Appalachian Trail Conference changes hands

February 05, 2012|By RICHARD F. BELISLE |
  • Mark Wenger is new director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — David Startzell’s legacy as executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for 25 years was buying thousands of acres to protect the national scenic hiking trail, and get it off public roads and private property.

“He brought us down from 200 miles (of public roads and private property) to six miles,” said Robert Almand, chairman of the ATC’s 15-member board of directors.

In the same breath, Almand cited the experience and skills of Mark Wenger of Williamsburg, Va., Startzell’s successor. Jan. 30 was Startzell’s last day on the job and Wenger’s first. 

Wenger, selected from a field of more than 150 applicants, was director of facilities and basic operations for the Colonial Williamsburg (Va.) Foundation. He worked there for 32 years.

Startzell worked at the conservancy’s national headquarters in Harpers Ferry for 34 years, the last 25 as its longest-serving executive director.

“We were thrilled with David,” Almand said of Startzell’s tenure. “He left a lasting legacy of acquiring land to protect the Appalachian Trail.”

Since 1978, when Startzell took over as executive director, more than $200 million has been spent buying more than 200,000 acres, mostly through the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, to buffer the trail, which runs for more than 2,100 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

Startzell said he spent of lot of time during those years talking to members of Congress.

In the last 30 years, more than 1,000 miles of trail were rebuilt or moved to areas with more scenic views, he said.

The first section of the Appalachian Trail opened in 1923 in New York state, the last in Spaulding, Maine, in 1937, he said.

When Startzell started working for the conservancy, it had six employees and a $300,000-a-year budget. Today, there are 50 employees, 24 of whom work in Harpers Ferry, a $6.5 million budget and $12 million in assets. It has more than 6,300 volunteers.

The conservancy has field offices in Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Startzell said of his decision to retire that the “timing was good for me. The conservancy is stable financially. I feel as if I’ve made my mark. Now it’s time for somebody else to make theirs.”

Almand, who chairs the ATC’s board of directors, said an executive search firm was hired to recruit candidates for Startzell’s replacement.

“We were looking for someone with nonprofit experience, and Mark had 30-plus years at Willliamsburg,” Almand said. He brought a “bonus” to the table because of his strong connections to the Appalachian Trail.

“When I saw the ad (for the ATC position), I began to think long and hard about it,” Wenger said. “I’ve been a trail volunteer, was chairman of the Virginia Regional Partnership Committee and I’ve been to Harpers Ferry on hikes, sometimes with the Boy Scouts. It took me eight years and three months to hike the whole trail in sections, but I still finished it.”

Wenger belongs to two of the 31 Appalachian Trail maintenance clubs: Tidewater and Old Dominion.

He felt he could bring his organizational skills to the job, as well as his knowledge of nonprofits and ability to manage a staff. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has 2,100 full-time employees, 500 seasonal workers and 800 buildings spread over 1,500 acres, he said.

“You don’t leave a place as wonderful as Wiliamsburg for nothing,” he said. “This is an opportunity to make a difference. I’m excited to walk in Dave’s footsteps and work with my passions — hiking and the outdoors.”

Javier Folgar, marketing and communications manager at the conservancy, said 2 million to 3 million visitors are on the trail every year, including day-trippers, overnight backpackers and through-hikers. About 2,000 people attempt to through-hike every year, but only about 1 in 4 make it, he said.

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