What was it like growing up in Jasper, TN?
For me, growing up in Jasper was a very positive experience. My father was a local elected official, we attended the First Baptist Church in Jasper and I graduated from Marion County High School. It was certainly a typical southern small town upbringing. I played a lot of baseball, but was probably most remembered around home for my coon-hunting and my mule named Festus who I would ride in the local parades. For those around home who might be reading this, Festus is still alive at 32 years old!
After living in Washington DC, Nashville, and West Tennessee for several years after high school, there came a point where I recognized that community was more important than career and I wanted to get back home where folks new my granddad, brothers, cousins etc. I farm cattle and sheep with my 83 year old father and I would like to say I enjoy every minute of it, but it can be hard work at times, especially in the hay field when it’s 100+ degrees. My wife Rachel, originally from the UK, has a small equestrian business on the side as she works as a Physical Therapist for Southern Rehab and Aquatics in Kimball, TN.
We have two young boys at Jasper Elementary and both are playing sports and making new friends just as I did several years ago. There is something quite comforting and familiar about watching your children go through a similar experience as yours growing up. We have a fantastic ball park and walking trail in Jasper and I great bunch of parents and coaches that are dedicated to raising not just a family but a community. While we may not be the wealthiest community around, we are certainly rich in culture and social capital- folks willing to give their time to others through our civic clubs, churches, ball programs, and schools. I couldn’t be happier anywhere than where I am right now.
What inspired your interest in environmental conservation?
My original interest in conservation came primarily from a sportsmen’s perspective as thousands of acres of hunting ground were lost to land fragmentation, and in some cases conservation, in just a short time period around Marion County. Over and over, I heard old hunting buddies talk about how they are losing places to hunt, especially with hounds, since we often need larger tracts of land to hunt raccoons. I served on the board of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation for several years and later as a consultant, studying how the changing landscape might impact forestry, agriculture, and hunting. I interviewed sportsmen, foresters, and farmers throughout the South Cumberland Plateau as well as mapped land ownership patterns as timber companies divested large acreage between 2006 and 2008. The numbers are quite astounding. In Marion County alone, approximately 40,000 acres were purchased by development groups. To put this in perspective, all 7 municipalities combined in the county only account for 36,000 acres of land, yet very few of these newly planned developments were adjacent to municipalities. My concern is not the act of development itself, but the shear scale and number of developments. Of course, we all know now that as a result of the financial crisis, developments are now bankrupt, lot buyers are suing developers, and everyone is trying to figure out what will happen next. I have a strong interest in seeing a more limited pattern of growth in the future that respects the integrity of the landscape by keeping some of our forest in tact.
I really never intended to take conservation up as a cause. I see this issue as one of many policy issues that are important. I just happened to know a little about the negative consequences of poorly planned growth from my 10 years of working with rural counties in Southwest Tennessee with the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Assistance Service. One of the biggest concerns is the perception that growth pays for itself with new local sales and property tax revenue, but this is generally not the case when balanced out with both the social and environmental costs. With this said, I am a land-owner, I have developed land, and I am not opposed to smart growth that occurs in locations where adequate municipal services are available or there is at least a plan to provide them.
I would like to see private and conservation capital partner and come up with creative and innovative ways to both grow and protect natural resources at the same time. I believe the timing is right in the South Cumberland Plateau to re-think how we sub-divide land, but it will take the right people in both development and conservation sectors to make it happen. There are many conservation tools available that can help plan developments in ways that maintain open space, protect watersheds and wildlife habitat. The bottom line- it just takes trust, commitment, and the open-minds of developers, conservationist, and local officials.
What are some of the projects that you are working on in Marion County?
On behalf of the Marion County Chamber of Commerce and funded through the Marion County Joint Partnership for Economic Development, we completed a 5-year project to develop a comprehensive Greenways and Trails Plan. We contracted with Andy Carroll with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to help map potential trail corridors around the county after holding public meetings and receiving feedback from land-owners. We made certain to avoid routes that were of concern for private land-owners and tried to capitalize on existing public parks and lands. The two most prominent routes that stand out are all about linking communities to the local landscape. One trail route would ultimately connect South Pittsburg to Kimball and then to Jasper. South Pittsburg has already received a grant for Phase 1 of this project.
