Taking Inventory

Save the hemlocks from a killer, invasive bug? Well, it might not really be worth our time. Climate change is expected to make the Chattanooga area much less hospitable for the trees within the next 50 years anyway. Preserve a piece of land with a scenic view? Well, that money might be better spent elsewhere. Just being pretty is no longer good enough.

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PHOTO: Matt Fields-Johnson

Gregory Vickrey, executive director of the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy

“That goes against everything I am, as a person,” says a conflicted Gregory Vickrey, executive director of the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy. “People are going to go nuts.” The former McCallie boarding student turned “radical environmentalist,” is spearheading an effort to get a “holistic view” of the North Chickamauga Creek watershed. In essence, he wants multiple layers of science to lead the conservancy’s decisions rather than emotions or assumptions. “The holistic approach is much more relevant to the world we live in today,” he says. “We can no longer afford to look at one species or one area for conservation. Our watershed does not exist in a vacuum.”

The inventory, which Vickrey hopes to make public by Jan. 1, looks at nearly two dozen factors, or “filters” as Vickrey calls them, to help the NCCC make decisions and steer its policies. The filters include everything from geology, projected temperature change and invasive species to population densities, mining operations and outdoor recreation. Once parcels are run through the filters, Vickrey says, the conservancy may determine that a mundane-looking piece of bottomland is more important to conserve than a scenic ridge top because of the role that land plays in the overall watershed.

“(Science) is underutilized,” he says of the conservation movement. “It helps us really identify what types of land are the top priorities for conservation.” The idea for the inventory started just over a year ago, and while it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point, Vickrey says there is much more to be done. “While it’s taken a lot of time and effort, that’s kind of the easy part,” he says. “Policy making and implementation is the hard part.”

Place, Person, Protection

The potentially groundbreaking inventory seems to be a product of the right person being in the right place. Vickrey has an extensive environmental background and is known for not being afraid to go against the grain. On her blog, controversial war protestor Cindy Sheehan refers to Vickrey as a “friend” and as a “radical environmentalist.”

He grew up in Paducah, Ky., and studied astronomy and physics before heading to Alaska to work with a number of environmental groups there. He became executive director of the NCCC in 2010. Vickrey also authors the blog “Wrong Kind of Green,” which claims to be dedicated to exposing ways money from commercial corporations has corrupted big environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy. In 2010, he published an article on the popular political newsletter Counterpunch.org, where he blasted several conservation groups. “Environmentalism is dead,” he wrote. “It has been co-opted and corrupted to the point of absolute strangulation, and what remains of the corpse is being devoured rapaciously by the necrophiliacs at your favorite corporate-controlled big enviro.”

Documentary will look at Chattanooga's balancing act

Chattanooga photojournalist Matt Fields-Johnson will be spending the next year filming a documentary on how communities in Chattanooga are balancing development with the preservation of wild land. He received a MakeWork grant in October and is seeking more funding for the project.

“It’s kind of a greater story of Chattanooga,” says Fields-Johnson, a rock climber, Class V kayaker and photographer. “As a community we’re going to have to choose what our values are. Do we value wild areas? Do we value development?”

The main focus of the as-yet-untitled documentary will be the North Chickamauga Creek, because the filmmaker says it perfectly illustrates the tension between growth and reservation.

Fields-Johnson, a Richmond, Va. native, has chosen to live in Chattanooga because of the outdoor opportunities around the city. He says that as more people like him move to Chattanooga, there needs to be compromises on both sides in order to sustain the special outdoor places that draw people to the community. “There’s going to be more growth,” he says. “I’m not trying to make a film that is anti-development, I’m showing both sides.”

Fields-Johnson will be filming for most of 2013 before heading into post-production. He hopes to release the film in early or mid 2014.

When it comes to his job on the North Chick, he, like most environmentalists, credits the place with being the bigger part of the equation than the person. “There’s no greater case study of a dynamic, resilient watershed than the North Chickamauga Creek,” Vickrey says. The area around the creek is amazing, he explains, and there’s no way to guess what the studies may find. “You can’t really be surprised because of how damn resilient this thing is.”

What he expects is to find new ecological value in the lower section of the creek. While the rocky-bottomed whitewater in the North Chickamauga gorge gets most of the attention for its biodiversity, the slow-moving slack water that flows through Hixson before reaching the Tennessee also fosters important ecosystems. “There’s new and unrecognized value in the lower watershed,” Vickrey says. “What the data is going to show us, is that it’s on the brink of collapse.”

The inventory should help conservationists and officials know what types of rare animals and plants call the North Chickamauga watershed home. “We don’t have a clue,” Vickrey says. “That’s data we need to get and we’re going to get.” And once they know what threatened or endangered species live in the watershed, they can educate themselves and then the public.

Larger, well-known species garner lots of attention, but people need to know about the rare and unusual organisms in their community, he says. Vickrey says that starts with him. “You ask me about endangered species in Alaska and I can name you 25,” Vickrey explains, before pointing out the window at his Greenway Farm office. “You ask me to name the endangered species in that field, I can probably name two. If I can’t name them, how can we expect the public to?”

Earlier this year, he and conservancy volunteers scoured the creek for the rare hellbender salamander, which is considered to be an important “indicator species” of stream health. The amphibian, also known as a snot otter, is not as attention-grabbing as a majestic hemlock, but Vickrey believes science will show that the salamander is more important to its ecosystem than hemlocks are to the forest. If that finding holds true, the NCCC would then shift its resources to protect the hellbenders rather than a species like the hemlocks.

That’s where Donna Shearer, chairman of Save Georgia’s Hemlocks sees things differently. “I will respectfully beg to differ,” she says. “Yes, hemlocks are beautiful but they are also very important. Scientists call them a keystone species. It’s not a tree that we should take lightly.” In addition to being “important to our souls,” the trees fill an important niche in the ecosystem. Their needles absorb tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide year round and their roots act as “superfilters” to clean runoff water before it reaches streams. “There are functions that hemlock trees do that are not performed by any other species that we have down here,” she says. “If the shade of the hemlock goes away and the water temperature rises just a few degrees, that can affect the trout populations.”

Vickrey says he fully expects dissension from some groups in response to the inventory’s findings, but he thinks others would want to adopt the process and use it on their own areas. For that reason, he has designed the filters tobe easily replicated. “The intent is to get it out there,” he says. “We’re not just doing it for the sake of this watershed. We’re doing this as a model for organizations and watersheds around the country and around the planet.”

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