The annual Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival has its usual abundance of waterfowl and activities Saturday and Sunday at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and nearby Birchwood School — and even across the river in Dayton — with one major addition.
The 2013 festival officially will celebrate a bigger and better refuge for the future -- and the fact it won't be threatened by a sewage treatment plant.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency recently was deeded 68 acres to expand the refuge on the eastern side of the Tennessee River, at the approach to the old Blythe Ferry and the adjacent Cherokee Removal Memorial. That property was targeted for condominiums and the waste-water facility, according to Dan Hicks, the TWRA Region 3 public information officer.
"That would have overlooked our slough where all the migrating cranes and other fowl come," said Hicks, whose agency contributed $250,000 for the purchase from a federal grant. "But the property is ours now -- we've had the lines marked -- and it's going to be public land for perpetuity."
A dedication ceremony is set for 1 p.m. Saturday on the added property.
The Land Trust for Tennessee joined the TWRA in making the purchase and saving the habitat, with the help of private donations. One large gift from an anonymous donor came through the International Crane Foundation.
Other contributors listed by the Land Trust included Bill and Judy Tindall, Carlene and Greg Vital and Libby and Frank Duff as well as the Farrow Family Foundation, the Lyndhurst Foundation, the Riverview Foundation and the SunTrust Foundation.
Jeanie Nelson, president of the Land Trust, will join TWRA officials in making comments during the dedication ceremony.
"Part of the proposed [residential] development, including the sewage plant, was going to be adjacent to the refuge, so it would've had a large impact on the habitat," said Katie McCallie, the southeast development manager for the Land Trust.
Her organization and the TWRA have their eyes on other nearby property as well.
"This is the first part of the project in the Hiwassee River watershed. There will be more to come," McCallie said. "Saturday we'll be celebrating what we've accomplished and what we're looking forward to."
The recent purchase should ensure that the 4-foot-tall sandhill cranes and the many other birds will continue to grace the Hiwassee refuge for many years. Hicks visited the site Wednesday and saw "a lot of cranes."
"The count's been running pretty good," he said. "Last year the high count at the refuge was 48,000 birds in February, and there are about 65,000 that use this flyway from Canada and Wisconsin. Some have gone farther south by now, but with the warmer weather we've been experiencing, more of them are staying. It's supposed to be good weather in the 50s on Saturday."