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

Stewardship – A Forever Commitment

Land Protected – Now What?

Each new land protection project generates a rush of joy and excitement. However, after the initial furor fades, the task of ensuring that conserved land remains permanently protected shifts to the shoulders of SAHC’s devoted stewardship crew. Perhaps the least understood aspect of our work, yet an integral component of the “forever” commitment to conservation, SAHC’s Stewardship Program is responsible for ongoing communication with landowners, annual monitoring of conserved land, defense against violations — and much more. Here’s what it takes to accomplish that commitment.

The Stewardship aspect of SAHC’s work centers on the perpetual care and protection of land and water. This entails everything from walking the property to keeping detailed documentation of changes over time and building relationships with landowners. Holistically, the “Stew Crew” is charged with the health of the living systems that surround us — ensuring that the waters remain pure and flowing, that natural communities flourish and invasive threats are removed, and that the people who live on and use the land understand the terms of conservation easements, which aim to protect “conservation values” that benefit the region and world at large. Of the more than 80,000 acres that SAHC has protected since 1974, we are responsible for stewarding over 54,000 acres of conservation easements and preserves. SAHC follows accreditation requirements and Land Trust Alliance standards and practices in accomplishing this work. 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

Roan Naturalist Kalie Pierce

KalieAs Roan Naturalist, I am thankful to have become so intimate with this unique habitat. The Roan Highlands have been a special place for me to visit throughout my years as a student at East TN State University, and as I passed through the area during my AT thru-hike last year. I am proud to have served in this position working with the many different organizations and volunteer groups that protect this land. Read more

Roan Stewardship Updates 2020

balds management volunteersFrom seasonal bird surveys to trail management, education, and habitat restoration, the Roan Stewardship crew continues to care for our flagship conservation focus area. We are grateful to our partners at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for their support in this work!

Like many things in our world, SAHC’s grassy balds management looked different in 2020. We hand-mowed a total of 7.5 acres from Round Bald to Grassy Ridge, which is about the typical acreage mowed by our Grassy Ridge Mow Off and Roany Boyz events. Our first priority was to keep staff and volunteers safe and comfortable, so we scaled back the number of folks allowed to be out each day to less than ten people, total. We relied on long term volunteers, who knew what to expect and didn’t mind following safety protocols set by both SAHC and the U.S. Forest Service. However, due to state regulations, we were not able to cooperate with the NC BRIDGE program this year. NC BRIDGE has been doing the “heavy lift” of balds management for more than 15 years, mowing every day for two weeks and carrying out equipment for our volunteers. Read more

Smith Family Volunteers

smith family youth volunteersDavid and Melissa Smith and their children Otto, Clyde, and Asa spent a weekend managing grassy balds habitat at Grassy Ridge and camping under the stars together. It’s become something of a family tradition. Otto has been helping with the Grassy Balds Mow-Off since he was 5 years old and understands the importance of habitat management; now in high school, he asks about it every year before it’s even on the calendar. Read more

Sandy Mush Forest Restoration Coalition Update

Photo of a tangle of Oriental bittersweet vines.

Oriental bittersweet vines can be extremely prolific, killing trees and harming forest health.

The Sandy Mush Coalition — a partnership among SAHC, the Forest Stewards Guild, and EcoForesters – has completed its first year of collective effort to increase capacity to control invasive exotic plants and improve forest stewardship in Sandy Mush. The coalition is fostering healthy and resilient forests that protect environmental values, cultural heritage, economic opportunities, and quality of life for people in the Sandy Mush area of Buncombe, Madison, and Haywood counties.

“The purpose of the coalition is to increase the community’s capacity to conduct forest management activities and to address the concerns and needs of landowners in the community,” explains SAHC Stewardship Director Sarah Sheeran.  “We just finished the first year of our partnership, in which we’ve been meeting with community members, natural resource professionals, and stakeholders. With the coalition up and running, we have an action plan and are now in the process of implementing that plan as we head into our second year.”

The coalition held two introductory information-gathering sessions with community members last fall and a Sandy Mush Forest Restoration Gathering in January, in which a variety of organizations and forest professionals presented.  These facilitated listening sessions connected state and local partners and other nonprofits involved in forest health initiatives with community members.

