TRACY CITY, Tenn. — A central piece of one of the Cumberland Plateau's most celebrated trails will close in December. It will sever part of the 13-mile Fiery Gizzard Trail, which has been listed among the top 25 hiking trails in the U.S. and the sixth best trail for fall foliage.
A segment that lies on private land adjacent to South Cumberland State Park in Grundy County will close because one landowner wants to sell and another believes the trail would have a better future off his land.
That leaves park officials and volunteers with the Friends of the South Cumberland State Park just months to get a rerouted trail constructed to reconnect the north and south ends of the rugged path between the Grundy Forest trailhead and Foster Falls in neighboring Marion County.
How to help
To find ways to help or to volunteer for trail work, visit the Friends of South Cumberland State Park at www.friendsofscsra.org or call the South Cumberland State Park office at 931-924-2980.
Officials say 3,000 to 4,000 people a month hit the trail that Backpacker magazine has named among its top 25 hiking trails and ranked sixth in the nation for fall colors.
Interim park manager George Shinn says the new segment will be much steeper and more difficult for hikers now that they'll have to descend into and climb out of a deep gorge. Raven Point Campground lies along the Fiery Gizzard Trail on another piece of private land, and it will be closed next month due to the trail closure and similar issues, Shinn said.
Access to the land where the Fiery Gizzard Trail has existed for decades was granted on handshake deals. However, verbal agreements often don't stand when the person who made them dies or sells, leaving others to sort out the property's future, Shinn said.
Members of the Friends group say property owner Jim Southard Jr., a Charleston, S.C., veterinarian, offered to sell the land at his cost — $450,000, according to state property records — plus $100,000 for improvements he had made. But that was far too high for the group's limited funds, said Latham Davis, president of the group.
Southard, in 2014, sent the park a letter notifying officials of his plan to close the portion of the trail on his property. He gave officials a year to close the trail, setting a Dec. 1 deadline.
In recent years, the property has been offered at three prices — $450,000, $550,000 and $650,000 respectively — by the previous owners.
The Friends group got an appraisal that stood at $265,000 but it got no interest from Southard, Davis said.
End result: No deal.
On Friday, Southard said that he simply can't sell for less than the $650,000 he has invested. He said park officials want the most desirable features on the property — an improved, centrally located access point to the trail and the 107-foot, double-stream Anderson Falls — for far less than they're worth.
Southard wants to sell because of the distance from his home in South Carolina, the downturn in the real estate market and the cost of putting his four children through college, he said.
Shinn — who is quick to point out that private landowners have a right to do what they want with their land — now is worried that more private landowners will follow suit.
"There's another landowner adjacent to his [Southard's] property that has now given us word that he also would like the trail removed from his property," Shinn said.
The other landowner, Bradenton, Fla., cardiologist Hugh P. Liebert, has almost 100 acres alongside Southard's, according to state property records. Liebert paid $607,000 when he bought the property in 2006.
Liebert said on Friday that Carl Conry, a descendant of the Conrys who originally owned the land and the manager of his farm, advised him that now is the time to move the trail to save trouble on everyone's behalf.
Liebert called the decision one more of practicality.
Conry, who has been helping with the rerouting project, said he believes that by pushing the rerouting around the Liebert property, the remaining Werner family property would be the largest remaining privately held section of the trail.
The Werners, Conry said, were great supporters of the trail from the beginning and the trail move might unify most of the path for years to come. Conry said the rerouting around the Liebert property has no deadline for completion.
But park officials hope other parts of the trail don't wind up in jeopardy.
"You know, 30 years ago a handshake and a promise was all that was needed," Shinn said. "A verbal agreement was as good as gold."
The Land Trust for Tennessee has a more positive take on the situation.
Its Southeast conservation director, Joel Houser, said the dilemma is not as dire as it might seem because a new route is underway. The problem also elevates the issue of conservation and private land to the discussion level.
"It has been their grace that has allowed the trail to exist as long as it has," Houser said. "This isn't a permanent problem. There's a lot of optimism, and there's a silver lining here."
One positive lies in two waterfalls in the area where the rerouted trail will run, Houser said. Those waterfalls could become publicly accessible with the route change.
The Fiery Gizzard Trail "is on our radar. It is a piece that's a very high priority for our organization. But we're going to let the dust settle a little bit, get past the immediate crisis and figure out the next steps," Houser said.
"I think at the end of the day we're going to need public support to make permanence happen."
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/BenBenton, www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.