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Staff photo by Ben Benton / Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park Superintendent Brad Bennett talks Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, about the site plan that will create a distinctive entrance to Moccasin Bend National Archeological District, a site that encompasses thousands of years of the cultural history of human habitation.

Moccasin Bend is not just another piece of pretty land. And when the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District finally gets its gateway, full visitor's center and story told in interpretive exhibits, it will be more than just another park site. It will be an amazing national park site in the heart of Chattanooga's city limits.

On Thursday, at long last, making our long-planned $1.1 million park a reality got a kick start with the National Park Service's announcement of a $250,000 "Forever Moccasin Bend" fundraising campaign to open the park's gateway with a visitors kiosk, restrooms, interpretive pavilion and parking area. Foundation grants and federal funds already have bridged the gap between that fundraising goal and the $1.1 million park price tag.

Moccasin Bend tells a story unlike any other. It tells a story — with American Indian mounds and village sites, a Trail of Tears route and Civil War cannon mounts — of 12,000 years of human life in the spot that became Chattanooga.

As former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, long instrumental in the park's slow but steady progress, explains, Moccasin Bend "is a legacy like no other. It keeps Chattanooga Chattanooga. This is who we are. Moccasin Bend is our history, it's our heritage, it is our DNA, and it's buried about 20 feet deep right out here in Hampton village."

* From 10,000 B.C. to 8,000 B.C. nomadic Paleo-Indians, some of the first peoples to enter the Americas after the Ice Age, moved to the region and Moccasin Bend because of the rich resources in what is now the Tennessee River Gorge and Chattanooga area.

* From 8,000 B.C. to 700 B.C., known as the Archaic Period, the bend's inhabitants developed stone tools and established permanent villages on Moccasin Bend.

* From 700 B.C. to 1000 A.D., known as the Woodland Period, the number of inhabitants grew, made ceramic pottery and began some farming, according to archeological excavations of about 20 village sites on the bend.

* From 900 A.D. to 1650 A.D., the Mississippian Period, the native people began building large mound complexes, farming larger tracts of land and having a strong sociopolitical structure based on kinship ties.

* In 1540 and 1560, Spaniards under the charge first of Hernando de Soto, or later Tristan de Luna, possibly made contact with inhabitants of Hampton Place, one of the villages there.

* From 1838 to 1839, Cherokees in the Southeast were rounded up and placed in various deportation camps to await the Trail of Tears removal to Oklahoma. At least one group was marched overland across the neck of Moccasin Bend.

Of course there's more than simply Native American history on the bend. From the 1830s to the 1850s, the Brown's Ferry Federal Road was an active route for slave trade. And during the Civil War, Union artillery was entrenched on the bend and periodically exchanged fire with Confederate batteries on Lookout Mountain. This bend's peninsula also was part of the Union army's main supply line, known as the Cracker Line.

But let's not just talk about Moccasin Bend's history. Let's talk, too, about its future — specifically its future economic value — to Chattanooga's much-touted $1 billion-a-year tourist industry.

Already, about a million people visit Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park each year. In non-COVID-19 years, these visitors spent about $66 million and created at least 800 private-sector jobs.

When Moccasin Bend is complete and open, those visitors will have another full day's touring available in the heart of Chattanooga. Park officials said in 2017 they anticipate it will bring in an additional $15 million a year and perhaps add another 600 to 700 jobs.

But there's one more step needed to make this amazing national park in the heart of Chattanooga meet this destiny: The police firing range has to be moved off of the bend. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

A full visitors center, trails on the southern end of Stringer's Ridge and full visitor's center staffing will have to remain on hold until the range is gone.

Day in and day out, since the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District was signed into law in 2003, that 33-acre firing range has eaten into Chattanooga and Hamilton County sales tax, hotel tax and additional tourism jobs. How much longer are we going to let our local officials allow this outdated, poorly sited, city nuisance of a firing range to shoot Chattanooga's growing tourism industry in the foot?

For years, our city and county leaders have progressed only in fits and starts toward relocating the firing range, complaining about costs all the while. They're caught up in looking at costs in the short term, rather than calculating the added revenue in the long term. We all need to remind them that they are elected and paid not to throw sand in the gears of a long-awaited 768-acre Moccasin Bend park, but to figure out the landscape — albeit a complicated one — of making it happen.

We urge them to hurry, and we hope you will, too.

We also hope you'll help with the fundraising if you can. You can donate online at www.npp-ccm.org/campaign.

National Park Partners, a local nonprofit park booster, already has secured about $125,000 in gifts and pledges to notch half the $250,000 goal, as well as a challenge pledge from leading donors. Each dollar donated will be matched until the goal is met.

Let's finally get this park completed and let the Tennessee Riverwalk meet the park.

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