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.

"I found the program, from our time spent at the national course in Shepherdstown to the place-based workshop provided in Unicoi County, to be very beneficial to the Forest Service in mending, building, and strengthening the relationship with [the] public so that the community identifies the forest as an asset and a resource for economic development. The Cherokee National Forest is indebted to the program and The Conservation Fund for the hard work and time spent on this initiative to put us moving in the right direction. I have not a negative thing to say of this entire experience and I am thankful for a lifetime of blessings afforded to us."

-Tom Speaks, Forest Supervisor of Cherokee National Forest

The Results Of The Workshop

unicoi hostel sign KJB 250x160A sign for a tourism based business in Unicoi County.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.

"If I had time I could write a book about The Conservation Fund and its impact on our county. The series of workshops, starting with Shepherdstown and continuing locally, advanced our efforts toward sustainable tourism by several years. I think the majority of our citizens now look at our public land as an asset...which is almost an about-face compared to just a few years ago."

-Mayor Greg Lynch, Unicoi County, TN