The focus was in Jefferson National Forest’s Clinch Ranger District, an area of national forest with portions located in Scott, Wise, Lee and Dickenson counties. At its heart is High Knob, a 4,222-foot mountain known for its unique ecological features and impressive views.
“It’s got lots and lots of little creeks that come off of it and lots and lots of little nooks and crannies with interesting kinds of micro-climates, micro-habitats, where we get a lot of species that live there and may not live anywhere else,” says Clinch Coalition President Diana Withen.
“It’s the wettest mountain in Virginia, and life likes water. We have a lot of water. High Knob has the most northern hardwoods in the Cumberland Mountains; this type of forest is even found in the high valleys where the cold air sinks down. High Knob's special climate produces unusual areas for life to evolve.”
The year after the organization began its efforts, flooding that was widely blamed on logging in the area caused extensive damage and killed an elderly man in one of the local communities, bringing new urgency to the idea of promoting tourism over timbering.
The tragedy spurred the group’s desire to get involved when timber sales were proposed – and also to get the word out about the unique nature of area’s natural features as a local recreational treasure.
As the group’s official historian, Harry Warren tells the tale: it was an unexpected meeting of the minds - an environmentalist and a mountain man crossed paths in the woods, and the coalition was born.
“Steve [Brooks] was cut from an environmentalist mold, and Otis Ward was a man of the mountains, but what they had in common was a great love of those mountains and the environment,” Warren says, “so they started talking, and the next thing they knew they were having an organizational meeting down at the Tacoma Community Center.”
Activism on issues impacting the forest has remained a part of the organization’s identity. Logging, water quality, development and the impact of ATVs on streams have all been topics of interest. They’ve weighed in, at times, on controversial topics like increased regulation of industry (which they supported) and construction of the coal-fired power plant at Virginia City (which they opposed).
Yet, over the years the group expanded its focus to making nature more accessible to the public through educational efforts and the maintenance of trails.
“It’s gone from being a total watchdog group of the forest to kind of broadening out our goals,” says Withen, “so now education is a big part of what we do, and we also do a lot of trail work on public lands.”
Though they still comment on proposed projects and participate in the public process, these days The Clinch Coalition views itself more as a partner with the U.S. Forest Service, decrying budget cuts that have increased the need for volunteers to handle things like maintenance of trails and campgrounds.
A few years ago, when the ranger district lacked some needed trail funding, The Clinch Coalition found the grant funding and put in the legwork to make trail upgrades possible, says Brooks; that began a partnership as a “friend of the forest” group that continues.
For a dozen years, the organization has been putting on the High Knob Naturalist Rally, a free annual event that provides educational information on a variety of topics related to the natural environment, and hands-on workshops and activities. The U.S. Forest Service is also a partner in the event, which this year will be held Sept. 29 at the High Knob Recreation Area.
In the fall, they host the High Knob Hellbender - a 10K footrace of the mountain from Norton with an elevation gain of around 2,000 feet. It raises money to help protect the hellbender, a giant salamander that inhabits streams in the watershed. They also lead guided hikes and hold art and essay contests for students on topics related to the natural environment.
Withen says the goal of these events is to help everyone in the area realize what a special place they’re living in – and the importance of how to take care of it. The organization is made up of people with a variety of different backgrounds and viewpoints; what they have in common is their shared love for the mountains.
Their website is www.clinchcoalition.net. For more information about The Clinch Coalition and how to get involved in trail work days and/or upcoming events, you can contact president Diana Withen at [email protected] or (276) 275-1337, or associate director Steve Brooks at [email protected] or (276) 479-2176.