This article originally appeared in the Metro Pulse.

Battleground: East Tennesee

Open space and natural habitats are disappearing all around us. The fight to save some of them is spreading, from cities to suburbs to rural wilderness. Here are some snapshots from the front.

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

"We are at war with the dark side of human nature—at least that aspect of it that wants to dominate every inch of the earth. Some day we will prevail. Admittedly it's a rearguard action, but until that time we must fight for every square foot of undeveloped habitat."
—Randy Brown, executive director, Foothills Land Conservancy
From the FLC newsletter, Autumn 1999

The Amusement Park

Townsend, Tennessee. They call it "The Peaceful Side of the Smokies." In the early 1980s, a developer looked at the small community on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains and had an idea: a 1,200-acre theme park that could do for Blount County what the growing number of go-cart tracks and rollercoasters and resort hotels were doing just a dozen miles away in Pigeon Forge. There was no reason not to do it, no zoning to stop it, no one had ever thought that far ahead. The two lanes of Highway 321 were a little narrow to accommodate the traffic flow, but they could be widened.

It never happened. A group of local residents organized and successfully lobbied local officials to block the park. But they knew it was only the beginning of what was likely to be a losing fight. The land on the border of the nation's most visited national park was too attractive for both tourists and developers to stay undisturbed for long. In 1985, some of the people who had fought the amusement park founded the Foothills Land Conservancy, modeled on other conservancy groups around the country. The express goal was to buy as much open land as possible and put it in public trust, to essentially expand the boundaries of the park bit by bit.

Fifteen years later, the group has two full-time employees, including executive director Randy Brown, and a small office in downtown Maryville. It has raised millions of dollars and protected 9,250 acres. It also has an agreement with two anonymous donors to receive 500 more acres on Chilhowee Mountain over the next 10 years. It might seem like an impressive start, if things were standing still. But as it is, Brown says, conservation efforts get farther behind with every housing start, every new motel, every tourist who decides to buy a hillside tract and retire here. Conservation is a battle being waged in every neighborhood, mountain hollow, and farming community in East Tennessee, with consequences for both the quality and quantity of life the region can support.

How much land is enough? Brown shakes his head. "My answer is, we get as much as we can as fast as we can." 

The Big Picture

Killdeers (charadrius vociferus, in Latin) are small round-bodied shorebirds with black bands across their chests. The name comes from their raucous cry: "Kill-deer! Kill-deer!" They make their homes along waterways, traveling riparian corridors from Canada to South America in the fall and back north to nest each spring. The Mississippi River is a major migration route. Which means that one of the thousands of things Gary Myers has to worry about is making sure that West Tennessee's shoreline has enough places for killdeers and related waders to stop and find food. "We're sort of like a bus stop," the veteran executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says.

If the birds don't stock up on enough fat before attempting the southern leg of their flight across the Gulf of Mexico, some of them won't make it and some of those who do will be too weak to return. Myers, who has run TWRA for the past 22 years, talks about the entire state of Tennessee as just one small part of a vast, complicated habitat for scores of waterfowl and migratory songbird species. In the 1980s, he and his peers across the continent agreed as part of the North American Waterfowl Plan to work to create more inviting marshes and wetlands along prescribed routes. To date, more than $1 billion has gone into acquiring and preserving property (often prime developable real estate). "We're working with Canada and Mexico as well to get North America taken care of," Myers says. "We have to go to South America too, ultimately, because the birds winter down there."

But, he continues, "We're probably in West Tennessee getting close to having achieved what we should achieve from the national perspective. If you move to East Tennessee, we haven't. East Tennessee isn't really rich in waterfowl. But there's a lot of potential..." 

Saving Smith Bend

The beavers are moving in. "I'm tickled to see 'em here," says Bernie Swiney, taking off his sunglasses and pointing toward a tangle of artfully arranged tree limbs in the middle of what has become a large forest pond. "They're good engineers. They find the narrowest spot where they can build the smallest dam to back up the most water."

Smith Bend is about 2,500 acres of farmland, swamps, and timber-laden hills along the west bank of the Tennessee River just downstream from Watts Bar, about halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga. And just as Tennessee Valley Authority planners years ago flooded thousands of acres to the north with a massive concrete dam, Swiney—the TWRA agent for Rhea County—hopes the beavers, with human assistance, can turn some of Smith Bend's low-lying meadows into the largest waterfowl habitat in East Tennessee. The biggest goal is providing more room for the 30,000 or more greater sandhill cranes that stop along the Chicamagua Reservoir twice each year on their migratory route. They bed down right now along the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge a little to the south, but they're running out of room and food.

