Judy Murray Honored with Lifetime Achievement Award

2022 TN Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award Winner – Robert Sparks Walker Lifetime Achievement Recipient: Judy Murray

Judy Murray, who has led an inspired life dedicated to conservation in Southern Appalachia, has been named winner of the 2022 Robert Sparks Walker Lifetime Achievement Award. The award is part of the annual Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Awards administered by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).

Judy Murray standing with awardThere are few people who can truly be described as committing a lifetime of sacrifice and passionate hard work to an endeavor with modest monetary reward yet boundless benefit to the greater good of humankind and nature. Judy Murray, however, is just such a person. Judy was first inspired by nature on a quintessential family vacation in the 1950s when her family traveled by car from New York City to Canada. On the return trip, and especially as the family traveled through the Adirondack Mountains, Judy fell in love with nature and the mountains.

As a young lady, Judy joined and supported the Scenic Hudson organization in New York. Upon graduation from college in 1960, Judy sought a job that would enable her to further her interests in the outdoors and the mountains, accepting a chemist position with Tennessee Eastman Company (now Eastman Chemical Company) in Kingsport, Tennessee. Within days, she was hiking and enjoying the spectacular vistas from the grassy ridges of the Highlands of Roan and was soon a member of the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club. An inspired life dedicated to conservation, Judy’s early experiences with the Hiking Club led to her lifelong work in the Highlands of Roan.

Early Work with the Appalachian Trail and founding Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy

Judy and six other members of the hiking club formed a working group to further protection of the Appalachian Trail and the magnificent grassy balds of the Roan massif. The entire area was threatened by development for resorts and vacation homes. The group of seven hiking club members started meeting at members’ homes in Johnson City to discuss how to safeguard the vulnerable Roan lands for present and future generations. The group grew and was formalized in 1966 as the Roan Mountain Preservation Committee of the Appalachian Trail Conference with the goal to preserve the views and landscape surrounding the Appalachian Trail through the Highlands of Roan.

In 1974, the U.S. Forest Service and the Roan Mountain Preservation Committee created a landscape-scale “Highlands of the Roan Composite Plan”. The plan identified tracts needed to protect the bald areas and the Appalachian Trail, established alternatives for acquisition if the tracts were not available in their entirety, identified the fragile resources of the bald areas, and described broad management direction of these lands.

To accelerate the protection of critical land across the Highlands of Roan and along the Appalachian Trail, Judy, and other members of the Roan Mountain Preservation Committee founded the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) as a Tennessee non-profit land trust. The organization was created to raise funds to purchase lands for which the Forest Service was not funded.

During this time Judy realized that she wanted to devote more of her time and energy to conservation. Judy resigned her position with the Tennessee Eastman Company to return to school. She knew that increased knowledge of the interaction of living organisms and their environment was key to protecting and managing the unique and fragile Highlands of Roan. Graduating with a master’s degree in Ecology from the University of Tennessee, Judy became SAHC’s first Roan Stewardship Director in 1974. A position she held for 40 years until her retirement in 2014.

SAHC’s non-profit charter was expanded to include North Carolina and now, nearly 50 years later, the organization continues to build on the foundational work of the Roan Mountain Preservation Committee. SAHC protected 1,644 acres of lands in 2021 including 1,050 acres in the Highlands of Roan, of which 150 acres have recently been added to Roan Mountain State Park. SAHC, its members and donors, and in partnership with many organizations and agencies, has protected over 19,000 acres in the Highlands of Roan and over 75,000 acres throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains. SAHC is a leading land trust nationally and is fully accredited by the Land Trust Alliance.

