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

Future Chestnut Mountain Nature Park

Volunteers clean up debris around Hominy CreekTrails are shaping up at the future Chestnut Mountain Nature Park in Haywood County! When SAHC purchased the 448-acre tract in 2020, we obtained a loan to complete funding for the acquisition. We will be able to retire the remaining loan in 2022 and complete the transfer of the property to the Town of Canton. The new park will tentatively open in spring of 2022.

SAHC’s acquisition of the Chestnut Mountain property was made possible with funding from the North Carolina Land and Water Fund, the NC Attorney General’s Office’s Environmental Enhancement Grant Program, The Pigeon River Fund of The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, many private donors, and a bridge loan from the The Conservation Fund.

We are grateful to partners at Haywood Waterways Association, Inc. and volunteers who helped clean up debris in and around Hominy Creek at the base of the property.  The large debris resulted from flooding from Tropical Storm Fred, which had a devastating impact on Haywood County and damaged property upstream.

Hanni and Jay accepting Dogwood Award in RaleighThe office of NC Attorney General Josh Stein honored Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy with a 2021 Dogwood Award for our work conserving land and water that will be enjoyed by generations as the future Chestnut Mountain Nature Park. Congratulations to our amazing team, gratitude to our partners the Town of Canton and Haywood County, and thank you to all the incredible conservation supporters who make this work possible!

For more information about the history of this project and Chestnut Mountain, CLICK HERE.

Community Farm Updates, Fall 2021

French Broad River Academy volunteers help seed garlicSAHC’s 140-acre farm hosts beginning farm businesses, educational workshops, and service learning experiences. It’s a working model that blends productive agriculture and responsible land management with educational opportunities and community engagement. Contact us for more info about the programs, event space, or opportunities to visit the farm (by appointment).

This fall, we have been joined by multiple volunteer groups who assisted with diverse projects, including the French Broad River Academy boys and girls schools, the Willows Recovery Center and the accounting firm of Corliss & Solomon, PLLC. Community Farm Associate Tamarya Sims continues to focus on outreach, education and volunteer engagement. Tamarya has been working to analyze the local food system and explore ways SAHC can better serve our community. Thank you to everyone involved in these efforts! 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

Community Farm Update Summer 2021

This summer, Community Farm Associate Tamarya Sims brought a whole new feel for farm life to a wide variety of camp and community groups. From partnering with the NC Arboretum in their EcoExplore program to teaching kids to safely hold chickens raised on the farm, this season has been full of volunteer work days and educational activity, growing young minds along with  agriculture.

Community Farm Associate Tamarya Sims has been busy running educational programs on the farm this summer! In July, Tamarya taught groups from Project Lighten Up, Youth Transformed  for Life, and others about chickens, farming eggs, and how chickens fit into the farm ecosystems. 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

Summer 2021 Interns

Meet our 2021 summer interns, and hear what they have to say about their varied projects and interests in conservation!

LaKyla Hodges, Communications and Youth Education Intern

LaKyla is a senior at Warren Wilson College where she is studying Environmental Education. She worked with SAHC as a communications intern this summer, focusing on implementing and supporting our equity, diversity and inclusion goals. LaKyla has a wide variety of experience working in the environmental education field. She has held positions as an intern with the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, a senior camp aid at the Smithsonian National Zoo, a camp facilitator at the Western North Carolina Nature Center, and as a communications and advocacy intern at MountainTrue. As a Bonner Leader at Warren Wilson, she has also worked with several youth organizations in traditionally Black communities of Asheville. In addition to facilitating youth programs this summer, LaKyla spent time writing about the salamander plots at the SAHC Community Farm and interviewing with Allison Williams, Pathways to Parks, and more.

Lydie Costes, Duke Stanback Intern

Lydie Costes is a Master of Environmental Management student at Duke, focusing her studies on Ecosystem Science, Conservation, and Geospatial Analysis. She is from Chapel Hill, NC and has a background in agriculture, psychology, and administration. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, gardening, learning about plants, and dancing. This summer, Lydie worked as a Stanback Fellow designing the management plan for Chestnut Mountain. This parcel was purchased in 2020 by SAHC and will be donated to the Town of Canton for use as a public park. Lydie consolidated existing documentation and communicated with various community partners to establish recommendations that balance conservation and recreation. “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with SAHC this summer,” she says.

Joshua Lyon, Roan Naturalist

Joshua is a “plant nerd” heading to Western Carolina University after working with SAHC. He started in seasonal outdoor work in 2016 by maintaining trails with the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards and stayed on to lead crews for multiple seasons before becoming a Ridgerunner in Georgia for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). As the seasonal Roan Naturalist, Joshua split time between stewardship projects and visitor interactions. Half of the season consisted of interacting with hikers to teach them how to minimize impact on the trail by staying safe and respecting the plants and animals that make up Roan’s imperiled ecosystems. The other half was spent on stewardship projects such as mowing the balds, planting spruce, doing bird surveys and putting out educational signs. This position is funded by the ATC and jointly hosted between SAHC, ATC and the US Forest Service.

Maya Nightsky Rosensweet, Roan Highlands Intern

Maya is a Biology and Philosophy double-major at Mount Holyoke College. “My goal is to be part of the climate change movement with a biological focus in carbon sequestration and a social focus in well-being,” she says. “For SAHC, my main project has been planning and building wild native plant gardens at Little Rock Creek preserve, including a pollinator garden, a meadow, and a raised edible garden. These gardens are not only environmentally sustainable (native, good for pollinators, birds, and other fauna, and specifically good carbon sequesterers), but they are also culturally and historically significant. All in all, we aim for this property to be beautiful AND educational.”

Welcome New Trustees

SAHC Trustees provide guidance and leadership for the organization. We are grateful to the following individuals who join the SAHC Board this year and are willing to donate their time and experience to serve with the organization.

PenderLarry Pender, Horse Shoe, NC

Pender (as he prefers) retired from NYU, where he served as an administrator. He and his wife, Tanya Marie founded Pathways to Parks a couple of years ago to encourage and support inclusivity and access for all people, especially people of color; to enjoy hiking and outdoor recreation. He enjoys many outdoor activities including cycling, hiking and tennis. Pender has been a dedicated member and looks forward to supporting SAHC’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion initiative.

PamPam Kelley, Kingsport, TN

Pam retired from Eastman, where she served as Director of Global Credit. Her background is in the Accounting and Credit Management division. She enjoys the outdoors, hiking and biking.  After learning of SAHC’s work, she looks forward to being involved and supporting its mission.

Randy HunterMiranda “Randy” Hunter, Asheville , NC

Randy is a long-time, active member of the French Broad River Garden Club and enjoys studying horticulture and applying the science to her garden.  She recently led the nomination of SAHC for the Garden Club of America’s national Cynthia Pratt Laughlin Medal, and the year-long process of securing the award on SAHC’s behalf.

JoeJoe DeLoach, Jonesborough, TN

Joe is a longtime passionate SAHC leader. He previously served on SAHC’s board in the 1990s and early 2000s, and has served as Board Chair. He serves as a Technology Fellow with Eastman.

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