Chattanooga Now Conservation group gives sneak peek into land acquisition process

Chattanooga Now Conservation group gives sneak peek into land acquisition process

September 1st, 2018 by Myron Madden in Get Out - Departments

Ehrin Irvin climbs Hell's Kitchen boulders, sampling one of the newest publicly accessible bouldering areas in the region.

Photo by Shannon Millsaps

Zachary Lesch-Huie eyes a rock corridor at Hell's Kitchen. The Access Fund and SCC partnered to purchase the property to open additional bouldering areas in the region.

Zachary Lesch-Huie eyes a rock corridor at Hell's...

Photo by Brady Robinson

Cody Roney remembers the Southeastern Climbers Coalition's acquisition of Hospital Boulders as a particularly difficult one.

The farmer who owned the 39-acre property in Gadsden, Alabama, was not especially "climber-friendly," she recalls, and he did not take kindly to those who had, for years, been sneaking onto the premises to steal a moment on its high-quality sandstone.

"You were pretty afraid to run into him," admits Roney, SCC's executive director. "He didn't like people being out there, and that property went up for sale."

True to its mission of preserving climbing areas for future generations, SCC began to fundraise in order to purchase the boulder-strewn property at auction. After being outbid on its first attempt — but succeeding when the land miraculously returned to the market five years later — the organization finally seized ownership in 2012.

Despite the lasting tension, SCC members invited the farmer and his family out to Hospital Boulders' grand opening celebration soon after, and were astonished to see how quickly his attitude toward them changed throughout the event.

"I think they were just really pleased and surprised to see that climbers were not crazy people," Roney chuckles. "I don't know if conservation was necessarily something that they cared about or felt strongly either way about, but for them, I think it was a neat experience to see that people wanted to use that property as much as they did."

Stories like these abound for all eight climbing areas the SCC has acquired throughout its 25-year history, and Roney has quickly learned that no two acquisitions will ever be alike.

Since the Southeast has so much private land compared to areas out West, Roney says the SCC finds out about most of the properties on its radar from climbers who have scaled the premises' rock secretly or with exclusive permission from the landowner. When the owner indicates he or she might be willing to sell the land or the property is in danger of development, these climbers tip off the organization, beginning the acquisition process.

Sometimes, the process is easy, like it was with the organization's 2002 acquisition of King's Bluff in Clarksville, Tennessee. The nearly 10 acres were donated to the SCC by the family who owned the land, wanting it to be protected.

Other times, the process is much more complex. Roney points to the organization's most recent acquisition, Hell's Kitchen, a "densely concentrated boulder field" just north of Chattanooga, adjacent to Cumberland Trail State Park. The 10-acre property — never before open to climbers — is expected to open to the public this fall.

While reviewing the deed for the parcel, purchased in partnership with the Access Fund, the groups discovered a provision that allowed one of the neighboring property owners to cut the land's trees for viewshed.

"We're a conservation organization; we can't have people cut our trees down just so they have a better view from their house. So getting that taken out probably added a few months to the process of buying the area," Roney explains.

With all the moving parts to consider, most of the areas purchased have required at least a year of preparation before an offer was even made, says Roney. Opening Denny Cove to the public took nearly five years, as the nonprofit had to coordinate with several different partners to acquire and ready the massive 685-acre property outside of Jasper, Tennessee.

"The most we'd ever spent on a climbing area at that time was, like, $100,000. So to now have a project of $1.2 million was daunting," she says of Denny Cove.

Though, with trails to be built at Hell's Kitchen and the loan for Denny Cove still being paid off, Roney says the SCC doesn't have its eye on any new areas to acquire right now. But the organization is always ready to step in should any area be threatened with development or loss of access, she adds.

"We'll never sell any of our areas to be developed, and we're not just going to get rid of them just because," says Roney. "We're always going to keep them open to the public for free."