Thanks to a kind invitation from my friends and colleagues at The Land Trust for Tennessee, I was able to attend a meeting today with Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior. The meeting was focused on the top priorities in the state of Tennessee under the Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors program. This program is focused on land and water conservation and on providing access to “the outdoors,” especially in urban areas. Other attendees included representatives from local, state, and federal agencies and offices; conservation NGOs; foundations; and a few other academics.
The specific projects under discussion were: (1) the proposed new National Wildlife Refuge in the Paint Rock River watershed (just south of Sewanee), (2) the Tennessee Riverwalk in Chattanooga, and (3) the Harpeth River project in and around Franklin. Background information the first two projects is here; the third is described here.
In all three cases, private donors, NGOs, and local, state, and federal agencies have worked together to make long-term plans that enhance both “the environment” and human well-being. In the case of the Paint Rock, one of the Eastern U.S.’s crown jewels (if you’ll excuse the royalist metaphor in this republic) of biodiversity would be protected, with the additional benefit of providing public access (including hunting) to large areas of unfragmented forest, access that is becoming harder and harder to secure as the last remaining “open” lands get closed off by development and other pressures. I am delighted that this project has received such high priority — it would be a major win for the people of Tennessee and Alabama (and for the world‘s biodiversity — few places can rival the Paint Rock River).
The other two projects are in more urban areas. The first of these involves continuing the Riverwalk in Chattanooga, extending it into lower-income areas and completing the original plan for interconnecting different parts of the city. I’ve ridden this fabulous walkway many times on my bike and I am continually impressed by how many people use the walkway, how diverse their backgrounds seem to be, and how flat-out delightful it is to pedal along the Tennessee River for miles. I know less about the Harpeth River project, but when it is complete (after dam removal, for one), it will restore the river to an entirely free-flowing state, one of the few such rivers in Tennessee. In addition, the project will provide public access, assist with riverbank restoration, and integrate with the freshwater supply in Franklin. This project is being looked to as an example for how other communities can move forward with river restoration and increased quality of life for human communities along rivers (i.e., most of our towns and cities).
Salazar impressed me with his genial nature, his ability to remember names in a room of fifty new people, and his careful questions, designed both to affirm the good in these projects and to sniff out without undue fuss any hint of problems. I can’t say that I agree with his positions on some issues, but I came away understanding a little bit more about what it takes to get good work done in complex political contexts.
Kudos to the amazing folks at The Land Trust for Tennessee for arranging this meeting on very, very short notice. Salazar’s schedule allows literally just hours to get things together (his full-time schedule man looked kinda worn out…).