A tree after the Oriental bittersweet vines have been cut and treated

A tree after the Oriental bittersweet vines have been cut and treated.

“The coalition is providing a means to connect landowners with the technical and financial resources they need in order to improve forest stewardship on their properties,” continues Sheeran. “The event in January was a powerful way of gathering the people together in one room so that SAHC and our coalition partners could answer questions from landowners on the tools and resources available to help them manage their land.”

Funding for the coalition also enabled SAHC to treat approximately 50 acres of our conservation properties and preserves.

“We’re trying to be good stewards of the land we own and fulfill our own commitment to management, while modelling these management practices for others,” says Sheeran.

Blue Ridge National Heritage Area logoThis project is made possible in part by a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership. Support from local philanthropic environmental leaders provided critical funding to make the coalition possible. We also want to thank the state and local partners and other nonprofits who presented at the community gatherings and have been involved in these efforts – including NC Forest Service, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Mountain Valleys RC&D, MountainTrue, Hemlock Restoration Initiative, and several others.

“We’ve all been working together to fulfill community goals for family forests in Sandy Mush — To help gain an understanding of what people value about the land, fears they have, and the needs they’ve identified, so collaboratively we can come up with a plan to address these needs and concerns,” says Sheeran.  “What I really appreciate about the community is how much they value their sense of place. This is a very tight knit community that has a tremendous love for their land, their neighbors, and their place. You get a real appreciation for how special Sandy Mush is – the sense of ownership and pride in community.”

30 Years of Roan Stewardship!

SAHC and USFS Botanist Gary Kauffman surveying Gray's lily

SAHC and USFS Botanist/Ecologist Gary Kauffman survey Gray’s lily populations in the Roan, 2019.

You may already know that SAHC has been working for more than 45 years to protect and conserve our mountain home. And, you may also know that we trace the origin of our organization to the Roan Highlands, where SAHC’s founders first began efforts to conserve the land and views surrounding the Appalachian Trail. But, did you know that our efforts to actively steward and manage those lands started 30 years ago, with the formation of what is now known as the Roan Stewardship Committee?

Roan field crew in 1987

1987 field crew doing gassy balds surveys for the development of the first balds management plan. Photo by Paul Sommers

The Roan Stewardship Committee is an ambitious collaboration of multiple partners including government agencies, nonprofit organizations, recreation clubs, scientists, and individuals passionate about conservation of the unique ecological communities found in the Roan Highlands. It began with a handful of individuals concerned about long-term stewardship of Roan’s unique ecosystems.  Now 30 years later, the Roan Stewardship Committee consists of more than 15 agencies and organizations. Some groups, including the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, are long time partners, while others – like the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture – are new to our collaboration. From the beginning, SAHC has formed the nexus of this collaboration, facilitating the Roan Stewardship Committee meetings and partnership efforts.

Judy Murray, retired SAHC Roan Stewardship Director, led those stewardship efforts with an unwavering focus for more than 25 years, and handed over a vibrant and focused Roan Stewardship program to Roan Stewardship Director Marquette Crockett in 2014. In January this year (2020), Marquette facilitated the 30th meeting of the Roan Stewardship Committee.

“Digging through previous meeting notes this winter, I found the agenda from the first Roan Stewardship Committee meeting,” shares Marquette.

From Paul Somers, 1989:

“….I have reserved two cabins (number 19 and 20) at Roan Mountain State Park, for the evening of February 15, 1990 and the following day February 16. The purposes of the meeting, as I see them right now are to:

1. Review any completed sections of the Balds Management Plan

2. Formulate positions on pesticide use on the Roan Mountain (balds and spruce-fir particularly)

3. Review the status of the Hampton Creek Cove Management Plan

4. Discuss plans for the upcoming field season.

5. Discuss alternatives to AT relocation onto Grassy Ridge.”

SAHC and USFS staff plan for balds management.

SAHC and USFS Staff Planning for Grassy Balds Management. (Marquette Crockett left, Sue Fruchey right).

When the Committee met this year, similar items dominated the agenda. The Roan Stewardship Committee is reviewing the new Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan and about to embark on an update of the Balds Management Plan. This winter, we’ve been working with the TN Division of Natural Areas to update the management plan for Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area to include new priorities and address new threats. The Roan Stewardship Committee also shared reports about various partners’ work and discussed the upcoming field season — including red spruce-Fraser Fir restoration and grassy balds management.  

