Monday, August 14, 2006

Cove Mountain
At over 4000 feet, Cove Mountain is the centerpiece of the scenery in the middle section of Wears Valley in Sevier County, Tennessee. Mountain lovers from around the world have their eyes widened, breath taken and spirit lifted as they drive through the Valley and see Cove rising into the shaconage - the blue smoke - that gives the Smokies their name. Lying just south of Highway 321 between Pigeon Forge and Townsend, the crest of Cove forms the northern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Wears Valley not only hosts hordes of tourists, it's home to some of Sevier County's oldest families. While once a sleepy little place that was home to farmers, it now is attracting retirees and residents to its still bucolic setting.

But the intense attraction for the area threatens the way of life that caused both natives and newcomers to come to love the mountain and the valley. Unrestrained growth bring
s strains on the landscape and the lifestyle.

The south side of Cove Mountain and the crest of Cove offer all the grandeur mountain lovers adore about the Smokies. This view from the Cove Mountain trail into the Sugarlands watershed on an August day shows the mist that made the mountains famous.

The Cove Mountain Trail leaves from behind Park headquarters and quickly climbs to the crest of Cove, running more or less along the boundary of the Park. In the original plan for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, all of Cove Mountain would have been part of the Park. The federal government ran out of money and half of Cove is in the Park; half is privately owned.

Much of the 8.5 miles from the trailhead to the summit of Cove provide the quiet isolation and solitude that cause hikers to lace up their boots and hit the trail. The southern vistas - that peek occasionally through the summer-time foliage - stir the heart and soothe the soul.

While beauty abounds along the crest of Cove, it is a fragile beauty. Creeping development near the borders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park threatens to encroach on an ecosystem that while rugged and rustic, can fall prey to any number of calamities.

The closer homes and humans come to the boundaries, the greater the risk that non-native species will invade the Park and bring predators that the flora and fauna have little defense against. Further up in the highlands, adelgids have had their way with fir and hemlock after being introduced decades ago.

Even these fuzzy little black bear cubs can be threatened. Wrestling in the trail early on an August morning, they were oblivious t
o the lone hiker and the world around them. (Yes, these photos are fuzzy, too. My hand isn't so steady when I come upon a pair of cubs and can't see their momma.)

These guys were so intent on their wrestling match, they never gave a thought to how close they were to civilization. They didn't give much thought to the hiker turned wildlife photographer either.

But once they got a whiff of me, one scampered up into the woods - toward the privately owned land - and the other hightailed it up the trail; the same direction I was going. If you heard very loud singing that faintly resembled some sort of hysterical opera on August 13, that was me. Just in case momma was close, I picked up a short stick, too. I sang loudly and carried a small stick.

What those little guys didn't know was that this was just up the trail: A house. If you look very closely, you can see garbage cans sitting beside the road. Those cans contain a non-native delicacy that causes all kinds of trouble - human food. Bears become habituated to human food and become less fearful of humans. Nothing good can come of that. Either the bears come too close to humans and have to be moved or put down. Or, sadly, in a growing number of cases, the human encounters a bear in an unfriendly mood.

That house wasn't the first I encountered on the crest of Cove. The home pictured here is about half-an-hour's walk from the trailhead. It's built so close to the boundary that I could see no signs marking where Park land ended and private land began.

But I did see this sign. Along with several others that read, "Private." The eastern end of Cove Mountain is nestled in with other mountains and these homes aren't visible from Wears Valley. But for a guy hoping to see a sunrise from the crest of Cove, the signs felt a bit unfriendly.

But not as unfriendly as this sign warning that trespassers will be shot and survivors will be shot again. This sign was just off the trail, a few hundred yards away from the house that warned of an angry owner. Ironically, on the other side of the tree is a National Park Service boundary sign.

Just up the hill from the shooting sign, another NPS boundary sign had lost its tree. But, whoever separated the sign from its tree kindly laid it against a U.S. Geological Service marker (the round metallic marker in the picture).

Standing on the Park side of the marker (I didn't want to get shot - twice), I snapped this shot of what the sign poster apparently wanted to protect. This home is being constructed 8 paces from the boundary.

Up the hill from the boundary marker, dirt had been disturbed right up to the boundary. The boundary signs zigged in and out around the construction site.

This photo shows what's left of a boundary sign. Either one of those little fuzzy cubs suddenly took a hankering for metal signs or part of the construction crew went a bit astray.

