Mar 24 2008

An Alabama injustice that's now corrected

Anniston Star

By Pete Conroy

Atop Cheaha Ridge, something big happened last weekend.

First, severe-weather sirens on Saturday blasted from Alabama's highest point while a group hunkered down and conspired inside the nearby Bald Rock Lodge. They were preparing for Sunday and an event of national significance.

Then, when storms had passed and a perfect Sunday sunrise began to warm the mountain, people prepared for the event. They were coming to see a big rock that had been mined from the LaFarge Quarry in Jefferson County. Weighing more than 10,000 pounds, this huge block of granite and limestone was hauled nearly a mile deep into the woods for the event.

By noon, the cool sky was nearly cloudless and the wind was still. Dozens of people had begun to arrive on Cheaha. And by 2 o'clock, hundreds had trekked their way back into the woods to see the big rock, embedded with an impressive brass plaque. Included in the group were reporters, elected officials, lawyers, children, scientists, business leaders, teachers and others, all interested in the same thing: connecting a simple walking trail from Maine to Alabama. The rock would serve as a permanent symbol that corrected a significant Alabama injustice.

What was this injustice? It was that America's most famous hiking trail has always been too short. Indeed, the well-known Appalachian Trail stopped short of Alabama where, as we all know, the Appalachian ridge begins. Even Benton MacKaye, the man who created the concept of the Appalachian Trail, had envisioned a path that would extend "South to Alabama" from Maine. Until last Sunday, that had never happened.

All who attended the event — and all who have an interest in the outdoors — can now celebrate because MacKaye's dream has come true. The Appalachian Trail, connected to the Benton MacKaye Trail in Georgia, is connected to the Pinhoti Trail, completing the simple path that's now 2,504 miles long.

It was my friend Mike Leonard, an Alabamian now living and working as a lawyer in North Carolina, who introduced me to the concept of extending the trail the length of the Appalachian Mountains. The idea was so logical that nearly 20 years ago, State Rep. Richard Lindsey, Cherokee County lawyer Al Shumaker, local conservationist Bruce Hutchinson, Mike and I went to Washington to lobby. On one of my first trips to Capitol Hill, we talked with legislators who agreed that an extension should be in our future. Not too many worthwhile projects happen overnight. This one took decades.

Nevertheless, it's an exciting time in Alabama, because we are becoming connected in so many other ways. From our new Airbus factory in Mobile, to the growth of UAB's medical complex and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, we have new connections that will benefits us in many ways. From one end of the state to the other, we are becoming connected to a high-tech future.

In a very different way, the low-tech future has a similar impact on connecting Alabama to others.

Developing ecotourism in its purest form, we have created a National Park unit and are connecting Little River's deepest canyon to these highest mountains through the Appalachian Mountains Scenic Byway. Thanks to NASA, the National Park Service, Alabama Power Co., Rep. Bud Cramer and Rep. Robert Aderholt, as well as others, we are set for a grand opening of the Jacksonville State University Canyon Center in early 2009.

We have connected Anniston to Atlanta through the Chief Ladiga and Silver Comet trails — and thanks to Coca-Cola, the PATH Foundation, the Rails to Trails Conservancy, Rep. Mike Rogers and others, we are set for a grand ceremony this fall.

But last Sunday, we celebrated the new Appalachian Trail connection, and friends from Maine such as Brian Wiley, president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, celebrated with us. Jamie Renaud and Marsha Donahue from the Appalachian Trail Café and Lodge sent these words: "Congratulations from Millinocket, Maine, the home of Mount Katahdin and the Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It's great that Maine is now formally connected to Alabama via the Appalachian Trail; we join you in celebrating your new connection."

They also invited us to their first Trail's End Festival in September of this year. Certainly some of us should go there and brag about Alabama, the Pinhoti and the trail's new beginning.

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday. On that day, the ridge served as a most beautiful church, appropriate for prayer, contemplation and deep thanks.

There were so many thanks to deliver, but for sure we must thank former Congressman Glen Browder who during his first week in Washington in 1989 took advantage of "Members Day" to expand the Talladega National Forest's boundary, allowing for this connection.

We need to thank the late U.S. Sen. Howell Heflin and Rep. Tom Bevill, who supported this connection through their policies and appropriations.

Sen. Richard Shelby also deserves our thanks, as through his support and significant appropriations we were able to complete the connection. As Shelby stated, "Connecting Alabama's Pinhoti Trail to the world-famous Appalachian Trail is great news for the many outdoor enthusiasts who have been waiting for the entire Appalachian range to be joined together. I believe that we must protect and preserve our natural resources for future generations to enjoy. I am proud to have played a part in ensuring that the Appalachian Trail connects to our great state."

Also, important to thank are those behind the scenes. The people who built the trail are too many to name, but I'd like to thank volunteers such as Jim Austin, Joe Copeland, Gene Padgham, Carroll Wilson and the late Tom McGehee, who quite literally died while hiking and working on this trail. From Huntsville, most believe Tom died doing what he loved.

From those who have passed away loving trails to those like Anniston's little Lexie Weidner, who was there last Sunday celebrating her very first birthday and learning to love trails, let us all be proud of this accomplishment. Let's also commit to less talking and more walking, especially outdoors and right here in our own back yard on the Pinhoti Trail. In fact, to see what that brass plaque says, you'll just have to walk out and read it!

Something big happened last weekend. Forevermore, it's yours to enjoy.

Pete Conroy, director of Jacksonville State University's Environmental Policy and Information Center, spoke at the Pinhoti Trail connection ceremony last weekend.