The property here is nearly pristine, soybean fields and woods with only a few old county roads running through them. But it could have been much different. Twenty-two years ago, Exxon Nuclear Corporation bought the property, with the aim of building a nuclear fuels processing plant. When that didn't materialize, another company moved in: Mead Corporation, which was planning a new paper mill. When the mill went to Alabama instead, the company decided to sell Smith Bend. That's when TWRA got interested.

In a deal negotiated by the Conservation Fund, a national group that lends money to secure undeveloped land, TWRA pledged $5 million from Tennessee's wetlands funds—but only if it's matched by $2 million in private contributions. Now, several groups are working to meet that goal, with the Foothills Land Conservancy in the lead.

Randy Brown acknowledges Rhea County is far afield from FLC's usual Smoky Mountain territory. But he argues Smith Bend is too important not to save. (The only serious opposition to the project has come from Rhea County officials, who still lament the loss of the job-and-tax producing paper mill.)

Within a few generations, Brown predicts, most of the territory between Knoxville and Chattanooga will be developed, forming a sprawling megalopolis. But if the fund-raising effort is successful, Smith Bend will come under the protection of TWRA and be used only for (human) recreation and (wildlife) propagation.

"When I look at a slide of Smith Bend from the air, in 50 years it'll

be unchanged," Brown says. "There'll be no rural areas left in East Tennessee. So Smith Bend will be a huge 2,500-acre park in the middle of a Californicated region."

The FLC has until March 31, 2001 to raise the $2 million. Almost halfway through the two-year campaign, however, funds stand at just $340,000. 

The Hunters

Larry Richardson likes to hunt. But like a lot of members of the international group Ducks Unlimited, he balks at the suggestion that that's all he likes to do.

"We're in the wetlands conservation business," says the Knoxville-based regional director for D.U. "We provide habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife all over North America. ...Our mission in East Tennessee is to provide feeding and resting areas for migrating waterfowl."

At the moment, he acknowledges, "East Tennessee is not a high priority in the waterfowl's mind." But he thinks projects like Smith Bend can change that. Ducks Unlimited is planning to donate $50,000 to that effort, with another $50,000 likely next year. The group has been involved in several other local properties, including the 450-acre Kyker Bottoms wetlands in Blount County.

There may be some irony in the prominence of hunters in the conservation movement—over-hunting was a cause of extinction and near-extinction for many species early in the century—but in the age of strict game regulation, many environmental advocates give hunting groups credit both for population control and providing resources for the rest of the general public. Billy Minser, a research associate and instructor on the University of Tennessee's Agricultural Campus, says succinctly, "The sportsmen are the most aggressive and passionate about conserving natural resources."

In addition to groups like Ducks Unlimited, hunters and fishers completely fund the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency through license fees and other charge. Richardson says D.U. also gives 7.5 percent of the money it raises each year directly to the state for conservation projects. The group has spent $2.3 million on Tennessee efforts in the past 20 years.

"Wetlands are always a critical situation," Richardson says. "For years, we humans have tended to drain the swamps to add agricultural land, to develop a shopping center, or whatever it may be. The biggest problem is the run-off of chemicals and soil. That tends to fill up the wetlands and lower their life-giving sustainability." 

The Small Picture: The Brown Cowbird

The brown cowbird is a parasitic nester. It replaces other birds' eggs with its own, leaving the changelings to be hatched by unsuspecting parents. Unlike many songbird species that nest deep within forests, cowbirds like "edge habitats," trees and nests near the fringes of the woods. Edge habitats are spreading as trees make way for housing developments. So are cowbirds. And as cowbirds multiply and force their way into more nests, many songbirds are on the decline. Songbirds are one of the prime controls for many kinds of insects and larvae, including tree-denuding caterpillars. Fewer songbirds equals more insects.

"As our bird population goes down, we're going to be in real trouble," Brown says. 

Money, Money, Money

Gary Myers has a problem with songbirds. TWRA is supposed to protect them, track them, make sure they have sufficient habitats. But no one has told him how to pay for it.

"What ought to drive a lot of what we do is national plans for taking care of songbirds," he says. "We have the mandate to look after all these non-game species, but we have no real money to speak of to do that."

Billy Minser at UT says funding is the biggest obstacle to effective conservation. Groups like Foothills Land Conservancy can pick up bits and pieces, but anything more requires a concerted public effort. While Tennessee does dedicate a portion of the transfer tax on property sales to a wetlands fund—which is providing most of the $5 million in state money for Smith Bend—anything else has to be negotiated in each year's budget. Minser notes that several states, including Arkansas and Missouri, have recently set aside a small portion of the state sales tax for conservation.

"It's hard to pass something like that," he acknowledges. "But if you want it, you have to pay for it. Until we get a dedicated funding source, earmarked...we're going to have a hard time. It's impossible to keep up with the rapid rate of development of our wild areas and farmland. We're losing a county a year to development, a county the size of Hamblen County, and little groups can't go around and combat that."