But this shot shows what likely happened. Note the fresh dirt. Ground had been disturbed from the house site back down the hill to tie in underground electrical service. If you look closely in the distance, you'll see another boundary sign and you can see that dirt has been disturbed on both sides of the signs.

The Controversy

With the eastern end of Cove Mountain already developed or being developed, developers now want to develop the main part of Cove Mountain. Yes, the mountain pictured in the first photo on this page. A group opposed to the scraping and scarring of the northern face of Cove Mountain raised their voices in protest. Friends of Wears Valley lobbied hard to preserve the mountain. Tempers flared but now cooler heads are involved. Friends of the Smokies and the Foothills Land Conservancy are trying to broker a deal that would preserve the mountain and satisfy developers.

Cove Mountain is a sensitive area not just because of
wildflowers and wildlife. Pictured here is the Cove Mountain firetower. Standing on the summit of Cove, it is a sensitive data gathering point.

The Smokies have been called the most polluted national park in America. Given the heavy usage by its 9 to 10 million visitors per year and the fact that it sits within distance of so many coal-fired power plants, air quality is a constant issue. The firetower on top of Cove has been converted into an air pollution research station. Any development near the station would skew the data scientists collect in their ongoing battle against pollution.

That's one problem with develop- ment so close to the summit of Cove. Not only will the view from the valley be hurt, so will the plants and animals on the mountain and the air those animals breath. This is a picture of the merging of a road that runs for several miles along the crest with the Cove Mountain hiking trail. This impromptu junction is symbolic of the interface of man with the mountain.

The road that parallels the trail traverses much of the land that lays well enough to be developed. While the road provides access for park rangers to monitor air quality and service the radio towers that also grace the summit of Cove, it ultimately could carry homeowners to the top of the mountain.

A ways back down the trail, this iron pen with an orange flag is driven in the ground right beside another USGS marker. The USGS markers are the official park boundaries.

This photo shows the lay of the private land on top of Cove. The developers would likely situate the higher dollar homesites in places like this, where the land lays flat enough to build a big enough house to make the price of the lot worth it. Homes built this high - along the ridgeline - would impair the viewshed (as the National Park calls it) and would diminish the vistas from Wears Valley for all who drive through.

This peek through the trees is along the Little Greenbrier Trail that comes down off Cove Mountain (by way of the Laurel Falls trail) and takes hikers to Wear Cove Gap. This type view is similar to the ones homeowners on Cove Mountain would have should the property be developed.

With the trees at full foliage, views are hard to come by. But this gives a hint of what Cove Mountain homeowners might see. Of course, most homeowners wouldn't want just a peek. They'd probably remove many of the trees so they could see Wears Valley year-round.

And anyone who's driven through Wears Valley can tell you what that would end up looking like from the Valley. These homes in the hills on the eastern end of Wears Valley sit on homesites that have left the mountain partially stripped bare.

The bare mountain tops off in the distance aren't just an eyesore. Stormwater runoff that comes from the denuding of the hillsides creates pollution problems for the creeks in the area. The risk of septic and sewer problems increase as more homes are strapped to more mountainsides.

While a plan to develop Cove Mountain has yet to be approved by Sevier County's planning office, it's clear from the photos what Cove could end up looking like if it is developed. The centerpiece of the scenery in Wears Valley would be destroyed.

The bucolic nature of the Valley would suffer as the center section of Cove became more like the eastern end of Wears Valley and the eastern end of Cove Mountain. A special place would be spectacularly scarred.

The carving of Cove would likely be greater than the scathing of this mountain. Cove Mountain has a 37 percent grade. The steepest grade that roads can be built on is 12 percent. To get to the choice homesites on top of Cove, switchback roads would likely have to snake their way up the mountain, much like they already have in this section of Wears Valley.

The Compromise
Talks between the owners of Cove Mountain and Friends of the Smokies and Foothills Land Conservancy could result in a compromise. Friends and the Conservancy could partner with the state of Tennessee to buy Cove Mountain from the developers. The public/private partnership would involve Friends, the Conservancy and, potentially, the year-old Heritage Conservation Trust.
With $20 million in its coffers and still in startup mode, the Trust would likely fund part of the cost and the public would have to contribute the balance.

Nobody can see around the next bend on the path to compromise. High-ranking officials in all three entities have expressed openness to the idea of purchasing the property from the current owners. In the end, the public will have to prove that they want to preserve this special part of Tennessee by opening their hearts and wallets. A Cove Mountain compromise would give mountain lovers a chance to prove just how much they love their mountains.

Cove is worth the cost.