The second route is quite ambitious. The vision is to make Marion County a first-class destination for outdoor recreational activities. With input from several recreational organizations, I have to give most credit to the SORBA, the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association for spawning the idea of a 65 mile mountain bike trail connecting Marion County Park to Chattanooga on both sides of the Tennessee River Gorge. We have also gotten feedback from sportsmen, equestrian groups, off-road vehicle associations and hiking groups and we believe there is enough public land throughout the gorge to accommodate these multiple and sometimes conflicting uses. The Tennessee River Gorge through Marion County is already designated as a blue-way and campgrounds along the river are already being planned so that one day paddlers can float from Chattanooga to Marion County, camping along the way.
As a post-doctoral teacher at the University of the South you have been involving your class with building a nature trail at the Jasper Elementary School. Tell me about what you are trying to achieve and what successes you have enjoyed thus far with your students and the local kids in the school.
Yes, last year Dean Gatta at Sewanee along with the Education Department asked if I would teach an Introduction to Environmental Education Course that involved engaging Sewanee students with a local community. Of course I accepted, as I saw this as a perfect opportunity to help with a group that we had already established at Jasper Elementary called the Jasper Elementary Outdoor Education Initiative. This effort has really taken off thanks to the leadership of Sonya Turner, the JES art teacher, and Dottie Sneed, the PTO president. Parents have now raised several thousand dollars to help construct an outdoor class room, bridge, and observation deck next to a beaver dam adjacent to the school. I also want to thank the folks at Volkswagen who allowed local recycling organizations the opportunity to donate wood pallets- one of them made a perfect bridge for our nature trail. My Sewanee students have completed educational posters that will be integrated with the outdoor class-room and they have also developed environmental education activities that are place-specific to the school grounds. The feedback from Principal Tim Bible was very positive and the experience was fulfilling for both the Sewanee and JES students. The effort continues to be a success and I have been asked to teach the same course again this spring. My plans are to work with multiple schools in Marion County this go around to see if we inspire similar efforts like the Jasper Elementary Nature Trail.
For you, where is common ground between the growth of the region’s economy and the conservation of natural and cultural resources?
I am currently writing an article about the idea of integrating conservation and private capital, similar to the conservation model utilized by the State of Tennessee and Lyme Timber Management in the northern Cumberland Plateau. This was a very creative conservation project that resulted in thousands of acres of protected land for public use while continuing as a working forest. I spent some time with Peter Stein with Lyme Timber to see if there was a similar option for the South Cumberland. What I discovered was that many of the large timber tracts sold for development in the South Cumberland were clear-cut converted pine plantations and did not make financial sense for their business model. I then began to research examples of limited development models where private developers gained returns on investment buy selling some lots while public capital purchased development and public access rights on the majority of the land. This is a win-win for both developers and conservation organizations for the following reasons- developers will have less debt expense and a built-in market of conservation buyers, while conservation organizations protect land without having to manage it or buy it out-right in fee-simple.
How are we going to achieve equitable growth and resource conservation? Looking into the future, what factors do you see making the biggest difference in the effort to preserve the woods, waters and heritage of the Cumberlands?
Looking to the future, I believe a major factor to achieve equitable growth and resource conservation is for conservation organizations to engage the private sector and partner in creative and innovative ways. One of the key missing components, in my opinion, is a well capitalized conservation-friendly investment fund that is willing to be patient and trustworthy and a federal program willing to invest in a new model of rural growth and development. One conduit might be a federally designated South Cumberland Outdoor Recreation Area that encompasses tourism, second-home development, recreation, and conservation at a large landscape scale. Either way, it will take smart people that understand the business of land ownership, politicians willing to spend political capital, and conservation organizations willing to help steer the process.
Thanks Daniel. It's great to read your ideas and I encourage others reading this article to leave your comments on this post.