‘They’re not making land anymore’

Foothills Land Conservancy celebrates protecting 800 acres

When Gail Harris looked out over the land that has been in her late husband James’ family since the 1800s, she might well have seen the ghosts of farmers leading the dairy cows, working fields of the wheat, soybeans and corn. The James C. Harris family farm “was a working farm,” said Gail, “and it still is.”

With a decision that Gail said “was a no-brainer for me,” the family matriarch secured the future of the 318 acre farm, signing the easements over to the Foothills Land Conservancy to protect the land from development.

And, to keep the celebration going, the Lunsford family did the same with 500 acres, bringing the Foothills Land Conservancy total to 1,300 acres of protected land.

The announcements were made at the Foothills Land Conservancy 2009 Fall Conservation Celebration at Dancing Bear Lodge in Townsend. Some 200 people joined the two families and FLC executive director Bill Clabough in celebrating the acquisition.

“We’re preserving and protecting and promoting our rural character in East Tennessee,” Clabough said.

FLC is no newcomer to Gail Harris’ radar. “She was on the founding board of directors when it was called ABC and helped it transition to Foothills Land Conservancy and has been off and on the board for years,” said Clabough. “She already had one piece under easement, about 120 acres. Both tracts are in Rockford and Wildwood.”

Gail said the couple as long been committed to preservation. “Both of us felt all along we were going to preserve this for agriculture. It was a no brainer to me,” she said.

Harris said they had a dairy farm on the property there for 20 years. They also grew strawberries, corn, wheat, soybeans, raspberries and blueberries. She said she and her late husband have two sons but they were not interested in operating the farm.

“Both James and I felt it wasn’t about them, it was about preserving the land. The fact they weren’t interested in farming made it easier,” she said. “We felt the overriding concern and priority was preserving the land.”

The FLC has a goal to preserve 25,000 acres of property within 25 years. The land conservancy is at 1,300 acres of protected land currently.

The 500 acre track belongs to the Lunsford family. The family is reserving the right to build three homes on it, but other than that, the land will remain undeveloped. “This easement extends from Montvale Road to U.S. 129 north. It’s typical Chilhowee Mountain land. One significant fact, you can go from Montvale Road to 129, and it’s protected for wildlife management,” Clabough said.

Charles Lunsford said his mother, Johnie B. Lunsford, inherited part of the land from her father and purchased the balance from her brothers and sisters over a 12-year period. His mother wasn’t a wealthy woman though and worked for years to complete the purchase. “She bought this land on a school teacher’s salary. She worked 30 years at Lanier School,” he said.

Charles Lunsford said his mother developed Alzheimer’s disease seven years ago, lived with his family for five before she died. “We’re doing this in her memory. She was very ecologically minded,” Charles Lunsford said. “She was one of the first teachers to take a class to Tremont.”

Charles Lunsford said the property belongs to his sons, William and Wesley Lunsford. “It’s theirs, they’re making the gift,” he said.

Wesley Lunsford was not present but Will Lunsford stood with his father during the ceremony. “It means a lot,” Will said. “It has been in our family for years and this protects it as it always has been.”

The evening was also a fundraiser for Foothills Land Conservancy, and Harris told the crowd she was proud of how the organization had grown over the years.

“This is amazing. I was thinking back to 1980s when this started. Who would’ve dreamed Foothills Land Conservancy would grow into this,” she said as she addressed the packed lodge. “I’m really happy to do this. and I’m proud of what the Foothills Land Conservancy has become.”

Harris said she would like everyone who can protect land to do so. “Someone said they’re not making land any more. You see farms being broke up to make subdivisions,” she said. “There are folks who do not have the resources to preserve land. The community has to provide a way for farmers to preserve their land.”

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