“Similarities between the 1990 and 2020 meeting agendas illustrate a very important point – at SAHC, forever really does mean forever,” says Marquette. “Before coming to SAHC, I had worked for different entities (including the government) and witnessed initiatives come and go — people move on, directives change. But, that hasn’t happened on the Roan. Many wonderful people have committed entire lifetimes to conservation of the Roan Highlands, and more importantly, they have handed down their knowledge and commitment to new generations.”

“I am thankful for all the quirky, brilliant, and absolutely dedicated people who have made the Roan Highlands what they are today,” adds Marquette. “The conservation and ecological management of the Roan is a complex task spanning generations, and it simply would not be possible without the support of SAHC’s members and partners.”

Cheers for 30 years of Roan Stewardship!

Get Involved — Outings and Volunteer Opportunities

Curious about what makes the Highlands of Roan so special? Each year we host a full day of outings and social gathering in the Highlands of Roan to enjoy and introduce people to the wonders of this special landscape. This year, our annual June Jamboree will be held on Saturday, June 13.

Want to help with caring for Roan’s unique grassy bald habitat? We also host an volunteer weekend each year — the Grassy Ridge Mow-Off — which presents an opportunity for people to help with hands-on habitat management. Come for the day or backpack to the work site and camp with us to enjoy stunning sunset/sunrise on Roan’s “sky islands.”

Save the Date! The Grassy Ridge Mow-Off this year will be Saturday-Sunday July 18-19.

About the Highlands of Roan

Straddling the border of Tennessee’s Carter County and North Carolina’s Mitchell and Avery Counties, the Roan Mountain massif (also known as the Highlands of Roan) is a series of mountain peaks and ridges that rise above 4,000 feet in elevation. They are renowned for their exceptional biological diversity and magnificent beauty.

The grassy bald communities of the Roan were once kept open by a combination of weather conditions and grazing by prehistoric “megaherbivores”. Imagine a herd of elephant-sized mastodons grazing these mountaintops! In the recent past the balds have been maintained by natural herbivores (elk, bison, deer, etc). Farmers later grazed their livestock on these same slopes. Currently the balds are maintained through livestock grazing and mowing. Many rare plants, including the beautiful Gray’s lily, are found growing on the balds. Management of the balds is accomplished through partnerships between the U.S. Forest Service, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club, and numerous volunteers and researchers.

Voluntary Ag Districts Benefit Farmers

Cost-Share programs are available for farmland conservation easement landowners through Buncombe County’s Voluntary Agricultural District 

Agricultural lands are an essential component of the western North Carolina landscape and the region’s natural and cultural history, and SAHC takes pride in helping farmers protect their land from non-farming development. Our agricultural conservation easement landowners’ commitment to permanently preserve their land in active farming contributes to the continued vibrancy and health of our region. In recognition of these contributions, Buncombe County Soil & Water Conservation offers a Voluntary Agricultural District Preservation Program, which benefits landowners whose farmland is under conservation easement in Buncombe County.

What is a Voluntary Agricultural District?

Voluntary Agricultural Districts (VADs) play an important role in slowing the loss of farmland and protecting farmers in the region. Farmland preservation helps protect our region’s natural resources, wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, and rural economy. Specifically, a VAD is an area of qualifying farmland of at least 50 acres, (which may consist of one large tract or a collection of nearby, independently owned parcels). In order to be eligible, farmland must meet several basic requirements and landowners must sign an agreement to preserve and promote agriculture in their communities. An Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural District (EVAD) additionally requires landowners to place their land under an irrevocable conservation easement restricting development (for 10 years or more).

What are the benefits of the VAD/EVAD program? 

Enrollment in the VAD/EVAD program provides landowners with access to many resources and economic benefits. Participants in the program may receive protection against nuisance suits, waived utility assessments, and educational materials. Furthermore, EVAD participants are eligible to receive up to 90% of cost share under the Ag-cost-share program.

To learn more about farmland preservation in Buncombe County, or to apply for the VAD/EVAD program, contact Ariel Ziip with Buncombe County Soil & Water or visit: https://www.buncombecounty.org/governing/depts/soil/farmland-preservation.aspx