Conservation carve-outs added to Upper Caney Watershed
The rural lands that make up White County have long been recognized and appreciated for their remarkable geological features and timeless sense of hardy frontier vitality.
Over the last several decades, more and more people from outside the area have come to love and admire White County’s abundance of beauty, wildlife and recreation potential, especially southeast of Sparta, where the Cumberland Plateau fuses with the Highland Rim in the cave-pocked boulder-strewn realm of Virgin Falls.
In his essential 1999 survey of scenic regional hikes and Tennessee cultural heritage, “The Historic Cumberland Plateau; An Explorer’s Guide,” outdoor writer Russ Manning observed, “The unique features of this area are the waterfalls that plunge from great heights and disappear into the ground.”
“Big Laurel Creek flows over Big Branch Falls and farther downstream washes over Big Laurel Falls before disappearing in an underground cave behind the falls. Farther in the wilderness a small creek running out of Sheep Cave cascades 50 or 60 feet until it disappears into a hole in the ground,” wrote Manning. “But the most spectacular is Virgin Falls, which emerges from a cave, runs about 50 feet, drops 110 feet, and disappears into the rocks at the bottom. The water from all these waterfalls apparently runs through the ground, finally draining into the Caney Fork River, which flows through Scott Gulf to the south.”
Courting Conservation-Friendly Commerce
Numerous groups and individuals have devoted time, energy and resources toward shielding the mostly untamed domain from large-scale commercial and residential development, or environmentally destructive industrial land uses.
Groups that have donated time, money, land, labor or expertise toward conserving the Caney Fork watershed include the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, the Open Space Institute, the Land Trust for Tennessee, the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund, the J.M.Huber Corp., Bridgestone Americas, as well as state parks “friends” groups.
State government also has partnered with private-sector nonprofits and businesses to promote “stewardship of thousands of acres of ecologically significant areas in the Cumberland Plateau with the goals of protection, preservation and public recreation,” said Kim Schofinski, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Improving the public’s access to the many recreational opportunities the rugged lands and moving waters provide will hopefully open navigable pathways toward future economic growth in an area where nagging poverty has for generations presented a snag.
Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau is home to many struggling rural communities that “need sustaining and need to be resilient,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for TDEC’s Bureau of Parks & Conservation.
Hill, who formerly served as mayor of neighboring Cumberland County, asserted that “place-based economic development” not only stimulates job creation and small-business growth by drawing in visitors, it “adds a tremendous level to the quality of life for the people who already live here in this area.”
Stuart Carroll, park manager at the Virgins Falls State Natural Area, figures there’s a pretty basic and reliable formula for upping tourist visitation to a place as unique and spectacular as White County’s section of the Cumberland Plateau.
“If you open up access to the public — and provide good parking lots, good trails and good maps — then it will pay dividends to the local economy,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to emulate Cummins Falls (near Cookeville in Jackson County), because that place gets hammered (from overuse), but who could have imagined the spike in sales tax collections they’ve seen in that area because of the added traffic since that park opened?”
Long an advocate for better utilizing the area’s natural potential to lure tourists and snare tourist dollars, Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce president Marvin Bullock noted that “Virgin Falls is already somewhat of a national draw.”
But opportunities for outdoor recreation are now “growing leaps and bounds”, said Bullock. And the area’s adventure-recreation profile will only increase as conservation, trail-building and public-access efforts continue, he predicts.
“It will make it even more of a national draw because there are a lot more beautiful waterfalls up through there,” said Bullock. “There are going to be miles and miles and miles more trails in the future.”
Among the most recent additions is a new section of trail from Lost Creek to Virgin Falls — thus creating a new nine-mile thru-hike and an additional trailhead and parking to access Virgin Falls. The Lost Creek State Natural Area, which was donated for public use by the James Rylander Family, was used as a backdrop in Disney’s 1994 “The Jungle Book.”
Bullock is pleased there’s common agreement that “we are not looking to build a resort park,” or establish other high-impact developments.
“We want to maybe see some wilderness campsites and that type of thing, but nobody wants to see the area built up into something like Fairfield or Lake Tansi in Cumberland County,” Bullock said.
Of course, White County and Sparta businesses are always happy to accommodate daytrippers from those communities who want to come have a magnificent look-see at the dazzling western edge of the plateau, Bullock is quick to add.
Some counties are tempted to develop large wilderness tracts into upscale residential developments in order to increased property tax rolls, said Bullock. White County, by contrast, “gets to have its cake and eat it too — trail development attracts tourists and increases sales tax revenue,” he said.
“Rural, at-risk White County will see increase in revenue, yet the population will still have access to some of their favorite waterfalls and scenic overlooks,” said Bullock.