"We need something," Myers agrees. "Because the sportsmen are pretty well paying the bill, and the license fees can only go so high." He's afraid that even the wetlands fund may be threatened by the state's ongoing budget battles.

"You go buy a field where there isn't anything happening, and you put the water on it, and here comes 30,000 ducks and 10,000 geese," Myers says. "You see those things, and you know what you can do if you just have the resources to do it." 

Keeping It Local

"Plants and animals disappear to make room for your fat ass." That's what the bumper sticker on Tim Gangaware's filing cabinet says. It was a gift from Bo Townsend, the former director of Knoxville's Ijams Nature Center.

Gangaware chuckles at it, but he's not joking. As associate director of the Water Resources Research Center

at the University of Tennessee, he worked with Townsend and others three years ago to form the Knox Land and Water Conservancy.

"We came to realize that there was a real need," says Gangaware, who spends most of his time coordinating efforts to protect Knox County's numerous watersheds from pollution and degradation. "Bo was getting requests from people saying, 'I've got property I'd like to donate.'"

Ijams isn't in the business of acquiring random bits of land, and many of the offered donations were of lots too small or environmentally insignificant to interest the Foothills Land Conservancy and other groups. So members of Knox County's Water Quality Forum—which in addition to UT and Ijams includes TVA, the Soil and Water Conservation Service, and the state and local governments—decided to set up a land trust.

Smaller in scope and resources than the Foothills Land Conservancy, the group at the moment mostly consists of a volunteer board of directors. But it has already made its first significant purchase, using $150,000 of combined city, county, TWRA, and federal funds to buy 133 acres of stony farmland on the banks of the French Broad River, near Ijams just a few miles from downtown Knoxville. Referred to as the Whaley property after the family who farmed it, the land is separated from an existing TWRA wildlife management area only by a small defunct quarry still owned by Vulcan Materials. Gangaware hopes the conservancy can eventually buy the Vulcan property and consolidate all three pieces into a 600-acre area.

"It's about quality of life in the county," Gangaware says. "You look at New York City, and when they're going to get peace of mind, where do they end up going? The one piece of green space they have, Central Park."

Although it has maintained a relatively low profile, the Knox Land and Water Conservancy is planning a full-bore fund-raising drive this spring. It has already identified several key watersheds, including Beaver Creek in Halls, as targets for its efforts. 

The Continuing Crisis

"In the past, we have admitted the right of the individual to injure the future of the Republic for his own present profit. In fact, there has been a good deal of demand for unrestricted individualism, for the right of the individual to injure the future of all of us for his own temporary and immediate profit. The time has come for a change."
—Theodore Roosevelt
National Conference on Conservation, 1908

The Greenway Warrior

Will Skelton looks out the window of his law office on the 17th floor of the Plaza Tower in downtown Knoxville. Out beyond the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and the Forks of the River and even the eastern edge of Knox County, there's a line of green hills.

"That's Bald Ridge Mountain in Cherokee National Forest," Skelton says. The view has special resonance for the graying but fit attorney. For more than 10 years from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, Skelton headed a coalition of conservationists that fought proposed road projects and Congressional recalcitrance to finally get large portions of Cherokee's 626,000 acres protected under the federal Wilderness Act. Unless Congress changes its mind sometime in the future, the dense stands of hemlock, hickory, oak, and pine will be protected from everything except hikers, hunters, anglers, and horseback riders.

"In a way, I think people in the '80s were almost more aware than they are now," Skelton says. "A lot of environmental bills were passed from the late '60s through the early '80s. ...I think people now are somewhat apathetic. Because some things have been done on a lot of these issues, they don't see the need to do more."

But Skelton, who ironically or not is a real estate lawyer by day, has hardly retreated—he's just turned his attention from the macro to the micro. An inveterate traveler and jogger, he noticed many cities in the U.S. by the late 1980s had started conservation efforts within their own borders, protecting thin strips or replanting old industrial land to create corridors for walking, running, and biking—greenways. When he came home to Knoxville, Skelton wondered why he didn't see them here.

"I was writing letters and bugging Mayor Ashe to do something, and he was sympathetic," he says. So sympathetic that he made Skelton chairman of the Knoxville Greenways Commission and started putting money in each year's budget. "In less than 10 years, we have gone from 1.5 miles to close to 20 miles," Skelton says with satisfaction. And the work goes on. Eventually, all the paths are supposed to connect in a network across the city, into the county, and—with design help from the Army Corps of Engineers and joint funding from several local governments—all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains.

The next major trail will open this spring, a 2.5-mile section starting from Ijams Nature Center. Ashe, who loves naming things maybe more than any mayor in Knoxville history, has already picked out a sobriquet: the Will Skelton Greenway. 

It's the Economy, Stupid

Blame it on Clinton or Reagan or Alan Greenspan—the boom years of the 1990s were bad for conservation.

