Preserving Our Place

By Katie Faulkner

 

Across the state of Tennessee, many men and women have been instrumental in land preservation. Specifically in Chattanooga, one of the most defining and unique traits of the area is the presence of passionate community members who share a vision of preserving the area’s most beautiful natural resources. These individuals head up some of the most impressive land conservation organizations around, and many have found themselves working together for a shared cause and the good of the community. Their drive to protect and connect with the land has significantly influenced the development of Chattanooga’s green spaces and outdoor traditions and will continue to do so for years to come.

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Photo by Livingood Photography

The Chattanooga Way

How founding families and organizations collaborated to spark a conservation renaissance in Chattanooga

There are numerous land conservation organizations stationed in the Chattanooga and North Georgia regions, helping Chattanooga remain one of the greenest cities in America. But where did it all begin?

In 1969, the Environmental Protection Agency actually dubbed Chattanooga the dirtiest city in America after discovering dangerous levels of toxic air pollutants. This announcement, paired with an economic decline, spurred new initiatives. Private and public groups worked together, along with government entities, to lead and support a surge to make Chattanooga new again, environmentally and economically. Investing back into the city, the environment, the economy, and the space itself, through private and public partnerships, became known as “The Chattanooga Way.”

Joining this movement, several local families, individuals, and organizations stepped up to spark a protection of green space and natural features in the area. They recognized the multifaceted value of place and set out to make the most of what they already had – incredibly beautiful natural surroundings.

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Photo by Livingood Photography
Rick Huffines land conservation chattanooga

Rick Huffines (Photo by Audrey Nord)

As Rick Huffines, executive director of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, says, “It’s really only been within the last 50 years or so that Chattanooga has done an incredible job with land preservation in the area. Founders of these organizations saw development coming, and they wanted to preserve these areas for people to enjoy.”

Chattanooga residents like Adele Hampton, an Elder Mountain woman who pushed her community to consider a natural resources plan for Southeast Tennessee, which eventually led to the founding of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust in 1981, are the foundation of Chattanooga conservation. She, along with other locals like Lillian Dubke, Hale Booth, Joe Guthrie, Paul Harris, Nancy Evans, Dudley Porter, Sam Powell, Ken Dubke, Bill and Ruth Holmbergand, and John Fullerton, were among the earliest members.

 

“We, as a people, aren’t truly well if we aren’t connected to our land.”

– Rick Huffines

 

And since their brave beginnings, other Chattanoogans have carried the torch. Jim Brown, another founding member and former executive director of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust; Allen McCallie, a local attorney who donates his time and skills to local conservation organizations; and now Rick Huffines, current executive director of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, have carried those founding members’ vision forward in all the work they do.

 

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Myriads more have contributed and continue to contribute to the conservation efforts of this area. Another is Greg Vital, who has been involved with various conservation organizations for over 25 years. He has been involved with Friends of Moccasin Bend National Park, The Trust for Public Land, the Tennessee Aquarium, and the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. He has also served with The Land Trust for Tennessee and the National Parks Conservation Association, of which he is currently the chairman of the board. In his opinion, these organizations that work together for the common goal of land conservation are working for the greatest contribution to future generations that could ever be made. Vital says, “The greater Chattanooga area is blessed with many nonprofits committed to conservation and stewardship. Continually building collaboration among the groups will help foster balanced development and planning.”

Mike Pollock land conservation chattanooga

Mike Pollock

Another influential conservationist family in the area, the Davenports, was instrumental in founding the Lula Lake Land Trust, which now protects nearly 12,000 acres of land, including the seed property of about 770 acres comprising a 110-foot waterfall at Lula Lake on Lookout Mountain. Leading the family’s conservation efforts, Robert M. Davenport began purchasing parcels of land in the 1950s that would later make up the Lula Lake Land Trust, which his will established in 1994, with the support of his wife and four children.

His son, Bobby Davenport, picked up the torch and began working with The Trust for Public Land in 1997. He became the Chattanooga area director of this organization and served for nearly a decade to help plan and create new public parks, green spaces, and trails that connect neighborhoods, urban areas, and untouched wilderness across the region. Bobby’s dedication to protecting land for people’s enjoyment led him to also serve on the board for Lula Lake Land Trust, the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, and numerous other conservation organizations across Lookout, Signal, and Aetna Mountains. As Davenport says, “There are countless lessons that I learned from this first-rate group of real estate attorneys, planners, and other professionals.
Most folks in Chattanooga will never know their names, but their fingerprints are all over a lot of good stuff that we can enjoy, forever.”