Caring for the Ecologically Important Highlands of Roan

Judy has spent her life dedicated to preserving the beautiful and ecologically rare Highlands of Roan. This has been accomplished through hard work and personal sacrifice, vision and extraordinary communication skills, stubborn determination, and encyclopedic knowledge of the area and ecology. But perhaps more than anything, Judy was able to use her deep and genuine love and respect for  nature and people to align interests and spur action. Continuing the early collaborative efforts of the Roan Mountain Preservation Committee with the Forest Service and other organizations, Judy, as SAHC’s Roan stewardship director, established the Roan Stewardship Committee to bring together a larger community of interested parties. And through all of this, Judy was able to build trust and respect among landowners whose cherished land had been part of their families for generations, thus opening the door to conversations about conservation and ultimately protecting their land. Landowners have many fond memories of working with Judy and often ask about her years after her retirement. These relationships formed a bedrock of trust that has led to a conservation success story that was unimaginable when the small group of individuals met in Johnson City over 50 years ago.

Whether leading a day-long workshop, applying the power of persuasion, or rallying volunteers, Judy got results. Getting to shared goals and prioritized projects was just the start of Judy’s work. Once plans were developed and projects agreed-to, the hard work of implementation began. One of Judy’s strengths has been her ability to recruit and lead volunteers to carry out the many projects needed to protect and restore the Highlands of Roan. From restoration of Golden-winged Warbler habitat in the Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area, removing invasive Garlic Mustard from Roan Mountain State Park, to mowing blackberry and other woody growth from the grassy balds, legions of volunteers have accomplished herculean goals.

A wonderful example is the annual effort undertaken by multiple groups and agencies to remove blackberry and other woody plants slowly encroaching on the grassy balds, threatening not only the unique habitat but also the attractiveness of the region to many thousands of annual visitors. Volunteers use loopers, rakes, hand scythes, and heavy-duty power equipment to mow down the growth, manually replicating as best possible what was done for centuries by fire and grazing animals. Each summer dozens of acres of grassy bald are restored by these efforts. And for many, it is a cherished annual event.

Along the way, Judy has been repeatedly recognized for her tireless contribution to conservation and protection of the Highlands of Roan. She was twice awarded the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club’s Hiker of the Year Award and co-chaired the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s 50th anniversary biennial meeting. She contributed to Roan Seasonal Ecologists with mentoring and inspiration. She also added knowledge and guidance to numerous articles and scientific studies of the Highlands of Roan. Judy formally retired from her position as the SAHC Roan stewardship director in 2014, but her efforts to celebrate and protect the Highlands of Roan continue. And even at 84 years of age, she actively participates in strategy and planning activities as a member of the SAHC Roan Stewardship Advisory Committee. She’s always willing to share her knowledge, offer perspective and advice and lend a helping hand. Her legacy is also evident in the continuing success of SAHC.

A Lifetime of Partnership and Leadership on the Roan

As a founder, Judy was instrumental in shaping and leading the organization. Mentoring and inspiring staff members and scores of volunteers has insured that SAHC’s success is carried to other conservation challenges. This work has been accomplished using the same principles Judy embodied as she led stewardship of Roan – building trusting relationships with the community, partnering with state, federal, and other conservation organizations, and ensuring that the hard work gets done.

As a final testament to Judy’s lifelong commitment to conservation and the protection of the Highlands of Roan, she commissioned Jens Kruger, a member of the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame and recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music, to compose a musical celebration of the Highlands of Roan and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first meeting of the Roan Mountain Preservation Committee. The result, the Roan Mountain Suite, premiered on October 15, 2016, at the Paramount Center for Performing Arts in Bristol, Tennessee. The performance of the Kruger Brothers and the Kontras Quartet was met with enthusiasm and multiple standing ovations. It was a thrilling evening that would not have been possible without Judy’s vision, powers of persuasion and patronage.

“Sometimes I like to be the last one to turn in for the night, when I have the stars, the wind, and The Rock to myself. A time for silent reflection from the place I love most in the world.” – Judy Murray

Elk River and Little Horse Creek

We are grateful for the foresight of conservation-minded individuals, the generosity of our members and philanthropic leaders, and the dedication of a landowner to continue his family legacy, which enabled SAHC to acquire 128 more acres in Avery County in the Highlands of Roan. These two tracts — 87 acres on Elk River and 46 acres on Little Horse Creek — contain important water resources and habitat for wildlife.

Elk River

Less than two miles upstream from the rushing torrent of Elk River Falls, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy’s new 87-acre preserve on the Elk River harbors rich plant and animal biodiversity.

