Doe Mountain Recreation Authority Board hopes to turn area near Mountain City into tourist draw

Hank Hayes • Apr 13, 2013 at 6:30 AM

JOHNSON COUNTY, Tenn. — Johnson County’s Doe Mountain Recreation Area — potentially the region’s next big natural tourist attraction — is planning a so-called “soft opening” this year.

The mountainous and wooded 8,600-acre site, located just south of Mountain City, was purchased by the Nature Conservancy and the state of Tennessee last year for $8.8 million to promote eco-tourism and recreation in what is viewed as an economically distressed part of the state.

The vision for Doe Mountain is to be a top destination for hiking, mountain biking, horse-riding, and off-highway and all-terrain vehicles.

But site development, for at least another year, will remain in the planning stage.

Doe Mountain is now locally managed by a 15-member Doe Mountain Recreation Authority Board (DMRA), which is accepting proposals to develop a property management plan by June 2014.

This year’s soft opening for the site has not yet been scheduled, said Gabrielle Lynch, a Nature Conservancy program manager and DMRA secretary/treasurer. “The idea is in advance of the management plan. ... We would want to have some kind of public access to the mountain on existing trails,” Lynch said of how the soft opening will work. “There will be no new construction, and no opening up areas of the mountain that we haven’t studied yet. ... The DMRA’s administration committee is still discussing how the public may acquire permits to access the mountain. Also, the soft opening date has not been set in stone yet. ... Prior to opening, the DMRA Board must receive title to the property from the state of Tennessee.”

DMRA’s request for plan proposals emphasize the management plan should include recreational uses, destination eco-tourism and sustainable economic development, while also providing for natural, watershed, cultural and heritage resource conservation and enhancement.

Once a draft plan is developed, a 45-day public review and comment period is expected to happen.

The Doe Mountain property had been slated for high-end residential development in the mid-2000s by its previous owners.

But the site became subject to bankruptcy court proceedings, and the Nature Conservancy worked to acquire the land.

Previously, Doe Mountain had been leased by the state of Tennessee for 15 years as a wildlife management area allowing hunting, until it was closed to the public by the previous owners around 2005.

With an existing 35-mile network of roads and trails, DMRA members believe Doe Mountain has the potential to attract not only local and state visitors but also tourists from Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia and beyond.

Also, the Nature Conservancy believes the property helps to conserve one of the largest remaining blocks of forest in private ownership in the Southern Blue Ridge region.

While the results of an economic impact study have not been released, DMRA thinks tourist dollars will come. The site is surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest, which annually draws about 2 million visitors along the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.

Lynch emphasized the Nature Conservancy is all about planning, but noted a number of details have yet to be worked out.

For instance, the recreation area is expected to be run by an executive director and a staff, but DMRA hasn’t determined how those people will be paid or what fees Doe Mountain might generate, Lynch said.

“We expect it to operate as a business,” she said.

Numerous comparisons, meanwhile, are being drawn between Doe Mountain and the nearby Virginia Creeper Trail in Damascus, Va., a hub for mountain biking.

“What they have done with the Creeper Trail is something we have been eyeing for a long time,” Lynch said. “Damascus has really embraced the forest and outdoor recreation, and we admire them for what they have done. ... We are looking at other recreational models. ... (Doe Mountain) will be multi-use, and that was the vision from the beginning.”

For more information, visit www.doemountain.org.

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