July 10, 2008

Georgia:State Plan to Purchase, Protect 1,800 Acres in McLemore Cove Moves Forward

By Chloe Morrison, Chattanooga Times/Free Press, Tenn.

Jul. 10--To preserve natural land areas in the region can require cooperation and sacrifice by public and private interests, but it's an investment in the future, officials contend.

"We need to plan for conservation the same way we plan for development, instead of having it be the leftover," said Jeanie Nelson, executive director and president of the Land Trust for Tennessee.

When greenspace and natural resources are lost, they are often gone forever, so it's important for governments, organizations and individuals to protect pieces of precious property, according to Ms. Nelson.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Walker County are working to purchase and protect about 1,800 acres of land in McLemore Cove, between Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and the Zahnd Natural Area on Lookout Mountain.

The deal is still pending, but officials hope to close on the sale in October, DNR official Steve Friedman said.

DNR is set to purchase 1,564 acres, and Walker County is working to buy 275 acres in an adjacent tract, he said. The main tract of land will cost about $10.5 million.

The idea is to protect a unique piece of property from development.

Region officials said land conservation is important to preserve natural, cultural and historic resources, but also for its impact on tourism and economic development.

Organizations such as the Land Trust for Tennessee and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation have worked -- especially since Gov. Phil Bredesen took office in 2003 -- to preserve and protect natural resources across the state, said Jim Fyke, Environment and Conservation commissioner.

Leaders in both states have created conservation plans and goals, identifying areas in need of protection.

In Georgia, the McLemore Cove area between Pigeon Mountain and Lookout Mountain is among the six highest priority areas in the state for protection, Mr. Friedman said.

Mr. Fyke said Tennessee's preservation wish list pinpoints more than 700 sites suitable for the conservation plan.

Georgia acquisition

The area DNR is to acquire is along the eastern slope of Lookout Mountain, sandwiched between two other pieces of land that the state already owns -- the Zahnd Natural Area and Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA. Mr. Friedman said connecting the two tracts of land is important.

"Botanically, it is a very rich area," he said, adding that the abundant varieties of plant life result in part from the area's many caves and important water features.

Chattanooga resident Kyle Kurita, 26, has a degree in environmental science from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and said he loves outdoor activities -- from hiking and camping to rock climbing. He visits McLemore Cove and Pigeon Mountain often, he said.

"In the early spring they have a wildflower boardwalk that really shows how beautiful the area can be. There is a waterfall that is amazing," Mr. Kurita said, adding it has unusual rock-like, calcium carbonate deposits called tufa that is "breathtaking."

He doesn't want the unique resources in the area he loves to disappear.

"The whole mountain is a apparently a network of caves," Mr. Kurita said.

He said Pigeon and Lookout mountains are famously-known to rock climbers. Below ground, Ellison's Cave has the deepest vertical drop of any cave in the continental United States.

Josh Aldridge, wildlife technician for DNR, said the preservation of such a large land mass with so many unique assets is a significant save.

"It will be there for the future," he said. "My kids will be able to go see that."

Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said she is dedicated to protecting valuable land, while implementing smart growth to draw in more visitors and business.

She would like eventually to see a "world-class development" in the valley, possibly conference center and hotel with an array of amenities.

"It will encourage other high-end development," she said, explaining that protecting the land for recreational use will be a big boost to the surrounding areas' economic development.

natural importance

The Land Trust for Tennessee's Mrs. Nelson said there has been an "awakening" about the importance of land conservation. "This awakening, sometimes it doesn't come until you start to lose something," she said.

Officials said encroachment from development is an ongoing threat.

"Development is always a problem," said David Gregory, a senior wildlife biologist for Georgia's DNR. "It is simply taking land out of its natural state. That is obviously not good for the natural resources."

State agencies are not the only ones working to conserve natural areas in the region.

Scottie Mayfield, president of Mayfield Dairy Farms, said he and his children have put nearly 700 of their 1,100 acres of farm land into a conservation easement, which protects it from major development in the future.

"It is all about conserving land," Mr. Mayfield said. "It is really a forever commitment."

tourism and economic development

Cindy Milligan, spokeswomen for the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association, said preserving natural resources is important to tourism because many travelers, especially baby boomers, are looking for "authentic" and active experiences.

From hiking trails on the Cumberland Plateau to sites like the Dunlap, Tenn., Johnson Family Farm -- a working farm that people can tour and buy goods from -- Mrs. Milligan said the region is rich with natural tourism attractions.

Mrs. Nelson said abundant natural resources can also attract business, because companies want to be located where the quality of life is good.

The benefits of protecting natural resources outweigh costs like the loss of revenue when land is taken off property tax roles by state ownership, officials said.

Mr. Fyke said in some cases, the state will make payments to local governments in lieu of property taxes. That way, "The counties and cities are still getting their property taxes," he said.

Mrs. Heiskell said in her county's situation, the combination of land conservation and development of a convention center type of facility would bring in more funds in a reasonable amount of time than will be lost from property taxes.

Many said land conservation is an investment that ensures a better quality of life for future generations.

Mr. Kurita said that will take sacrifices from everyone.

"I am compelled to protect and share these places because it makes me feel alive," Mr. Kurita said.

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