Virginia Tech alumnus promotes North Carolina trail from mountains to sea
Brent Laurenz loved hiking the trails of Southwest Virginia while at Virginia Tech, and this past January, he landed his dream job as executive director of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which seeks to improve and preserve the cross-state pathway
On those beautiful fall or spring afternoons during his undergraduate days, Brent Laurenz often found himself debating between taking a hike on one of Southwest Virginia’s numerous trails or making the prudent decision of going to class.
Class won out every time.
“Of course,” Laurenz said, smiling.
Laurenz ’02 found a passion for the outdoors during his days at Virginia Tech, and he now has turned that passion into a dream career. In January, he took over as the executive director of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a nonprofit organization based in Raleigh, North Carolina, dedicated to improving and preserving the popular cross-state pathway.
Laurenz graduated with a degree in psychology from the College of Science with minors in English and sociology. After working for nonprofit organizations in Washington, D.C., and pursuing his master’s degree from George Washington University, he moved to Raleigh in 2009, continuing his work in the nonprofit realm.
Last year, an advertisement for his current job flowed to his email inbox, and he was intrigued.
“I kind of fell in love with North Carolina and all the great outdoors stuff that it had to offer, and one of the first things I stumbled across when I moved here was the Mountains-to-Sea Trail,” he said. “It's just a place to hike and enjoy nature and kind of get out into the world, in the forest, in the woods.
“Then this job popped up, and I felt like it was a great time in my career for something like this. Some of my nonprofit experience lined up nicely with what the organization was looking for, and then just bringing that personal passion for hiking and being outdoors, it really was the perfect marriage of the two.”
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail stretches 1,175 miles from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains on the Tennessee-North Carolina border to Nags Head on the Outer Banks. Portions of the trail run in tandem with parts of North Carolina’s 12 official state trails, and some currently follow roadways while off-road options are pursued. Most hikers use the trail for day hikes, though many have taken the three to four months needed to hike the trail in its entirety.
Laurenz, who oversees a six-person staff, represents the nonprofit organization at public events, works with volunteers and contractors to repair sections and build bridges along the trail, helps plan new sections of the trail, assists volunteer outings to maintain the trail, manages marketing efforts, and connects with donors whose financial gifts are important to the trail’s existence.
“That's really been one of the fun parts, just getting to know people who care about something and either devote time, energy, money, whatever it is to help see it be successful and keep growing,” Laurenz said. “It's been a lot of fun. The first half year was a lot of acclamation and getting my feet under me, but I feel like I'm getting the hang of everything and excited for year two, for sure.”
Laurenz expressed excitement over the North Carolina legislature’s recent budget decision to allocate nearly $30 million for the state’s trail system. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail will receive a portion of that, and Laurenz and his staff have created a five-year plan for how best to use that investment.
“Both our trail and the other trails in the state, we've never gotten state money like this before,” Laurenz said. “So we really want to show how needed it is and how much good we can do with it.”
Also, 2023 is important for him and his staff in another respect – North Carolina’s General Assembly designated the year as “The Year of the Trail.” The year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1973 North Carolina Trails System Act, which created North Carolina’s Trails Program. The state wants to use the year to showcase, promote, and celebrate its trails.
Laurenz wants to leverage the excitement around that to bring new members into Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Members help with trail maintenance and construction along with fundraising efforts for future projects.
Those efforts will be needed, too. Like many trail systems, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail saw increased usage during the COVID pandemic, and the usage hasn’t waned, so maintaining the trail will require resources.
“I think a lot of people, just from normal people to elected officials to whomever, before sort of viewed parks and recreation options like this as nice things to have,” Laurenz said. “But now I think a lot more people view them as their necessary components for a good quality of life, from both a mental and physical well-being. It’s not really quantifiable, but just the peacefulness of being and finding a place to be in nature is really helpful for a lot of people.”
This past spring, Laurenz brought his kids to Blacksburg for the spring game, and he took them on a short hike along the McAfee’s Knob trail. He often found peace on this trail while at Virginia Tech.
In a sense, Laurenz used the excursion to pay homage to something from his past that has inspired his future.
“That’s one of the reasons why Virginia Tech is so special, just being in that beautiful setting with all the outdoor opportunities around us,” he said. “It’s just amazing. It’s such a unique and special place for so many reasons, but particularly because of that.”