May 5, 2016|By Greg Lynch| Community Development

You may have read my quote in Katie Allen’s blog post saying I could write a book about The Conservation Fund and its impact on our county. Well, I’m here to tell you more about the partnership between Unicoi County and the Fund, but I promise it will be shorter than a book.

When the concept of recreational tourism started to gain attention here in Unicoi, it was (and still is not) fully supported by everyone in our community. Some local people warned we were putting all our eggs in one basket. Some were not enthusiastic about the idea of setting aside more protected, public land when there was already 50,000 acres of land owned by the U.S. Forest Service not contributing tax dollars to the region. These few pockets of resistance that view forestland as a liability still remain, but there has been a movement away from that thinking towards embracing our natural resources and turning them into an asset.

GLynch SkyHillsView 15 JulWhtHsRck H02Rocky Fork is an area of scenic wilderness in Unicoi County, Tennessee. Photo by Marty Silver, Tennessee State Parks.

This movement peaked a few years ago when leaders from Unicoi had the opportunity to attend two workshops presented by the Fund’s Conservation Leadership Network (CLN). The first was the “Balancing Nature and Commerce in Rural Communities and Landscapes” workshop held annually at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. This was a pretty intense experience­—I felt like I was back in college! We learned a lot about how communities function from the diverse range of community groups attending the course. We took a chance when we brought along some of the naysayers with us to this workshop, but it was extremely beneficial for them to hear the CLN’s approach to focusing on the economics, community character, natural resources, and partnership-building skills necessary for creating sustainable communities. 

The Fund was very successful at getting us pointed in the right direction. After the national workshop, we were able to get a grant to bring a customized version of the Balancing Nature and Commerce workshop to Unicoi County. CLN provided a tailored experience focused on our local needs so that our community could start to work together to overcome barriers to reach our own conservation outcomes.

The workshop that we held in Unicoi County was a huge success. Even a snowstorm couldn’t ruin the turnout for our 2½ day event. It helped people realize that this movement was real and that we had the attention of leaders across the state of Tennessee, as well as the support of organizations like The Conservation Fund. It demonstrated that we would have help implementing our plan to capitalize on our natural resources in a sustainable way that we can pass on to future generations.

Unicoi County has utilized the action plans and materials that resulted from those workshops to engage more and more people, and today I think more people in our county have an improved view of public lands and recognize what an awesome place they live in. I guess it is easy to take our beautiful county for granted. People who weren’t necessarily engaged when this movement first started have come to realize the uniqueness of the county, and I think it makes people proud to live here.

GLynch MossyLoFlo RkyFrkWater cascading over mossy rocks at Rocky Fork State Park. Photo by Marty Silver, Tennessee State Parks.

Entrepreneurism was another aspect of CLN’s local workshop, and since then The Town of Unicoi has started a farmers’ market, and they are currently working on a grant to create a permanent market as well. A welcome center has been created that houses the Tanasi Artisan Center where local artists sell their wares, and a community kitchen for aspiring businesses is set to open as well.

Another major post-workshop development is the improvement in Unicoi County's relationship with the U.S. Forest Service. Our partnership with them has grown, and any increase in tourism is a result of our combined efforts. One example of this new collaborative relationship is the Pinnacle Trail, which has turned into a great attraction. The Town of Unicoi contributed a big parking area, restrooms, and trailhead, and the Forest Service helped remove the Pinnacle Fire Tower­—a dilapidated, wooden structure—and replaced it with a steel replica that is now open as an observation deck at the end of a ~5 mile hiking trail. From the top you are rewarded with an amazing view of Unicoi and surrounding counties.

I believe that the establishment of Rocky Fork State Park is the crown jewel in our efforts and this whole movement. Although the park is not quite developed yet, people are working hard and in the next couple of years I expect a lot of improvement in infrastructure and access. Events are already being held, like the 2nd annual Hikers’ Jamboree happening May 6-7, 2016. There is movement and excitement generated because of Rocky Fork State Park, and renewed confidence that the south end of Unicoi County can flourish as a result. I believe Rocky Fork will be a catalyst to drawing other businesses to the area.

GLynch Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 9.44.42 PMYouth have also gotten involved, and members of the 4H club made GPS renditions of hiking trails here in Uniqoi County. Their map helped me navigate the Pinnacle Trail, and kept me motivated to keep hiking until I reached the end! I keep a framed map on display in the Mayor’s office.

As a leader, you don’t feel good when an economic downturn happens during your watch. But I do feel good about what we’ve done and the seeds we’ve planted, and especially about the partnerships we’ve developed with organizations like The Conservation Fund. Through this movement of balancing nature, commerce and sustainable tourism, and the efforts of all the people involved­, I believe that it is all going to come together.