Partnerships In Preservation

 

Georgia-Alabama Land Trust and the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, longtime conservation partners, are celebrating the creation of a cave preserve in Dade County, Georgia, called the Charles B. Henson Preserve at Johnson’s Crook, saving for all time a pristine mountain area once slated for development on the slopes of Lookout Mountain.

The “Crook,” located in northwest Georgia near Chattanooga, is one of the natural treasures of the Southern Appalachians. Framed on three sides by Lookout Mountain’s towering sandstone cliffs and talus slopes, it contains some of Georgia’s most significant caves, including one of the deepest, Lost Canyon. The Crook’s valley floor is lush with wildflower-filled meadows, rushing creeks and streams, and several lakes brimming with aquatic life.

Beginning in 2004, developers plotted 2,000 acres of the Crook into lots, naming it “The Preserve at Rising Fawn.” Minimal infrastructure was built before the development was toppled by the downturn of the economy, resulting in bankruptcies and foreclosures, as well as jail time for two developers convicted of interstate bank fraud.

Although the Land Trust’s interest in the Crook pre-dated the planned development, it was not until 2012 that it was able to begin land acquisitions through a generous donation of acreage by two banks. The Land Trust’s ultimate goal, as well as that of the Southeastern Cave Conservancy and many other conservation partners, was the creation of a cave preserve for the benefit of the public.

This dream finally became a reality at the end of 2017, enabled by a strategic grant to the Land Trust from Open Space Institute’s Northwest Georgia Land Protection Fund*, coupled with a large anonymous private donation of land to the Southeastern Cave Conservancy. The cave preserve honors the memory of Chuck Henson, a long-time recreational caver and early advocate of protecting the fragile systems of the Crook.

Today, the Charles B. Henson Preserve extends over 2,400 acres, which represents approximately 90% of the area included in the proposed development. Georgia-Alabama Land Trust holds a conservation easement on all of the land in the cave preserve, protecting it forever in its natural state.

If the Preserve at Rising Fawn had been fully developed, it could have meant the loss of an extensive tract of a mixed mesophytic forest containing several rare and threatened species. It could also have meant the bull-dosing of cave openings, the destruction of a crucial aquifer recharge zone, and the threat to important archaeological and historical artifacts. Equally devastating would have been the loss of the scenic vistas that are the pride of the local community and which draw tourists from Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to this stretch of the Lookout Mountain Scenic Parkway.

To learn more about the Crook from the Land Trust’s perspective at the start of the Johnson’s Crook project, click here.
Habitat loss can happen virtually overnight, but habitat preservation, particularly on a landscape scale, requires an investment of time, passion, and persistence. The Land Trust’s six-year project at the Crook was facilitated by an outpouring of support from Open Space Institute, the Lyndhurst Foundation, individuals, corporations, banks, county officials, and community members, all helping to make the landscape and cave preserve possible.

The Georgia-Alabama Land Trust’s new focus is another long-term preservation project in the area:  the construction of a 10-mile hiking and biking trail from the Crook to Cloudland Canyon State Park. With passion, persistence, and the aid of conservation partnerships, the Land Trust hopes to make this dream a reality, too. 

*Open Space Institute’s Northwest Georgia Land Protection Fund is made possible with funding from the Lyndhurst Foundation and the Benwood Foundation. The Northwest Georgia Land Protection Fund seeks to build capacity of land trusts working to protect ecologically significant landscapes in northwest Georgia.