“Chattanooga is now known as the ‘Scenic City’ and one of the best outdoor cities in America for a reason – open space.”

–Mike Pollock

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Lula Lake Falls, Photo Courtesy of Lula Lake Land Trust

Organizations that Execute the Vision

How local nonprofits are executing the founders’ vision in land preservation, community connection, and education
Cody Roney Lula Lake Land Trust Chattanooga

Cody Roney

All of these founding families and individuals created organizations with a vision and goal in mind. Within the last five decades or so, numerous other individuals have emerged to join in these efforts to carry out the vision of protecting Chattanooga’s surrounding natural beauty. Following in the footsteps of founders to take on leadership roles are individuals like the former executive director of Lula Lake Land Trust, Mike Pollock, and his new successor, Cody Roney. These leaders are executing the original vision of their predecessors, and they’re doing it collaboratively. As Pollock says, “Chattanooga is now known as the ‘Scenic City’ and one of the best outdoor cities in America for a reason – open space – where the gateways to adventure are close, and the opportunities to enjoy the outdoors are abundant.” He emphasizes that conservation is a group effort – something that the founders of these great trusts recognized as well. Pollock says, “It takes partnership, humility, hard work, and investment. But I’m proud to stand alongside some of the great names in our region’s conservation legacy: Bobby Davenport, Bruz Clark, Katherine Eddins, Jim Brown, Rick Wood, Rick Huffines, Robyn Carlton, Joel Houser, and so many others. These forever gifts of land require community involvement!”

A few of these locally founded and highly influential
organizations include Lula Lake Land Trust, the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, and the Chattanooga branch of The Trust for Public Land.

Lula Lake Land Trust

At Lula Lake Land Trust, Cody Roney has recently stepped into the role of executive director. She speaks passionately about the three-tiered approach to land protection that the organization carries out. “We approach the land in three different ways: stewardship, research, and education. And we’re really hoping to continue growing the educational component,” Roney says.

“We approach the land in three different ways: stewardship, research, and education. We’re hoping to continue growing the educational component.”

–Cody Roney

Stringer's Ridge Overlook, Photo by Elimi Architecture

Stewardship encompasses all of the upkeep, patrolling, trail building, managing public access, and legalities of ownerships, easements, and partnerships for the trust. The research side of the program has multiple projects, including studies of the land and species of the property and the Rock Creek watershed, which is the watershed their properties are in. Also ongoing, a group of professors from different universities are doing a study on hemlocks.
Other studies include a chestnut orchard and beetle releases – there are all kinds of things to be learned from the land, which could only be observed when it is left to its natural state.

And finally, the educational component, which touches the community at a high level, is foremost for Roney. She says, “This is an area that we want to grow even more. Currently we have groups from local schools and universities, and several others that come. Some do hikes and camps, some do day trips, but the educational aspect is important, because that’s how we can, first, make the land more valuable to the community, and second, instill the knowledge of conservation and its importance to future generations.”

Tennessee River Gorge Trust

At the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, Huffines is excited about how their various studies are building new connections within the Chattanooga community by incorporating communities around the world.

Bobby Davenport Chattanooga land conservation

Bobby Davenport

“We need to do a better job of being more inclusive in the programs that we execute – our goal is to incorporate everyone’s opinion and include all communities to share the true, intrinsic value of this place,” Huffines says.

One study helping them achieve this goal is a new bird study which has revealed connections to a community in Guatemala. Currently, the trust is geotracking birds that migrate to Guatemala. So this study not only connects the Tennessee River Gorge Trust to other areas in the world and partners there who cooperate in scientific research, but it has also served as a platform to further incorporate the local Hispanic community into the trust’s educational outreach programs. As Huffines explains, “Appreciating the space you dwell in is something that both connects us to other communities around the world and also helps us understand our unique identity.”

“Most folks in Chattanooga will never know their names, but their fingerprints are all over a lot of good stuff that we can enjoy, forever.”

–Bobby Davenport

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The Tennessee River Gorge Trust protects over 17,000 acres around the Tennessee River Gorge. They manage the stewardship of this land through a combination of fee simple ownership (about 6,500 acres they own the deeds and titles to), memorandums of understanding (about 9,000 acres maintained through federal partnerships), and conservation easements (around 1,500 acres protected in partnerships with land owners). “We pay taxes on what we own, and that’s something we want the public to know. It’s not harmful to the community,” Huffines shares. Each day is full of patrolling, making boundaries, scientific studies, managing encroachments and trespasses, working with the community, and expanding the educational programs, in addition to the business of maintaining the finances and legalities of more than 17,000 acres.

