This interview with Appalachian Mountain Club Senior VP Walter Graff is part of OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations and people.

Formed in 1876 by a group of explorers and scholars, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) is one of the oldest conservation groups still existing in the United States. Along with 33 other Bostonians, MIT professor Edward Charles Pickering founded the club to explore, map, and preserve the nation’s eastern mountains, namely New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

“I think the telephone was invented the same year that we were founded, so it’s been a long time. The core concepts of exploring and mapping the Northeast are still there, that notion of getting people outdoors and exploring the environment,” said Walter Graff, the AMC’s Senior Vice President. “People move along a track from when they are first exposed to the outdoors to when they become advocates for its preservation. They experience it before they love it.”

The AMC’s philosophy is that conservation depends on active engagement with the outdoors. In other words, if there are more people enjoying outdoor activities, there will be more people who care about protecting those resources. It is hard to argue against logic like that, and the AMC has been actively promoting the outdoors since its creation. Walter said that bringing people to the outdoors means much more than just showing them a few pretty pictures—it also means giving them the tools to go outside.

“When we first started, we were mapping the first maps of the White Mountains in New Hampshire,” Walter explained. “We’ve been publishing maps and guidebooks of Maine, New Hampshire, and even as far south as the Carolinas. We give people the tools to really go and explore. The first major conservation initiative that the AMC funded was to create the White Mountain National Forest. When the AMC built its first hut there in 1888, people hiking there saw the desolation of the area around the turn of the century. AMC members took it upon themselves to say ‘We really need to protect this area, something has to be done.'”

At the time, the club’s members voted to spend $700 (equivalent to $18,000 today) to build a permanent stone structure near Madison Spring between Mount Washington and Mount Madison. The hut was frugal and only provided four small bunks, some storage place, sparse furniture, and utensils. The next year the remote hut received its first overnight visitors. Rather humorously, they had to chop the ice off the hut’s door before they could gain access. In the years following the Madison Spring hut, the AMC built a series of high huts and shelters in the White Mountains to service hikers, hunters, and other outdoorsmen and women who found themselves exposed to the elements and in need of shelter.

See how the new Madison Spring hut looks after more than a century of use:

What Walter is most excited about, however, is the AMC’s next big project. It’s called the Maine Woods Initiative, and it seeks to protect 100,000 acres—along a roughly 100-mile strip—of wilderness along Maine’s part of the Appalachian Trail.

“Maine in essence is the next phase in the AMC’s conservation efforts,” Walter said. “We want to create now, sort of out of whole cloth, a new system. It’s the biggest project that we have undertaken in Maine.”

In fact, it will be the largest investment that the AMC has ever undertaken in its 138-year-long history. The club launched the initiative in 2003 when it bought 37,000 acres in Maine from International Paper. Walter said that these lands will be protected permanently from development, opening them up to hikers, hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe. It was a different story three decades ago, when corporations owned these lands.

“These paper companies own the land, they harvest the trees to make paper—but that changed with globalization in the mid-70s and early ’80s,” Walter shared. “So now this land keeps on changing hands. We said ‘Well wait, we’ve been talking about protecting these lands, so why not protect them ourselves?’ Rather than wait for someone else to do it, this is where the notion of buying land to protect it began.”

The AMC chose their land purchases carefully to align with Maine’s portion of the Appalachian Trail. In preserving land near already-protected areas, Walter asserted the purchase will create an unbroken swath of wilderness and, in essence, kill two birds with one stone.

“What we saw up in Maine, this particular 100-mile stretch of wilderness, was that it was bisected by the Appalachian Trail. That trail is already protected, so if we get this land, we would be preserving land on both sides of the trail.”

Learn more about the Maine Woods Initiative in the video below:

The AMC now owns more than 66,000 acres in the region, after a purchase of an additional 29,500 acres in 2009. This created a 66-mile corridor from Baxter State Park down to AMC’s property near Katahdin Iron Works. But the AMC is not the only entity thinking about buying up patches of Maine’s wilderness, and Walter stressed the need to move fast.

“These lands could be bought up and used for development, so there is an urgency to kind of move quickly to protect this land, which is one of the wildest areas in Maine,” Walter concluded.

We would like to thank Walter for taking the time to talk with us. For more profiles of leaders of conservation, please read our recent interview with NWF Sportsmen’s Outreach Manager John Gale.

Image courtesy Dennis Welsh/AMC

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