top of page
  • by Tom Eastman

Down to Earth Leadership

A cold rain pelted down on the eastern side of Mt. Washington last Saturday afternoon, soaking the clothes if not the enthusiasm of 20 persons participating in a two-day-long geology workshop sponsored by the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Leading the group was Charles "Charlie" Burnham, professor of geology at Harvard University and president of the AMC. Hatless, cheerful, and oblivious to the rain, Burnham described in detail the boulders and rock slabs lodged alongside the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to the students, using each rock as a geological history book. "Don't worry about the weather," he told the others. "Be optimistic. It's bound to improve." It didn't in the Ravine, of course, but no one seemed to mind at that point. Burnham had succeeded in expanding their awareness and understanding of the world around them, and that was all that mattered.

Burnham approaches his job as president of the 104-year-old mountaineering/conservation club with the same fun-loving yet analytical attitude that make his workshops such enjoyable adventures. Somewhat of an iconoclast, he has brought fresh and easy-going style to the position. His attitude had helped create a favorable climate within the organization for the discussion of conflicting viewpoints in an amicable manner.

Since taking over the position two years ago, Burnham has placed a great deal of emphasis on creating a balance between members' interests and the club's function as a public service organization, as well as defining which path the club should take to prepare for the long-term future. His efforts have also helped to increase membership to 25,000 while at the same time removing much of the elitist attitude, which he feels has alienated newcomers or potential members in the past.

Not everyone agrees with his views, as is to be expected, but he has been successful in creating a positive forum for communication. As fellow AMC member and geology workshop co-leader Brian Fowler commented, "Being president hasn't' changed Charlie at all, and I think that that's a good thing. I haven't met a man yet who can't talk to him -- he's just got that quality about him which people trust."

AMC executive director Tom Deans describes the president as a tireless worker who is always willing to take on another task. He agrees with Fowler's views, adding, "Charlie's greatest asset is his sincerity - people see it and know that he is intensely interested in fulfilling the club's commitment to the public and the mountains. Furthermore, unlike some individuals who often isolate themselves when they rise to positions of importance, Charlie has never lost touch with the grassroots aspects of what the AMC is all about - he's still leading his workshop and spending as much time out on the trails as he can. That caring and input has been of great help both to the club and to me personally as the director."

Deans stated that Burnham's presidency will be best remembered after his term expires in January for its emphasis on making the club more accessible to new members, a step necessitated by the organization's primary goal of serving the public. Equally important is the need to draw on increased sources of revenue during this era of fiscal budget tightening and inflationary increases. Says Deans, "As a non-profit organization, the AMC depends heavily on its membership for its revenues and volunteer work. I think Charlie realizes that in order to reach our goals for the future, that revenue would have to be raised through increases in our membership."

Burnham has met the challenge head on, continuing efforts made by his predecessor four years ago to make membership an easy process. Membership is still not as high as he thinks it should and will have to be, however. Says Burnham, "There are now 1.4 million people using the National Forest each year, but we have only 25,000 members. Since we all share a love for the mountains, it's up to us to increase that membership. The AMC is not an organization of old retired hikers - it's a vibrant organization of people in the prime of life who are committed to the protection of the environment in line with other interests in the region. We'd like to share that with new members."

A second priority is to provide those already belonging to the club with more opportunities to become actively involved with its operation. As he explained, "Over the last 10 years, we've tried to have greater participation. While the AMC is today comprised of individuals of diverse backgrounds, the volunteer tradition established by the scientists who founded it in 1876 is still the core of what makes the club a success, and we want to keep expanding that aspect. The success of our efforts is evidenced by the number of new persons running the numerous workshops offered by the club, and by the infusion of fresh blood and ideas, all of which are to the club's betterment."

Burnham's responsibilities as president require him to attend various meetings at the club's 10 chapters, travelling from Maine to Delaware. Each of those 10 chapters is split into numerous subgroups whose responsibilities include managing huts, maintaining trails, providing public service programs, and a multitude of other duties. The very nature of the system opens itself to the possibility of fragmentation and conflicting opinions, but Burnham takes pride in the club's diversity, explaining that the process has its own rewards. "If we want people to join the club and become involved, then we have to make them feel like they are part of it. It might make for some long and drawn out discussions, but we receive the whole picture," he said.

A hiker since his boyhood days at a camp in Maine when he used to travel by train to climb Mt. Washington, Burnham did not join the AMC until he was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He combined his interest in climbing with the study of geology there at the school, a pre-occupation which he still is fascinated with today. After receiving his doctorate in mineralogy from MIT in 1961, he worked for the Carnegie Institute in Washington DC for five years before returning to New England to teach geology at Harvard University in 1966.

Upon his return to Cambridge, Burnham noticed an advertisement for a resident naturalist-botanist to work in the huts system for the AMC on weekends during the summer and fall. Applying for the post, he was hired by AMC educational director John Nutter, and thereupon began what has evolved into an active association with the mountaineering/conservation club. That involvement increased in 1973 when he was appointed chairman of the AMC research steering committee, which had been established to investigate problems with trail use and demand. That post later led to his appointment as one of the club's three vice presidents, head of the Northeast New England Regional Office in Boston. As a result of that position, Burnham gained expertise in such areas as the Huts System, Trail Maintenance, Search and Rescue, and Forest Management.

During the course of those years, he was also busy developing the geology workshop series. Begun in 1972 by AMC colleague Brian Fowler, the workshops have been a success every year since. Fowler and Burnham worked together on the project in 1973, but Burnham later took on full responsibility after Fowler's work as a state geologist increased. An example of the volunteerism which Burnham says is at the core of the AMC's success as a public service organization, the workshops offered by the Pinkham Notch facility is available to members and the public, educating them about the wonders of nature.

President of not, Burnham says that he will stay active in the mountains after his term expires in January, leading workshops or taking some of his Harvard students to geology sites regardless of his position with the Club. "I spend as much time here in the mountains as I can, visiting my second home in Madison and teaching a course in Environmental Geology for my Harvard students. I became more active with the AMC because I felt that it was a worthwhile investment of time and because I felt that I could provide some helpful input toward resolving some of the issues confronting us. Some of those challenges remain, but I feel that we've made some progress which we can be proud of."

Future concerns include the management of the AMC's new properties at Crawford Notch and in the Catskills, continued cooperation with the Forest Service and other groups involved with the management of the White Mountain National Forest, and increased public education about the proper use of the mountains. Each effort will require a balanced approach and tireless commitment on behalf of the AMC, two qualities that have characterized Charlie Burnham's leadership over the past years with the club.

Speaking about that commitment, Burnham stated, "Two years is not too much to ask for, really, when someone else takes over, they'll be able to do a good hob as well. Certainly, it's been a lot of work, but the rewards are well worth the effort."

NOTE: Here is more information about what Charlie Burnham is doing now --

bottom of page