Year after year, teacher Bett Adams takes his Chattanooga-area students to a local, world-class classroom, the Tennessee River Gorge.
“Without fail, every new class of kids can explore for hours and still be energized on the bus ride back,” says Adams, who grew up exploring the gorge. “They’re learning by doing, right there in nature. You can just see their faces light up, doing something instead of computer work for a change.”
The gorge is a geological wonder flanking a 26-mile stretch of Tennessee’s namesake river, where waters carved a path thousands of feet deep through the hard sandstone and limestone of the Cumberland Plateau. Just five miles from downtown Chattanooga, the landscape of the gorge makes for an accessible wilderness of forests thick with hardwoods and crisscrossed with clearwater streams. But this idyll has also begun to attract residential developers.
In 2019, after years of tireless determination by local conservation organizations including the Tennessee River Gorge Trust (TRGT), the effort to protect the gorge had a breakthrough with the successful completion of six acquisitions — made possible by grants from the Open Space Institute (OSI).
“For years, we’d had our eye on the ‘Hail Mary’ play of securing these parcels,” says Rick Huffines, TRGT Executive Director. “Although the project stalled at times, we never lost hope or stopped crossing our fingers that a solution would come along.”
With funding from OSI’s Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund, supported by the Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations and Merck Family Fund, two of the six properties will be added to Prentice Cooper State Forest — popular with hikers, rock climbers, and hunters. The remaining four will be added to a collection of conserved properties south of the gorge, where land remains relatively unprotected.
Additionally, all six of the properties will provide climate-resilient habitat for neotropical songbirds, green salamanders, and other threatened species — including the large-flowered skullcap, a protected species of flora found only in Tennessee and Georgia.
Protection of the lands also consolidates a 13-mile conservation corridor, allowing for the possible creation of a 40-mile loop trail which could eventually connect to the Cumberland Trail — the state’s newest long-distance trail.
“The property in the gorge is very expensive, and without the help of OSI, protection of the land simply wouldn’t have happened,” says TRGT’s Rick Huffines. “We’d have been going into debt or shaking a tin cup trying to get more money.”
For his part, Bett Adams welcomes the news. “I’m so grateful this land will continue to be here not only for my students but also for my son down the road,” he says. “Trail running, fishing, camping, bouldering, swimming, jumping off rope swings and rocks in the gorge — all these activities he’ll now be able to experience with his kids, too.”
As the need for conservation continues to press on the Tennessee River Gorge, OSI is meeting the challenge. “OSI has the ability to take on complex and far-ranging projects that otherwise would get stymied by politics,” says Joel Houser, Southeast Field Coordinator at OSI. “We want to support work in Tennessee that is creating lasting results for Chattanooga and beyond.”