Saving Doe Mountain
Late this spring, the Sierra Club's Watauga Group celebrated a big victory when 8,600 acres of Doe Mountain, in the state's northeastern corner, was officially saved from clear-cutting and exclusive private development.
"This is a huge win, and it protects a significant portion of our Watauga Watershed," says Gloria Griffith, right, chair of the Watauga Group.
Among the top priorities of the Watauga Group (the Tennessee Sierra Club's newest group) has been protecting water quality in Doe Creek, a spring-fed creek that runs around Doe Mountain. Doe Creek supports an exceptional wild rainbow trout population and some of the largest fish sampled in Tennessee streams in recent years.
The creek flows then into Watauga Lake, a Tennesee Valley Authority reservoir that sits 1,959 feet above sea level and is known for its exceptionally clean water. TVA describes the lake as being located "...in some of the most beautiful country in the Tennessee River watershed."
Thanks to the heads-up work of Watauga Group activists, notably Gabby Lynch and Dennis Shekinah, Doe Mountain will remain forested and open to the public. That's Shekinah at left, below; Lynch at right.
Let's let Dennis tell the story (which appeared in the June/July issue of the Tennessee Chapter's newsletter, the Tenne-Sierran):
Doe Mountain encompasses 8,600 acres of wilderness known best by hunters on foot and Tennessee Wildlife Research Agency officers in 4-wheel-drive vehicles. It is home to black bear, white tail, fox, coyote, turkey, king squirrel, bobcat and, some say, cougar.
Left alone for generations, this slice of heaven is about to change. Soon, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), horses, mountain bikes, and hikers from all corners will be drawn to Doe, altering its timeless and peaceful character forever. Let me explain why this is a good thing...
My log cabin (below), built in the 1920s, sits in the shade of Doe Mountain in Neva Valley. In fields where the Cherokee once lived, I have hosted countless bluegrass gatherings, raised children, and planted seeds in the fertile soil. In all the years I explored the Doe's trails, I can only recall coming across two other people. They were both hunters and as nice as they could be. Doe Mountain was a well-kept secret, hidden smack dab in the middle of Johnson County, Tennessee.
Then one morning the sound of chain saws broke the peaceful melody of the East Fork Fall Brach. The dogs kept up as I literally ran into the sanctuary. I found a group of men clearing the jeep trail and setting a metal gate across its path. They seemed nice, but busy. I left them to their job and returned to my cabin and started working the phone. A developer had purchased Doe Mountain to build a gated community. Gates on all access points were a statement to his strict 'no trespassing' policy. No more hunting. No more quiet walks with my camera on Doe.
It turned out the deed for the mountain changed hands several times when the state didn't opt to renew the Wilderness Management Area lease from the original owners. A logging company owned it for less than a month before the developer laid enough easy money on the table to get them to sell. A gated community can yield millions of dollars in profit; indeed, he had done it many times before.
After resigning myself to the inevitable march of progress, I said a prayer for the black bear and all the critters who would eventually be displaced by manicured lawns and electrified fences. Then two things changed everything: the housing bubble burst and the developer died from a massive coronary. The Doe Mountain gated community project, named "Daniel's Trace," went into bankruptcy. No one seemed to know who owned the mountain or what its fate would be.
Months passed without any news, save rumor and speculation. Then one morning the phone rang and Larry Potter (below), our county mayor, asked, "Dennis, do you know anyone with eight million dollars?" Larry owns a small eatery in Doe Valley, and he had overheard a logger proclaim that he was going to clear-cut Doe Mountain. Yes, like a shark sensing blood in the water, the logging company was putting a bid on the deed and had already done an assessment of the lumber's worth.
Larry was desperate. Not only is he a fly-fisherman (and thus a clean-water advocate by default), he is passionate about Johnson County's economic development. An 8,600-acre scar in the middle of our county wasn't going to bring in the tourists.
Our closest neighbor to the north, Damascus, Virginia, had already saved itself from potential ruin by developing a bicycle-friendly trail system. Johnson County could do it one better, Larry thought. We have Watauga Lake, the Appalachian Trail, and a network of great B&Bs and small family-owned restaurants. We just needed a hook to pull in outdoor enthusiasts. That was Doe Mountain, Larry rightfully reasoned.
But the sharks were circling. "I'll make some calls," I told Larry. I immediately got ahold of my friend Gabby Lynch (below), a Watauga Group activist who works for The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
[Click on image below to watch a video of Lynch talking about the campaign to save Doe Mountain.]
True to form, Gabby was already on the Doe Mountain situation. In short order, an environmental assessment was done and she applied for a loan from TNC international headquarters. Larry worked his network of state representatives (most notably Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey). Gabby asked that we send letters of thanks and encouragement for Ramsey's efforts to secure funding for saving Doe Mountain. Still, months passed without any news…
At our monthly Watauga Group meetings, Gabby would place her finger over her lips and shake her head: "Don't say a word." We had no reason to feel overly hopeful in this age of budgetary austerity. The Nature Conservancy had many worthy projects that needed funding, and newly-elected Governor Bill Haslam was slashing budgets. Somehow, Larry got the governor in an ATV and took him, along with the lieutenant governor, along the trails of the Doe.
Soon thereafter, Gabby announced that The Nature Conservancy had approved the loan to save Doe Mountain, and the great state of Tennessee arranged to immediately buy Doe from TNC. A "multi-use" provision would be attached as a condition, assuring that the mountain would be developed to offer all citizens a chance to know a little of the peace that comes from nature even if they were looking out from the top of a horse, a wheelchair, a bicycle or a caravan of ATVs.
We may never know all the players who made this deal possible, but as I look out my window at beautiful Doe Mountain, I give thanks—a heartfelt prayer of thanks raised up join those of all the wildlife and trees that depend on good people doing the right thing.