“Elk River Falls, also known as Big Falls, is a spectacular 50 ft. high waterfall in Pisgah National Forest that draws visitors for its dramatic cascade and clear water,” says Land Protection Director Michelle Pugliese. “In addition to preserving the rich biodiversity of this beautiful forested tract, this project was an exciting opportunity to protect the water that feeds Elk Falls.”

Almost a half mile of the Elk River flows along the edge of the preserve, and the tract contains the point at which Cranberry Creek flows into the Elk River. Both watercourses are classified as Trout Waters by the NC Division of Water Resources. Read more

Big Horse Creek

Big trees, big streams, big open field — everything about Big Horse Creek is a big deal! This stunning 134-acre mountain cove harbors the cool cascades of a trout stream and plentiful places for birds and wildlife to thrive. Nestled amongst national forest land and SAHC conservation easements, the property had once been worked as a small farm and remained in the same family from the 1940s until it was recently listed on the open real estate market. Thanks to generous supporters, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy purchased the tract to permanently preserve the pristine water and habitat resources, and views from the Appalachian Trail.  We look forward to sharing the property as part of our outings and education programs in the future.

Tucked away on the southeast slopes of the Roan Massif, SAHC’s new Big Horse Creek Preserve borders the Pisgah National Forest. The acquisition preserves habitat adjoining the national forest and mountain stream headwaters that support wild trout.

“Over a half mile of Horse Creek flows along the edge of the property,” says Land Protection Director Michelle Pugliese. “Its rushing wild trout waters, and those of its tributary Camp Branch, are now protected forever. These waters originate on the eastern slopes of Big Yellow Mountain and Little Hump Mountain. The Big Horse Creek property joins an extensive network of protected land in the Roan Highlands, with its high elevation 4,100-foot ridgeline lying in the shadow of the Appalachian Trail.”

If you’ve ever hiked along the AT at Little Hump Mountain, you’ve probably looked down on this property.

The Big Horse Creek Preserve is located within the Audubon Society’s Roan Mountain Important Bird Area. A former tree farm area and openings along the forest edge create early successional habitat that supports neo-tropical migratory songbirds, along with a variety of other wildlife that depend on young forests. The mixture of multiple springs and streams, forested mountainside, and sunny openings creates a variety of habitat for plants and wildlife to thrive. Securing this large-acreage tract with ridgelines, varied topography, and thriving habitat in an important network of conserved land helps preserve critical corridors for wildlife movement in the region.

SAHC is excited to be working with our new neighbors on Big Horse Creek to conduct a bioblitz  to inventory the species onsite, and we will continue to manage the property to protect the natural resources in perpetuity. Thank you for continuing to help add to the permanently protected landscape in the Highlands of Roan!

 

Belview Mountain

Map of Belview Mountain near Cranberry NCSouthern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy has created a new nature preserve in the Highlands of Roan, which will permanently protect 151 more acres of mountain habitat and clean streams. It is very near other SAHC nature preserves and a 24,000-acre network of public lands! The new preserve is on Belview Mountain, and provides habitat for diverse amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, contributing to climate resilience in an important wildlife connectivity corridor.

Tucked away in the rugged mountains of Avery County, near the communities of Elk Park, Cranberry, and Minneapolis, distinguished NC State Forestry professor and tree geneticist Bruce Zobel invested in a legacy for his children — one of rocks and dirt and living organisms rather than paper stocks. Now, his children have secured that legacy for future generations to enjoy — for natural communities to prosper and for hiking enthusiasts to enjoy protected views from the Appalachian Trail, for  years to come.

Landowners Julie Zobel and Kathy Ball sold 151 acres to SAHC on Belview Mountain, for SAHC to own and manage for the long term as a nature preserve. The property  reaches elevations of 4,400 ft. and can be seen from the Appalachian Trail on Hump Mountain. It boasts 10 headwater tributaries and the main branch of Cranberry Creek. The pristine creek waters support populations of wild trout. Read more

150 Acres for Roan Mountain State Park

Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy  recently purchased 150 acres adjoining Roan Mountain State Park, protecting habitat resources and streams in the Doe River watershed. This important natural area at Sugar Hollow in Carter County, TN, will be added to the park in the future, providing potential to expand trails and create backcountry camping sites.