"I've been waiting for that bubble to bust for four years," Randy Brown sighs.

With the stock market soaring, many investment funds have looked for ways to secure some of their gains in something more solid than the ephemeral Dow Jones. And nothing's more solid than land. Brown says when the Foothills Land Conservancy started in the 1980s, large open tracts on Chilhowee Mountain were selling for $100 to $300 an acre. But increased demand and decreased available property has created an inflated seller's market. Brown recently took a developer out to survey property in Walland Gap to see if FLC had a chance of affording it. The developer said the rugged terrain made it almost worthless as investment land. But a retirement fund based in Atlanta thought otherwise; it bought the tract for $1,200 an acre. Brown refused to compete.

"We're not going to raise donated money to buy land that's [overpriced]," he says. 

Initial Public Offerings?

If the development pressures in East Tennessee are pretty much the same as anywhere else in the nation—demand for more houses, more highways, more office parks—the land itself is unique in at least one way: a lot of it is already owned by the general public. UT's Billy Minser wants to keep it that way. He doesn't think it will be easy.

"We can't take it for granted that it won't develop," he says. "It will develop. It will."

What he's talking about aren't the explicitly protected areas—the Great Smoky Mountains, Big South Fork—but the thousands of acres of national forests, TVA lands, and Department of Energy territory strewn throughout the region. Minser, an ardent conservationist whose small office is crammed with animal skulls, snakeskins, and feathers collected during a life spent hunting, walking, and working in the wild, recently helped form Tennessee Citizens for Public Land. A resource group of environmental experts, the organization hopes to build on awareness raised by efforts like TVA's 1999 proposal to sell land along Tellico Lake to a resort developer. Public outcry killed that plan and, Minser hopes, maybe set a precedent. But the money offered by those wanting to put condos or golf courses on land the public might not even know it owns could well prove irresistible to cash-strapped state and federal agencies.

"That public land that's out there is like a raw steak laying in a pen full of dogs," Minser says. "And if we don't guard it, it's gonna get gobbled up." 

Cutting Remarks

"Beauty strips" might sound like some sort of cosmetic product, but to Cielo Sand they're something sinister—thin stands of trees left along roadways by logging companies to hide the ravenous cutting going on behind them.

"I don't think the public eyes are able to reach into the remote areas, the rural areas," says Sand from the Chattanooga office of the anti-chip-mill group Dogwood Alliance. "It's amazing the things you can see from the air that you can't see from the road."

While most conservation efforts start on the ground, Sand and colleague Doug Murray prefer the view from above. They recently started the Alliance's ForestWatch, a program of systematic fly-overs to document the growth of industrial logging in 22 Tennessee counties. Several large paper companies have opened chip mills across the Southeast in the past decade. The small operations chew up trees much faster than traditional timber crews.

"We've been watching a 1,600-acre clearcut in Humphreys County devastated in a 22-month period," Sand says.

Unlike Foothills Land Conservancy, the Dogwood Alliance isn't trying to buy the forests it believes are threatened by voracious milling. Using its aerial photos and reports from on-site inspections, the group files complaints with the state Department of Environment and Conservation to force loggers to comply with erosion control, pollution, and replanting regulations. ForestWatch is doing a two-year study of the impacts of clear-cutting and chip mills, which Sand hopes will fuel stricter legislation.

"Basically, we're trying to get a sense of what's happening to our forests," she says. "The federal agencies and the state agencies do all they can, but we really think it's important for citizens to witness for themselves." 

Not So Peaceful

There's still no amusement park in Townsend, but there's not much peace and quiet either. The entire stretch of Highway 321 through the town is shadowed by a wide dirt track that will eventually double the size and capacity of the two-lane road. On the other side of the highway, strip plazas and commercial parks are under construction. There is as much mud and concrete visible from the road as grass. Although the town went through a long planning process and despite its repeated intention to not turn into a Pigeon Forge-style tourist trap, Townsend is clearly on its way to being what conservationists call "built out."

Contemplating the community that helped spur the formation of the Foothills Land Conservancy, Randy Brown says simply, "Townsend is a lost cause."

"We're losing every day," he continues. "But you do what you can. I think about the people who created the national park... What prescient, wonderful people to leave something behind like that. And I hope people think the same thing about the Foothills Land Conservancy in 100 years." 


Conservation Contacts

Local groups active in conservation efforts:

Foothills Land Conservancy
614 Sevierville Rd.
Maryville, TN 37804
(865) 681-8326 

Knox Land and Water Conservancy
c/o Ijams Nature Center
P.O. Box 2601
Knoxville, TN 37901 

Ducks Unlimited
(865) 521-7705 

Dogwood Alliance ForestWatch
P.O. Box 4826
Chattanooga, TN 37405 


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