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For 40 years, Judy Murray has helped protect the Highlands

April 14th, 2014 9:14 am by Marci Gore

For 40 years, Judy Murray has helped protect the Highlands

For the past 40 years, Judy Murray (standing) has had a passion for the Highlands of Roan. Contributed photo.

Judy Murray has always had a passion for the environment. And for the past 40 years, this outdoors enthusiast has served as the Highlands of Roan stewardship director, helping to protect the fragile ecosystem on top of Roan Mountain.

Straddling the border of Tennessee's Carter County and North Carolina's Mitchell and Avery counties, the Roan Mountain massif rises above the farms and villages of the valley below. Known as the Highlands of Roan, these 25,000 acres of mountain peaks and ridges, for the most part above 4,000 feet in elevation, are renowned for their exceptional biological diversity and magnificent beauty. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail traverses the massif's entire length. Conserving the Highlands of Roan was the initial effort of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) and, today, remains its flagship project.

The SAHC is one of the country's oldest and most respected land trusts. Founded in 1974 as a non-profit, charitable organization, SAHC, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, works to conserve the unique plant and animal habitat, clean water, local farmland and scenic beauty of the mountains of North Carolina and East Tennessee for the benefit of present and future generations. The SAHC achieves this by forging and maintaining long-term conservation relationships with private landowners and public agencies.

The SAHC has helped ensure the protection of more than 63,000 acres throughout the region, from the Highlands of Roan to the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It was Murray's passion for the Highlands of Roan that became a driving force behind much of the preservation and habitat restoration that the SAHC and its partners have accomplished in the Roan.

Today, the SAHC's headquarters are in Asheville, N.C., but it was founded in Kingsport in the 1950s, largely by members of the Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club.

"As a hiking club, they did a lot of activities outdoors and a lot of them were very passionate about the Appalachian Trail (AT). In the 1950s, there were members of the hiking club that initiated a relocation of the AT. It originally ran across some road area in Tennessee. They initiated a relocation to have it go instead across the Highlands of Roan because it was a much more scenic and pleasant hike," said Angela Shepherd, SAHC's communication director.

Murray came to Kingsport in the 1960s to work as a chemist at Eastman and joined the Tennessee Hiking Club. She later married Stan Murray, who at one time served as the chair of the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) and championed the relocation of the road area of the AT.

"Stan asked me one day to lead a hike. I said, 'I don't lead hikes.' But you didn't say no to Stan," Murray said, laughing. "The next thing I know I'm leading a hike. I hiked over the Highlands and was just moved by their magnificence. Through the hiking club, I got involved with the protection efforts [of the Highlands of Roan]."

Murray says although she initially came to Kingsport for the chemist's job at Eastman, it was really the mountains that drew her here.

"Back then, there would be National Audubon programs at the Civic Auditorium. I went to every one and I thought, 'If these people can work outdoors, why can't I?' So, after eight years of working at Eastman, I went back to graduate school and got my master's degree in ecology," she said.

Murray has spent the past 40 years working with numerous individuals and agencies to assure the viability of the Roan Massif ecosystem and protection of its exceptional and cultural heritage while accommodating non-destructive scientific, educational and recreational public use.

"We had to find a good balance," said Shepherd. "We were looking at what needs to be done to protect this area and its conservation values, but we also need to recognize that the reason we protect it is because people love it. It's key to find that balance and not love it to death."

Open to the public, visitors to the Highlands of Roan can hike, backpack, sightsee, picnic, hunt, fish, photograph and cross-country ski there. One of the most beautiful sections of the entire 2,000-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail traverses the ridgeline for more than 20 miles. The Overmountain National Historic Victory Trail, tracing the famous route of mountain patriots during the Revolutionary War, crosses its interior. Naturalist rallies, outdoor classes, biology field trips and forays are held annually.

Management of the Grassy Balds is one of the Highlands of Roan's biggest projects. The origin of these rare and beautiful ecosystems is not clearly understood. In the last century, cattle and sheep, as well as goats, horses, mules and hogs extensively grazed the mountain. Some scientists speculate that continuous grazing by prehistoric animals, followed by elk and bison, maintained the balds for millennia.

Grassy balds are regarded as natural communities; although, shrubs and trees will invade the open areas if left alone. Murray and other Highlands of Roan partners help maintain the balds by mowing and weedeating.

These grassy balds are home to the golden-winged warbler, a migratory songbird.

"They winter in South America and then come up here and breed and have nests in the Highlands of Roan," said Shepherd. "They can't survive in a completely dense canopy so they kind of depend on what we call edge habitat, which is perfect for these grassy balds — these open areas where you get the edge of the forest and you get the grassy areas. By managing the habitat for them at the high elevations, we are protecting the species. They are not exactly listed as threatened, but they were in decline. By doing habitat management and working with other partners it has benefited the golden-winged warblers. And by doing that, it has also benefited other small mammals and birds that use that same kind of habitat area."

Some of the partnering organizations Murray has worked with during her time as the stewardship director of Highlands of Roan include the SAHC; Friends of Roan Mountain; Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club; Baa-tany Goat Project; Cherokee National Forest; Pisgah National Forest; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; North Carolina Natural Heritage Program; North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission; Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area; Yellow Mountain State Natural Area; Appalachian Trail Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy.

Although she is stepping down as stewardship director, Murray will not be leaving the Highlands of Roan completely behind. She will serve as SAHC's volunteer Highlands of Roan advisor. Marquette Crockett, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wildlife Biologist at Canaan Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia, was hired as SAHC's new Highlands of Roan stewardship director on March 10 and has been working with Murray to receive training since then.

Murray seems to have mixed emotions about her retirement.

"It's very affirming for me to see what a group of committed individuals can do and how they can make a difference. It's definitely been a labor of love. I value all of the people that I have met through the years, whether in the other agencies or through the organization itself," Murray said.

Shepherd says Murray is leaving behind some very big shoes to fill. "Judy's passion is really for the Highlands of Roan. She's been with us since the very beginning. It's kind of a big deal for her to be saying, 'OK, we need to turn the reins over to somebody else," said Shepherd. "We've been so lucky to have someone so passionate about this."

In honor of its 40th anniversary this year, the SAHC will host several celebration events throughout the coming months including numerous hikes.

For more information on SAHC and Highlands of Roan's conservation projects, visit SAHC's website at www.appalachian.org.

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