Communication and Collaboration
More than 100 people with ties or interest in White County conservation efforts gathered Aug. 25 on a fertile grassy plain known as “Big Bottom” along the upper Caney Fork to celebrate some notable recent victories in securing and adding new landscapes to the now nearly 60,000-acre “Mid-Cumberland Wilderness Conservation Corridor.”
Over the summer, properties of 582 acres and 76 acres were formally incorporated into the preservation zone as a result of donors, landowners and various conservation-focused intermediaries working together to acquire the properties.
And back in April, Bridgestone Americas donated all 5,763 acres of its richly forested and biologically diverse Chestnut Mountain property to the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. It contains the highest point of elevation in White County. The donation was part of an innovative and intriguing project to allow the Nature Conservancy to “manage a carbon sequestration project on the property that will offset the carbon emissions of the Bridgestone Tower, the company’s corporate headquarters in downtown Nashville.”
Leaders of conservation groups and state agencies delivered remarks emphasizing a consistent theme during the event — that a vast and ecologically indispensable playground for preservation-minded outdoor enthusiasts is emerging, and the cooperative efforts to bring it into being have been genuinely historic in significance.
Steve Law, director of the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, or TennGreen, said the latest 600-plus acres of land acquired represents “a significant conservation achievement” that will help enhance and protect Caney Fork water quality in perpetuity.
“Geographically, this property joins the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Wildlife Management Area to the west, it adjoins Lost Creek State Natural Area to the north, and is bounded on the south by the Caney Fork River,” said Law. “From the perspective of conservation value, this property increases available migratory habitat for rare species, including the federally endangered Indiana and gray bats.”
Law contends that effective future conservation success efforts will increasingly involve cultivating and maintaining networks of voluntary collaborations among an ever-growing array of interests, individuals and entities.
“Collaboration is a fundamental element to TennGreen’s core mission,” said Law.
TennGreen has for two decades been raising money and working with landowners to acquire and protect tracts that hold or are adjacent to “natural treasures” in Tennessee.
Joel Houser, Chattanooga-based Southeast field coordinator for the Open Space Institute, reiterated the point. “I don’t think we can stress enough the importance of partnerships,” he said.
Houser, whose New York-headquartered organization promotes the preservation of geologically and ecologically unique landscapes across North America, described the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee as “a globally significant place.”
“There are species here that live nowhere else in the world — and there are species that were forced here from the last ice age, and have persisted here ever since,” he said. “There are species here that are disjunct — the populations are disjunct from larger native ranges that may be along the coastal plain or the southern Blue Ridge or further northward at higher elevations.”
In addition to the environmental benefits, Houser said preserving Cumberland wildlands in the 21st Century “will provide recreationists a respite from the modern world, and also provides hunters and their families food.”
“It’s not just for the wildlife, the lichens, the mosses, the flowers and the birds, it is for people, too, and people are a part of the ecosystem — of this ecosystem and all ecosystems,” he said.
Tying It All Together
The growing system of trails in the area is envisioned to one day connect the Virgin Falls State Natural Area with the crown-jewel of Tennessee’s state parks system, Fall Creek Falls, and in the process tie in Scott’s Gulf, Lost Creek, Bledsoe State Forest, Bee Creek and the Boy Scout’s Latimer High Adventure Reservation.
“Linking Lost Creek and Virgin Falls has long been a goal for Tennessee State Parks to provide more recreational opportunities for visitors and protect more critical habitat,” said TDEC’s Hill.
State wildlife resources agency director Ed Carter observed that the area has “one of the highest concentrations of greatest-conservation-need species of anywhere in Tennessee.”
For Stuart Carroll, the Virgin Falls park manager, progress made over the past few years represent a gratifying culmination to his 30-plus year career.
Land-protection endeavors along the Cumberland Plateau date back to the early 1900s, but in the past 20 years the acreage acquired from willing sellers or set voluntarily aside for conservation and recreation has more than doubled, he said.
Efforts by nonprofits and landholding private corporations to preserve properties and open them for public recreation are especially important in the Southeastern United States, where “public land has not historically been a really large part of the landscape,” Carroll said.
“So it is very fulfilling to see the acreage added to the public land base so that people can get out and enjoy the recreation the lands provide — and at the same time we can take care of both the resources and the history for future generations,” he said.
Carroll has himself been instrumental in negotiating a number of key land acquisitions and conservation set-asides, not to mention providing the down-and-dirty hands-on labor required to blaze, build and maintain enjoyably traversable hiking trails. He’s also co-author of a book of trail and landscape reviews called “Hiking Tennessee: A Guide to the State’s Greatest Hiking Adventures.”
The most rewarding aspects of working around places like Fall Creek Falls and Virgin Falls is preserving not just the natural aspects, but also the historical and cultural artifacts that the land holds, said Carroll — and in turn teaching youngsters to appreciate the region’s extraordinary legacy.
“It is great to see so many people pulling together to make these type of projects happen,” he said.