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SAHC works to preserve natural treasures for future generations

Debra McCown • May 7, 2013 at 5:07 PM

ROAN MOUNTAIN, Tenn. – The sun peeks out over blue-tinged mountains and shines through the morning fog, casting warm, golden light over a stunning view from the grassy mountaintop. As the sky brightens, a whole world opens up of rich, green valleys and ridges that seem to reach for infinity.

This view of the Appalachian highlands, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina line from more than 6,200 feet, is one that former Kingsport Mayor Jeanette Blazier hopes will always be preserved.

“We love the out of doors, and our mountains of our region are one of our treasures,” said Blazier, whose family has been involved with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy since the 1970s - and for whom hiking Roan Mountain has become a family tradition.

“If we let them be over-developed, then we lose that special treasure, so we wanted to help protect them and, as much as possible, keep them in their natural state so that you can enjoy hiking and just being in the out of doors, not only our generation, but future generations.”

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy is a nonprofit land trust created to preserve some of the region’s most beautiful places, as development of ski resorts and other tourist attractions caused some to worry that all of these natural places would be lost.

The group’s early leaders were also members of other outdoor groups: the Eastman Hiking and Canoe Club and the Appalachian Trail Conference.

Angela Shepherd, communications director for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, said the group had its roots in the 1950s, when part of the Appalachian Trail was routed through the Highlands of Roan – an area now recognized as one of the most beautiful along the nearly 2,200-mile hiking path.

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy began in the 1960s as a subcommittee of what is now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. It was incorporated in 1974 and, since then, has protected more than 60,000 acres. It works with other conservation groups, and it added a farmland preservation program in 2005.

Kristy Urquhart, associate director of the conservancy, said its areas of focus are within a 10-county region of Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina. The conservancy’s areas of focus are the Highlands of Roan, Appalachian Trail Countryside, Black Mountains, French Broad River Valley, Smoky Mountains and Balsam Mountains.

While development is necessary, Urquhart said, it’s also necessary to preserve the soul-restoring places that are so important to people from this region. The Highlands of Roan, comprising nearly one-third of the conservancy’s protected land, has been the centerpiece of its efforts.

“I think those places are special for many reasons to many people,” Urquhart said. “I think all of us probably have a story where we’ve lost special places where we played when we were younger, and we would like future generations to be able to have those places.”

The conservancy operates through land purchases, conservation easements, and transfer to other entities, such as state or federal government. Shepherd said the group’s conservation efforts have paid off not only for those who love to hike, but for the region’s economy, which sees a sizeable economic impact from its undeveloped destinations.

“This area has become such a vibrant place for hiking and camping and biking and all of these outdoor recreational activities, so we see our position in preserving the landscape is really being able to contribute to the economic vitality of the region,” she said. “As people come here to enjoy our outdoor recreational resources, they’re really enjoying the areas that we helped protect.”

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy is holding its annual Appalachian Spring event in Kingsport this year, from 6 to 8 p.m., on Thursday, May 16, at the Barn at Allandale Mansion.

Shepherd said it will have a special focus on the Highlands of Roan and the service of members and volunteers who played a part there over the last 40 years. Tickets for non-members are $25 in advance and $30 at the door and include dinner, a beverage and musical entertainment.

The conservancy also invites the public to its annual June Jamboree, which features free guided hikes in the Highlands of Roan. More information about these and other upcoming events can be found at http://www.appalachian.org/.

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