“I’m thrilled that we are helping our partners at Tennessee State Parks expand one of the most beloved parks in the state,” says Michelle Pugliese, SAHC’s land protection director. “From the higher elevations on the property where you can enjoy views of the Roan Massif to the beautiful stretch of stream, this property offers exciting opportunities for people to connect with nature.” Read more

Spruce-fir Habitat Restoration

Hiking in the Roan Highlands, you may have had the experience of leaving the sunny, open grassy balds to dip your head into the dark shade of adjacent spruce-fir forests. Like the grassy balds, these remnant, boreal forests host multiple federally engaged species. New efforts to conserve and restore high elevation spruce-fir forests complement SAHC’s decades-long program of restoration and habitat management of Appalachian grassy bald

Why is Spruce-fir Forest Special?

Youth volunteer planting spruce, with adult volunteer in background

For future generations… Volunteers helped plant more than 5,000 red spruce seedlings on SAHC preserves.

Southern Appalachian red spruce-Fraser fir forests are considered one of the top two most endangered ecosystem types in the U.S. and contain multiple federal and state listed rare species, including the federally endangered spruce-fir moss spider and Carolina northern flying squirrel, the rare Weller’s salamander, and Appalachian populations of Saw-whet Owl, Red Crossbills, and more. Cold water streams flowing from these forests support Appalachian brook trout and other rare aquatic species.

During the last ice age, red spruce and Fraser fir dominated the southern Appalachian forest. But as the climate warmed, the spruce-fir forests gradually retreated north to Canada and to the tops of the highest peaks in the Southern Appalachians, above 5,000 feet in elevation. Logging during the 19th and 20th centuries reduced the extent of spruce-fir forest in the southern Appalachians by up to 60%, as fast-growing hardwoods replaced forests which had been cut. These forests were further degraded by acid precipitation and the invasive balsam woolly adelgid. However, now the largest threat to these forests is climate change, with warming temperatures and changes in rainfall.

Read more

Roan Stewardship 2021

Volunteer Days, Bird Surveys, and Public Education

Spring and summer atop the Highlands of Roan stayed busy with active habitat management work days, biological surveys, and more. We’re grateful to all the volunteers who helped with stewardship and outing projects this year, and to all the supporters and partners who make it possible to preserve and restore rare and important ecosystems.

“We’re so glad to have been able to come back together as a group with the return of the annual Grassy Ridge Mow-off,” said Roan Stewardship Director Marquette Crockett. “I think everyone really enjoyed the camaraderie of working together again! We’re very grateful to all the volunteers who came out. Plus, we enjoyed a pleasant surprise — everything bloomed a couple weeks later this year than usual, so we were able to see numerous Gray’s lily blooming in areas that were mowed by volunteers in previous years.. It was also the first time I’ve been on a mow-off without the rain!”

SAHC Board member Larry Pender joined in volunteering at the Mow-off again this year, reflecting on his time as “Celebrating the great outdoors with a heart healthy hike across the Roan and a momentous, meaningful mow atop the Grassy Ridge of the Roan!”

The National Forest Foundation awarded a $15,000 grant to support our grassy balds management work The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) awarded two license plate grants to SAHC, totaling $10,000 to support feral hog trapping in the Roan. SAHC staff continue to implement a previous ATC grant of $4,700 which will support the  installation of educational “peakfinder” signage on Round Bald. Read more

7,500 Acre Donation – Update

waterfall - photo credit Tim SweeneyA generous conservation philanthropist has committed to donate a 7,500-acre preserve in the Roan to Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy in 2022. Conservation of this globally-significant mountain preserve will significantly boost habitat conservation efforts in the region. We are honored and extremely grateful to have been chosen as the guardians of this biological gem, and look forward to telling you more about the creation of South Yellow Mountain Preserve in the next year!

