Another Chance for Johnson’s Crook

(originally published in The Conservationist, Spring 2013)

by Larry Willis (edited by Terri Daulton)

What was a bust for real estate developers is an opportunity for the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust and others who want to preserve Johnson’s Crook in Dade County Georgia, one of the most geologically unique, environmentally sensitive, and scenic landforms in the Chattanooga metropolitan area. Johnson’s Crook is located entirely in Dade County and is surrounded on three sides by Lookout Mountain’s towering sandstone cliffs and talus slopes. Lookout’s narrow, flat-top provides an outstanding view of the Crook, Lookout Valley, Fox Mountain and Sand Mountain from its brow.

The Crook contains one of the highest concentrations of caves in the Southeast and one of the deepest, Lost Canyon.

It is also home to rare flora and fauna such as Ozark bunch flower and dwarf larkspur.

This incredible vista is the result of tectonic activity and the weathering effects of wind, waves and rain. The “Crook” features caves, sinkholes, waterfalls, cliffs, rare plants, and an aquifer recharge zone. The “Crook ” has had the attention of conservationists and developers for many years. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GaDNR) identified it as a “site of statewide significance” and nominated it in 1992 for acquisition using state and federal funds. This effort failed because “the landowner was not interested in selling the tract in more than one piece.” GaDNR had proposed acquisition of only the most significant natural areas in the Crook. In 2004, a 2,850-acre resort and second home development billed as a mini-Gatlinburg was started in Johnson’s Crook. The Preserve in Rising Fawn promised residential lots and lifestyle amenities spread across the valley floor and up the steep slopes of the Crook. By the end of 2011, the speculative venture got the attention of the FBI, and owed back taxes in the amount of $350,000. The developer petitioned for Chapter 11 protection on the eve of a tax sale, avoiding the auction of platted lots on the courthouse steps, but failed to keep the banks from attempting to recover an estimated $45 million in loans. Foreclosures ensued and in 2012 two banks donated 435 acres to the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust. The collapse of the ambitious and environmentally insensitive development provided a chance for GALT to conduct large-scale conservation. Johnson’s Crook has a multitude of conservation values. The ones most easily wrecked by poor land management include incredible scenic vistas, surface water quality, ground water quality, important wildlife and plant habitats, cave ecology, rare and endangered species, archaeological and historic sites and a significant loss of one of the most diverse and extensive tracts of the Appalachian Mixed Mesophytic Forest. The Georgia-Alabama Land Trust wants to conserve the Crook by placing sensitive areas in permanent land conservation easements, creating buffers and corridors, and require that all developable areas are redesigned, built and managed in conformity with natural constraints.

By far the greatest public threat resulting from the intense development of the Crook comes from water pollution. Constructions of recreational homes over steep slopes that utilize on-site waste disposal pose an E. coli contamination threat to the surface water, springs, groundwater and the Crook ’s extensive cave system. Dade County estimated that septic tanks for the volume of homes that were planned for the area would introduce 300,000 gallons of sewage daily into the Crook’s ground water.

Johnson’s Crook contains one of the highest concentrations of caves in a region known as a paradise for spelunkers. The Georgia Speleological Survey identifies the Crook as “one of the top three karst landscapes (a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks) in Georgia”. The other two are nearby Pigeon Mountain and Fox Mountain. Over thirty caves and pits have been documented in the Crook. Many more probably still remain to be discovered. The opening of Johnson’s Crook Cave is located in the bottom of a deep sinkhole and extends for over 7,000 feet. Eagle Cave is located near the base of the escarpment and is approximately 3,000 feet long. The Crook is also home to Lost Canyon Cave, one of Georgia’s deepest caves. The Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc. (SCCi) is a tax-exempt not-for -profit 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to cave acquisition, conservation, and management. The SCCi recently added Lost Canyon Cave to the list of 185 caves it protects in six southeastern states. All of these caves require protection or management for conservation access reasons. The intention of the SCCi is to keep the Lost Canyon Cave Preserve in its natural and undeveloped state, and to manage it for conservation, resource protection, recreation, and scientific purposes. Caves containing chambers and passages filled with speleothems (rocky cave formations made from dripping water or other solutions) and reflective pools produce breathtaking images and provide habitats for some of the world’s most rare and endangered species. Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis), a species protected by both Federal and State law, have recently been spotted near the Crook. These small bats can eat up to half their weight in insects each night. The population of Indiana bats has been halved since the species was listed as endangered in 1967. Cave disturbances, loss of riparian forests, vandalism, pesticides and white-nose syndrome (WNS) are the primary causes of its decline. Indiana bats had not been seen in Georgia since 1966 until one was recently tracked from a cave in Tennessee to trees in a wildlife management area east of the Crook. The reappearance of the Indiana bat and the large, existing population of tricolor and brown bats require careful management of the Crook’s caves and forest land.

