Sen. Lamar Alexander took in the Tennessee River Gorge on Saturday behind the wheel of the Blue Moon, a 70-foot Chattanooga charter boat.
As Alexander looked out over the river, the captain pointed out an osprey nest on a river day marker -- the waterway equivalent of a highway mile-marker post.
For Alexander, a Tennessee Republican long a supporter of conservation, it was a way to bring added attention to the accomplishments of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust.
The trust has worked for 31 years to conserve the ridges and views of the 27,000-acre Tennessee River Gorge in Hamilton and Marion counties.
In that time, the Trust has come to own land or land easements on 17,000 of those acres.
The ownership and easements don't stop progress, but they help ensure progress doesn't mar the beauty of the canyon where the Tennessee River cuts through a portion of the Cumberland Plateau in an area American Indians once characterized as "mountains looking at each other."
"Egypt has its pyramids, England has its history, Italy has its art, the United States has its great American outdoors, and Chattanooga and Southeast Tennessee and Marion County have the Tennessee River Gorge," Alexander told about 30 people on the boat.
The outing was part of this year's main fundraising event for the Gorge Trust. Alexander was the special guest, the draw for a $150-a-ticket dinner later in the evening to support the Gorge Trust.
Praising Chattanooga for refocusing its future on the river and the quality of life it brings, Alexander said the federal government can and does help land conservation trusts by supporting conservation easements. The easements give tax breaks to landowners who pledge not to develop their land in perpetuity. They still own the land, and can sell it, but it can never be developed further.
"A lot of people will give up the right to develop the land to keep the land [when they receive a tax break,]" Alexander said. "I can support that. I do support it. I can call attention to it and celebrate it."
Alexander himself helped -- through easements -- preserve about two miles of ridge area leading into the Smoky Mountains National Park some years ago.
And he praised this similar but larger effort in Chattanooga.
"There is not a midsize American city in the country that has done more to celebrate itself and be a stronger city over the last 25 or 30 years than Chattanooga," said Alexander, adding he hopes such efforts will bring the region another automotive plant.
Later the group would join another 300 or so people for dinner at Tennessee RiverPlace off Browns Ferry Road in Lookout Valley.
Jim Brown, executive director of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, said people who visit Chattanooga are not prepared for "the majesty of the Gorge."
Nor do many people know the Trust has been working for decades to save it, he said.
In the Trust's early years, preservation got a boost when state partners pledged continued conservation on Prentice Cooper State Forest, the canyon's northwest backdrop.
But now, Brown said, things are down to the nitty-gritty -- the last 10,000 acres.
"In our area we've had a lot of development on hold. When the economy picks up, the pressure on what we love, the river gorge, is going to pick up," he said.
Brown said the group hopes Alexander's support will help accelerate efforts to conserve the river canyon land "before it disappears forever."
"We want progress. Everybody does. But we want progress that comes with careful planning and understanding and commitment by the community and consensus -- not progress at any price," he said.