Benton MacKaye

The Wilderness Society

The father of the Appalachian Trail

Before co-founding The Wilderness Society, Benton MacKaye made groundbreaking scientific contributions to the conservation movement.

MacKaye was a planner and forester who helped pioneer the idea of land preservation for recreation and conservation purposes. He was a strong advocate of balancing human needs and those of nature.

Early Life

Born in Stamford Connecticut in 1879, MacKaye was the son of dramatist Steele MacKaye. Due to his father’s financial troubles, his family experienced a series of moves, living on different farms in Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut before settling in Washington, D.C. in 1889. A young MacKaye became enamored with the beauty and freedom of the country, preferring it to an urban existence. 

Drawn to the study of the natural world, he often pursued knowledge on his own, spending time at the Smithsonian, making sketches, and volunteering in the labs. He dropped out of high school to prepare for the college entrance exam on his own. In 1896, he began his studies in geology at Harvard.

Groundbreaking Work

After graduating in 1905, MacKaye alternated between teaching at Harvard’s forestry school and working with a number of federal bureaus and agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the U.S. Department of Labor.   

MacKaye made some important contributions during the early years of national forestry. While working as a Forest Examiner, he performed groundbreaking research on the impacts of forest cover on runoff in New Hampshire's White Mountains.


MacKaye is known as the originator of the Appalachian Trail, an idea he presented in his 1921 article, An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.  The Benton MacKaye Trail was named after MacKaye. Some portions of the trail coincide with the Appalachian Trail.