The Crook is covered by an Appalachian Mixed Mesophytic Forest, a relic of the ancient forest that once covered much of the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Examples now only survive in the southeast region of North America and in eastern and central China where they provide a refuge for a wide range of plants, animals and insects. In total the Appalachian Mixed Mesophytic Forest eco-region represents one of the most biologically diverse temperate regions of the world. The Crook has a circular shape, and unlike the rest of Lookout Mountain’s western slope, its steep walls face not only west, but also north and south. This unique aspect allows for the growth of rare flora and fauna. In a shallow depression at the mid-elevation of the escarpment, Veratrum woodii, a State-protected species has been found.

Veratrum woodii is also known as Falsehellebore, Wood’s false-hellebore and Ozark bunchflower. It is considered to be distinct from its typical distribution in the Ozarks and is very rare in Georgia. Ozark Bunchflower is a perennial herb that prefers to grow in woodlands, typically in soils rich in calcium. It flowers in the summer, sometime during the months of July-August. A preliminary survey of the Crook on May 2, 2013 by Tom Patrick of the GaDNR and Max Medley, a retired botanist, confirmed the presence of the Ozark bunch-flower and other plants of interest.

Humans have probably exploited the Crook and its natural resources ever since it was first discovered. Archaeology has established an important relationship between early paleo-Indians and the numerous rock shelters of the Cumberland Plateau. This area is currently the focus of intense research designed to track the presence of these early residents of North America, and the Cherokee Indians who lived in the area until their removal from Georgia in 1836. During the Civil War, Union forces moved toward Atlanta resulting in the in famous battles of Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. Johnson’s Crook played an important part in this invasion. The Union plan was to go up the old wagon road at the Crook and down Steven’s Gap into McLemore Cove to attack the Confederates. After the War, mining and steel making resumed in Dade County. Coal was blasted from a seam located just below the Crook’s cliff face and all the commercial timber was cut. After those resources were spent, the Crook was left to slowly recover.

Just prior to World War II, individuals rediscovered its natural beauty and started building houses along its rim. This area became known as the Plum Nelly Artist Community. In the 1970s and 1980s spelunkers wanting to live in the middle of “Cave Country” also settled in Plum Nelly. In 1987 the community received its most famous resident. James A. Mackay built a house overlooking the Crook where he lived until his death in 2004. Mackay grew up in Alabama and served in World War II. In 1965 he was elected as a Democrat to the US Congress. One of his many achievements was land conservation. In 1967, he assembled likeminded colleagues to talk about forming an environmental organization that became known as the Georgia Conservancy. Under his leadership the Conservancy became one of the best-known organizations of its type in the United States. After retiring from public service Mackay moved to Plum Nelly to be close to his daughter. He soon realized the threat of urbanization in the Crook and supported the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust, the GaDNR and other local conservation groups in their efforts to protect Johnson’s Crook in the 1990’s.

The Georgia-Alabama Land Trust is in the beginning stages of a plan to preserve the Crook. The first phase will be a study to identify rare, distinctive, representative, or otherwise important plant communities, wildlife species, and ecosystems, as well as other important cultural, natural and aesthetic resources. The second phase will be creating a conservation plan for the Crook that supports the landscape-level conservation program and prohibits environmental degradation of the Crook. Before his death, James Mackay wrote an ode to Johnson’s Crook and placed it on a plaque at an over-look behind his house. It says in part: “ Look out from this mountain and enjoy! Feel and see infinity, inward and outward, mysterious, miraculous, moving. Thanks be to the Creator who made it all!”

Conserving high priority and critical habitat in the Crook will provide another link in the public-private land chain of cooperation. Decades of land conservation in the tri-state corner of Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama have resulted in the establishment of heavily utilized state parks, Wildlife Management Areas and private land trust properties such as Lula Lake, all within a 20 mile radius of the Crook. The trails being built by the Lula Lake Land Trust may one day link to the “Crook” and will form a natural and scenic corridor around the south side of the Chattanooga metropolitan area. This open space buffer will keep the tri-state area one of the most visually attractive and exciting places to live, work and recreate in the country.

The Georgia Land Trust is proud to have had a role in saving this very special place.