Conservationist honored for Campbell Co. projects

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By Crystal Huskey

Don Barger, regional director with the National Parks Conservation Association, has been awarded the Z. Cartter Patten lifetime achievement award by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation.

The award was presented at the 53rd annual Conservation Achievement Awards ceremony in Nashville on May 21.

Barger was recognized for his work covering Anderson, Campbell, Morgan and Scott counties. He oversees work in eight states.

He moved to Norris in 1992 and began working for the NPCA at that same time. Before that, he was in Washington, D.C., where he worked with the Environmental Policy Institute.

He feels like his childhood experiences are what gave him his love for the outdoors.

“I grew up in the Red Bank area of Chattanooga,” he said, “and we didn’t have a lot of money, so my dad built a camping trailer.”

His dad got a trailer bed and a bunch of plywood, according to Barger, and made a pop-up camper.

“That’s what we did as kids; that’s what vacations looked like,” he said.

One of the first places he remembers camping is Fall Creek Falls. He was also a Boy Scouts, and his experience hiking and backpacking in the Smokies made him fall in love with nature.

Out of all the work Barger has done in the name of conservation over the years, two projects stand out in his mind. The first is the work he did through the NPCA to preserve the Big South Fork River. He worked on creating a “lands unsuitable for mining” petition.

“That’s a way to look at potential areas of surface mining up front, instead of after the fact,” he said, “and determine whether there are some places you shouldn’t mine.”

As far as the river, anything that happens up by the watershed affects the water, according to Barger. The state had acquired the surface rights to land in the watershed, but not the mineral rights.

“It begged the question of whether we should look at it up front, and figure out a way that could ensure the long-term protection and survival of that area as a wildlife management area, while still allowing mining.”

Long story short: he got the state to do an examination of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area. Well over half of it is in the headwaters of Big South Fork, according to Barger.

“You have endangered mussels and fish there; if they’re going to survive long-term, what happens in the headwaters really matters,” he said.

The result was that the entire ridgeline and 1,500 feet around it were declared unsuitable for mining.

“But the mountainside, where you see contour mining and area mining, those are OK to mine,” he said. “It saves the headwaters of all those streams and prevents mountaintop removal.”

The ridgeline is 564 miles, which is about 76,000 total acres.

The whole process began in 2010 and was approved in 2017.

The second project he is most proud of is preserving the Fern Lake watershed, adjacent to the Cumberland Gap.

“When you get to the botanical overlook at Cumberland Gap and raise your gaze, that’s Fern Lake,” he explained.

That area was going to be strip mined, he said.

“As it turns out, that’s the water supply of Middlesboro [Kentucky],” he said.

The NPCA and the City of Middlesboro filed a petition to look at that area too.

It was declared unsuitable for mining in 1996.

“It was so supported by all the local folks that Mitch McConnell introduced legislation to add Fern Lake to the park, so now it’s part of Cumberland Gap,” he said.

He wasn’t sure why the water in Middlesboro was so good. They discovered that the lake there was formed when a meteor struck the land. It is fed by a series of underground streams and there is an artesian well spilling out.

“It’s one of the most amazing water filtration systems anyone has ever seen,” he said. “If they had allowed a contour mine, which was what was being proposed, it would have changed the viability of the Fern Lake water supply.

“And we didn’t know that until we did a study.”

His current project is making sure wildlife corridors stay safe for elk and other animals along I-40, where it cuts into the mountains near North Carolina.

“We want to find out where animals are being killed on the highway, to see what can be done to make sure those wildlife corridors remain viable in the future,” he said. “It’s all focused on trying to protect the reason we set aside national parks in the first place.”