Balancing Nature And Commerce In Unicoi County
Rocky Fork. Photo by Greg Hutson.
Known as “The Valley Beautiful,” this rural Appalachian community is prime for development, but it is also home to great natural beauty—making decisions about land use difficult. While helping to conserve one popular destination, Rocky Fork, our Conservation Leadership Network® (CLN) provided training for more than 60 community leaders and residents to help them make informed decisions about this special place. Through efforts like this, CLN provides local leaders and public land managers the tools to forge partnerships and engage the community in creating and supporting a local economy based on the area’s natural assets.
Helping Unicoi County Make The Most Of Public Land
Residents of Unicoi County live next door to a beautiful 10,000-acre property called Rocky Fork—a mountain haven of forests and streams with more than a mile of Appalachian Trail. Beginning in 2006, The Conservation Fund started working to conserve this popular recreation destination for residents and visitors to enjoy. Ultimately, the state of Tennessee and the U.S. Forest Service will own and manage the land.
We know that for conservation to succeed, it must make economic sense. Unicoi County leaders know this as well, and that’s why a small team from the region attended our Conservation Leadership Network’s national course, Balancing Nature and Commerce in Communities that Neighbor Public Lands. Inspired to make sustainable tourism a stronger part of the county’s economy, the team soon invited us to train more than 60 local leaders and residents.
In 2010, we did just that, holding a three-day workshop in Unicoi County to raise awareness of its natural assets, community character and quality of life, as well as increase the capacity of community business leaders to grow sustainable tourism. During the workshop, we highlighted world-class fishing, whitewater rafting adventures on the Nolichucky River, hiking along the Appalachian Trail—and less-recognized resources, like seasonal festivals, local artisans, and the potential to seed new sustainable entrepreneurs.
The Results Of The Workshop
As a result of our workshop, community leaders and residents are making fast progress in attracting visitors to Unicoi County—and improving their experience once they arrive. The community has opened a farmers market, artisans are awaiting the opening of a new center for selling local wares and a design board now reviews the plans of future businesses to ensure that the character of the community stays intact. And at Cherokee National Forest the Forest Service has completed a mountain overlook, improved access to recreational facilities and natural features, and sponsored community events that include running and mountain bike races on public lands.
With this progress in play, Unicoi County recently was recognized as an “Appalachian Trail Community” and tourist destination by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy —the first such designation in Tennessee and one of only four along the Trail.
It all began with our Balancing Nature and Commerce course. Over the past 13 years, our Conservation Leadership Network has worked with hundreds of communities like Unicoi County, reaching more than 10,000 professionals. Our skill is bringing diverse groups and people together to forge conservation solutions on the ground. We provide collaborative learning, capacity building, technical assistance, and innovative new projects that change communities for the better and protect our favorite places.
Update: In October 2012, to the cheers of the county residents and leaders, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslem and Senator Lamar Alexander announced that 2,000 acres of Rocky Fork would be the state’s newest state park.