The philanthropist assembled dozens of contiguous land holdings over the past decade, which will be combined into the new SAHC preserve. The boundary, which is more than 32 miles long, is being surveyed now. The land straddles the border of Avery and Mitchell counties in Western North Carolina, and rises to 5,300 ft. in elevation. Situated within the southern end of the planning boundary of the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area, a special conservation area designated by the NC General Assembly in 2008 to protect the exceptional natural features found there, the land supports numerous threatened and endangered plant and animal species. The property includes one of the largest American Chestnut restoration projects in the country, extensive boulder fields, rich coves, old growth forests, six waterfalls, and a system of rare heathbalds.

Map of donation area and national trailsTransfer of the gift is expected to be completed in the next year. SAHC will own the land and manage it as a nature preserve. If you’ve visited the Roan Highlands, you’ve probably enjoyed views of this 7,500-acre assemblage from popular vantage points within public lands — including Round Bald and the observation deck at the rhododendron gardens.

“This is the largest single gift in SAHC’s history, and the largest gift of land to a land trust in NC,” said Executive Director Carl Silverstein. “Strategic acquisition of large parcels of land is  increasingly important for climate resilience and protection of water sources — and increasingly hard to accomplish as privately owned parcels continue to be subdivided and developed. These 7,500 acres include some of the most sought-after conservation acres in the eastern United States, including over 100 miles of pristine creeks and streams. We really are honored to be entrusted with the responsibility to steward this vast mountain complex.”

Even before his first acquisition here in 2012, longtime SAHC member Tim Sweeney envisioned assembling these parcels into a unified block of land with the intention of conserving the entire mountain ecosystem. With this gift the philanthropist’s dream has become a reality for the benefit of future generations.

What Happens Next?

As due diligence steps on the project continue within the coming year, SAHC staff will work with partners to create a management plan for the preserve and ensure that the fragile natural resources of the land are protected forever.

“Permanent protection of this vast unbroken area with diverse habitat areas secures connectivity for critical wildlife corridors,” says Jay Leutze, SAHC’s Advisor to the Board. “The scale of a conservation gift of this size is important on a global level and will be a benefit to the entire region. We look forward to continuing to work in  partnership with others in the landscape as we plan for managing this property.”

Find out more!

For an informative history of conservation efforts across the Highlands of Roan and more details about this incredible project in-progress, visit Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy’s
YouTube channel and or watch the video below, which was presented in June 2021 as part of our annual June Jamobree —  “7,500 Acres in the Highlands of Roan – Virtual Lunch and Learn.”

Roan Mountain Gateway

View of open areas on Roan Mountain Gateway

Roan Mountain Gateway, photo credit Dan Belanger, USDA Forest Service

Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy recently transferred 91 acres to the USDA Forest Service, adding to public lands just south of the popular Carvers Gap area on the North Carolina and Tennessee border. Collectively known as the Roan Mountain Gateway, these 91 acres encompass the last privately-owned land on NC Hwy 261 before reaching Carvers Gap.

The Roan Mountain Gateway is prominent in views from Round Bald and Jane Bald, iconic locations along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in the Highlands of Roan. The land contains high elevation habitat, including restored habitat for neo-tropical migratory Golden-winged Warblers and other species, as well as headwater tributaries that flow into local trout streams. Read more

Mathes Farm

Stewardship AmeriCorps member on site visit to propertyThanks to conservation supporters like you, 45 more acres of farmland and forest in Avery County in the Highlands of Roan have been permanently protected.

Mathes farm map with location in Highlands of Roan“Visitors and residents of the Roan enjoy stunning scenic views,which include portions of the Mathes Farm in Beech Bottom,” says Farmland Program Director Jess Laggis. “Development of this tract could have devastated views of Yellow Mountain from 19E and from Yellow Mountain, and from the motor route of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail. Now, these stunning views are protected, and the land can continue to be used for farming for future generations.”

The property owned by Rickie and Shannonrae Mathes hosts a Boer goat operation called “Sh-Nanny-Gans.” Shannonrae says that Boer goats are a particularly excellent, large breed of goats. Read more