators from the State.
I had developed a good relationship with the staff of Congressman Bill Nichols while working on the Cheaha Wilderness so I talked to them about buying land to link the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail. Mr. Nichols represented the area of Alabama where the proposed route of the Pinhoti Trail was located. His staff responded to me that he might be interested, and then, Congressman Nichols died sitting at his desk in Washington, D.C. I had thought highly of Mr. Nichols and was worried about how to proceed after his death. But Winston Lett of Congressman Nichols’ staff told me that he thought that the best contender in the special election to replace Bill Nichols was a fellow from Jacksonville, Alabama named Glen Browder. As a result, I actually flew down to Alabama once or twice to attend events for Glen Browder, and then, Mr. Browder was elected.
The day after Mr. Browder was sworn in at the U. S. Capitol was just two days before “Members Day” when members of Congress go before the Appropriations Committee to testify and ask for the Committee’s support on projects. On that day, I was sitting in Mr. Browder’s new office in Washington, D.C. helping his staff prepare testimony to ask for three million dollars to buy 6,000 acres for trail corridor for the Pinhoti Trail. Mr. Browder went to “Members Day” and used that written testimony to ask for funding to buy several thousand acres of land stretching from Oakey Mountain to the Cherokee County line. One of the Appropriations Committee members hearing his testimony was Tom Bevill, a long-time Alabama Congressman and a long-time member of the Appropriations Committee.
Mr. Bevill gave his support and, later that year, the funds were appropriated to buy the Nature Conservancy Land, and the effort to link Alabama to the Appalachian Trail was off to an incredible start. Indeed, in one fell swoop, Oakey Mountain, Wilson Ridge, Maxwell Gap and Augusta Mine Ridge were all added to the Talladega National Forest, and the Pinhoti Trail corridor leapt from Dugger Mountain north to the Cherokee County/Cleburne County line.
Early in the same time period that we were seeking the appropriation and acquiring the mountain ridges mentioned above, I was also focusing on the next large block of land north of the Cherokee County line. This land had been owned by a large timber company but was sold to Gerald Willis of Nance’s Creek. While Congressman Nichols was still alive I mentioned that fact to Mr. Nichols’ staff, and they told me that Mr. Nichols knew Mr. Willis and that Mr. Willis might help us. So, I asked Congressman Nichols to send Mr. Willis a letter encouraging him to work with us to link the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail. And, Mr. Willis could indeed help since his land would provide almost 5 miles of trail route stretching from a mile or so north of the Cherokee County line to within a mile of the top of Indian Mountain and within two miles of the Georgia state line.
After Congressman Nichols sent the letter to Mr. Willis, I called Mr. Willis and asked him if I could fly down from North Carolina to talk with him about the trail. He told me that he greatly respected Mr. Nichols and that he would be glad to see me.
Within a month, I arrived at Mr. Willis’ office outside of Piedmont, Alabama. By the time the meeting was over, he had agreed to a permanent trail easement “because Congressman Nichols had told him that is what he should do.” I got an Alabama attorney to draft the trail easement. Mr. and Mrs. Willis signed it, and it was recorded in April 1990. Thus, in another “great leap”, the trail corridor moved north to Indian Mountain. Also, during my discussions with Mr. Willis, he said one of the favorite things that I have heard in all my years of conservation work. We were talking about the trail easement for the Pinhoti, and I was being diligent and straightforward and mentioning the fact that having the trail on his property might open him to a lawsuit if someone was hurt (I also explained the Alabama statute designed to protect someone who opens their land to a trail from liability). Mr. Willis listened and thanked me and then said, “Mr. Leonard, this trail is the right thing to do. I have been in business for a long time. I’ve been sued before, and I’ll be sued again before it’s all over. Now, if I didn’t do things because I might get sued, I wouldn’t do much of anything, now, would I?”
As a result of the two “great leaps” discussed above, the Pinhoti Trail Corridor in Alabama was complete except for (1) a gap at Terrapin Creek, (2) a one-mile gap between the Cleburne County/Cherokee County line and Gerald Willis’s land on Rocky Mountain and (3) a two to three-mile gap that lay between the north end of Mr. Willis’s land and the Georgia state line and included the top of Indian Mountain. The next part of this “Pinhoti Trail Story” will describe the completion of the trail corridor in Alabama and the construction of the Trail.
Interestingly, once the U.S. Forest Service bought Oakey Mountain, Wilson Ridge and Augusta Mine Ridge, there was still a considerable amount left over from the original $3 million appropriation. We began thinking about using those funds to buy land between the Cleburne County/Cherokee County line and U.S. 278.
However, to do that would take an act of Congress to expand the “proclamation boundary” of the Talladega National Forest north of U.S. 278. The Congress rarely will change these proclamation boundaries, but Congressman Bevill supported doing so, and we worked with Senator Heflin to insert language to expand the National Forest into the 1990 Farm Bill. Because Senator Heflin was on the Agriculture Committee, he could make this happen. The first Bush Administration opposed this move, and actually went to the trouble to testify against this minor Forest expansion at a hearing. All that accomplished was to make Senator Heflin even more determined to expand the boundary, and the Farm Bill passed with the needed provision to expand the Talladega National Forest.
With this new Legislative authority, we began working on buying the land to take the Talladega north to U.S. 278. Gerald Willis was wiling to sell the land he owned on Rocky Mountain. Pete Conroy of Jacksonville knew the man who owned the land between the Cleburne County/Cherokee County line and Rocky Mountain and talked that gentleman into selling that land for the trail corridor. And, to make for an even better trail corridor, we decided to try and purchase Lanie Hollow. Lanie Hollow was owned by U.S. Pipe, and an old friend of mine who practiced law in Birmingham (and who had, like me, attended Law School at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill) was then general counsel of U.S. Pipe. I called my friend, Joe Spransy, and he was willing to work with us. So, I once again flew down to Birmingham so that Joe Spransy and I could take a hike into Lanie Hollow, and within six to nine months, the land at Lanie Hollow was owned by the U.S. Forest Service.
During all at this, Rex Boner of the Conservation Fund in Atlanta did great work in putting the needed contracts, options, and appraisals together to make these acquisitions happen. At the same time, the U.S. Forest Service was acquiring other tracts, including a timber company tract that provided trail corridor across the Terrapin Creek valley between Oakey Mountain and Wilson Ridge.
Thus, by 1991 and early 1992, the Pinhoti Trail corridor was rapidly becoming a reality in Alabama.