Greg Vital Tennessee Chattanooga land conservation

Greg Vital

Huffines explains it well when he says, “Preserving this land helps preserve the traditions of the area, like hiking, biking, bird watching, camping, kayaking, and studying wildlife.”

The Trust for Public Land

The Trust for Public Land came into Chattanooga about 25 years ago to help organize efforts to expand the city’s greenways. They created a master plan for greenways in and around the city and continue to work with governmental and other nonprofit groups to retain space for these purposes. While they are a national nonprofit, the bulk of the work they do for Tennessee is in Chattanooga.

“The greater Chattanooga area is blessed with many nonprofits committed to conservation and stewardship.”

–Greg Vital

Jenny Park, state director of The Trust for Public Land, works from their Chattanooga branch and is very passionate about protecting land for people’s use. The organization makes a special effort to incorporate the community’s needs into their designs. “Our focus is really ‘land for people.’ It’s in our mission statement, and it makes our work a little different from other conservation organizations. Our purpose is to conserve land for the benefit of people – social gatherings, greenways, recreation – we want to create high-quality public space. We’ve laid a really strong foundation in Chattanooga with almost 20 miles of greenways in place. Now that we have established the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway and the Riverwalk is continuing to expand, we have a perimeter of greenways around the city, and we are beginning to connect into neighborhoods.”

Jenny Park Chattanooga Land Conservation

Jenny Park

That connection into neighborhoods is part of the trust’s “10-Minute Walk” campaign, which pushes for accessibility, meaning they want all community members to be within a 10-minute walk to a public park or greenway. “Everything we do now is done through the lens of access – who will be able to utilize this space we’re working on?” Park says.

These neighborhood initiatives and the great success of establishing greenways in the area are thanks in part to numerous partners who work with The Trust for Public Land. As they typically don’t hold any land, only sell or donate what they acquire, they work with other local organizations and entities (who do hold the land) to maintain stewardship and implement parks and greenway plans.

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“Our focus is really ‘land for people.’ […] Everything we do now is done through the lens of access.”

–Jenny Park

There are numerous other organizations that dedicate their time and resources to local land conservation and education. The following are just a few of the organizations that are instrumental in local land preservation and who work collaboratively for the good of their communities:

The Land Trust for Tennessee is a statewide conservation organization and one of the largest in the area, preserving over 100,000 acres. They protect land through conservation easements (working with owners), land purchases, and land donations to protect space for future generations. Their educational outreach programs help pass on the knowledge essential for continued land preservation.

Chattanooga Audubon Society is the area’s oldest conservation organization. Founded in 1944, this nonprofit organization has been protecting hundreds of acres right here in the Chattanooga area for decades. They currently maintain four separate wildlife sanctuaries with unique features and offer exploratory and educational programming.

Lookout Mountain Conservancy is dedicated to working with land owners to protect important properties across all 93 miles of Lookout Mountain, which spans Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama.

North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy was formed by a group of friends and community members concerned about the deterioration of North Chickamauga Creek. Since its founding in 1993, the organization has worked to conserve over 14,000 acres in and around the North Chickamauga Creek area through a combination of grants, federal assistance, and the support of individuals, companies, and government entities.

Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center boasts 317 acres of protected land, over 140 identified and labeled varieties of trees, and 15 miles of hiking trails. It qualifies as a level IV arboretum and offers extensive educational programming and community outreach.

The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute works to restore and protect the water systems and natural ecosystems in our area through scientific studies and educational outreach. They contribute millions of dollars and countless hours to everything from species and habitat restoration to conservation planning.

Because of these and countless other individuals and organizations, the landscape of Chattanooga has been forever influenced. The result is more green space, a healthy respect for natural beauty and resources, and the opportunity to continue to learn about our ecosystem and those connected to it. And thanks to the work of these conservationists, future generations of Chattanoogans can enjoy these same connections and traditions for decades to come.

As Huffines explains, the reward is passing on a passion to protect this place. “As I get older, the greatest reward is seeing that spark in someone else when they realize the value of place. Because not everyone appreciates and understands that value, and we, as a people, aren’t truly well if we aren’t connected to our land.” SG

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