by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
Gale Link had a dream of keeping Mitchell Cove forever wild. In 1961, she and her husband purchased a 350-acre Mitchell-Cove bluff farm. Several years later, Link’s husband gave her an adjoining 850 acres of cove property for an anniversary present. After her husband died, Link struggled financially, but refused to sell the Mitchell Cove land and took a job in Nashville as a legal secretary to pay the taxes.
In 1990, longtime friend, hiking companion, and like-minded environmentalist Sanford McGee asked Link if she’d consider selling “just a little corner.” ‘If I was paid a million dollars for the land, I’d use the money to buy it back,’ McGee recalls her telling him, ‘Let’s think about how we can share all of it.’
McGee and his then wife Joan Thomas spread the word to interested friends. Alumni from the University who wanted their children and grandchildren to have the same experience of the natural world as they did joined the conversation.
The group hired an attorney and sought advice from the Nature Conservancy.
“It took us two years to figure it out,” McGee said.
Calling themselves the Jump Off Community Land Trust (JCLT), a group of 10 stakeholders bought the property from Link and donated it to a nonprofit they helped create called the South Cumberland Regional Land Trust (SCRLT).
Some of the stakeholders homesteaded on the bluff farm living off the grid. McGee, Joseph Bordley and Julia Stubblebine continue to live there on the 150-acre tract known as “the farm.” JCLT leases “the farm” from SCRLT and takes financial responsibility for the entire 1,150-acre Mitchell Cove tract, including property taxes and insurance.
In 2011, Gale Link died in a car accident. JCLT, the on-site stewards of Mitchell Cove, and SCRLT, the deed holder, began discussing how to guarantee for perpetuity Link’s “forever wild” vision.
The obvious answer, a conservation easement prohibiting development on the 1,150-acre tract, posed huge financial hurdles. The survey alone would cost $25,000.
SCRLT board president Kathleen O’Donohue had experience working with Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation (TennGreen) to secure a conservation easement on the adjoining 95-acre Ravens Den Sanctuary.
In mid 2017, SCRLT contacted TennGreen and the nonprofit jumped at the chance to help SCRLT find the funds. The oldest accredited, statewide land trust in Tennessee, TennGreen launched a funding campaign securing generous donations from the Lyndhurst Foundation and the Tucker Foundation. This past September, TennGreen announced the $43,500 fundraising goal had been reached.
“The Mitchell Cove conservation easement focuses on protecting the property from development. No houses and no structures forever,” said Christie Peterson Henderson, TennGreen Director of Land Conservation. The only exception is a small educational structure proposed for near Ravens Den Rd. The 150-acre JCLT “farm” is not included in the easement.
The easement was crafted to allow SCRLT to explore selling carbon offset credits accrued by not harvesting trees. The revenue could “finance more conservation efforts,” said SCRLT board member Nate Wilson.
Mitchell Cove hasn’t been timber harvested since the 1950s and then mainly on the bluff. Lush ferns and waterfalls join the old growth forest fostering an exceptional degree of biodiversity. Remnants of prohibition era moonshine stills hide beneath some bluffs. The cove is also home to the earliest finding of pictographs in this part of the world. The red paintings featuring celestial characters may date back as much as 1,000 years.
“The decision to place a conservation easement on the Mitchell Cove property makes the “forever wild” vision a legally protected reality, not only during our lifetimes but for generations to come,” said SCRLT President Laura Candler.
For permission to hike in Mitchell Cove contact Candler (678) 850-5123, or McGee (931) 598-5120. SCRLT also orchestrated the preservation of Shakerag Hollow and Bluebell Island on the Elk River. To learn more visit <scrlt.org>.