UNICOI — David Ramsey has devoted 15 years of his life to preserving the Rocky Fork tract. In recognition of his persistent and cooperative efforts, he was named the 2011 Conservation Hero of the Year by Field & Stream Magazine.
While sitting in the midst of five finalists at a special gala in Washington, D.C., last week, Ramsey said he didn’t expect to win in comparison to others who had spent much more time on their projects than he had in helping to protect a 10,000-acre area in Greene and Unicoi counties.
“I am very honored and flattered about this, but I know there are many champions and heroes in the Rocky Fork project besides myself,” he said. “If any one group hadn’t played their role, it might not have happened.”
Though Ramsey is hesitant to take credit for the success of the Rocky Fork project, the go-between role he played with various organizations and the countless presentations he gave to civic and conservation groups formed the united front needed to gather the $40 million necessary to purchase the Rocky Fork tract and save it from possible development.
“After living away from here, it gave me a whole different perspective and I realize this is one of the most special places in the world from the standpoint of scenic beauty, outdoor recreation and our natural resources.”
With a vast and valuable watershed extending through Rocky Fork, as well as a portion of the Appalachian Trail, it’s not hard to find reasons to fight for its preservation. Ramsey has been the local liaison who’s made connections with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, the Conservation Fund, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy as well as countless local organizations and individuals.
The avid fly fisherman and longtime Mahoney’s Outfitters employee used his photography skills to document the pristine beauty of the 15 square mile area and display it as slideshows for those unable to venture into the unspoiled lands. Ramsey knows the land well, since several generations of his family have made their home in the outlying Rocky Fork community. He’s also taken many curious individuals into the area to fish for the rare brook trout and to explore the lush surroundings that are perfect for black bears, deer and even bats. Ramsey says a “Rocky Fork thing” takes hold of visitors and makes them want to come back to explore the land further.
“Almost without exception every person I’ve ever taken in there has said ‘Wow, there is something about this place. It really gets to you,’ ” Ramsey said. “I’ve had people say ‘It’s like it gets in your blood.’ There’s just something about the aura and the whole feel of the place up there.”
In addition to a trip to Washington to attend the awards ceremony, Ramsey won a new Toyota Tundra and a $5,000 conservation grant from Toyota. When the winning name was announced, Ramsey said he was in complete shock and doesn’t even remember giving a brief acceptance speech.
“It was the week of a lifetime,” he said with a smile. “They talk about how everyone gets their 15 minutes and I’ve had more than my fair share this past week.”
Receiving the award doesn’t mean Ramsey’s work is finished. About $5 million is needed to repay the Conservation Fund for the money it put in for the purchase of Rocky Fork in 2008. He’s working to get those remaining funds from the Land and Water Conservation Program, which gets money from offshore energy development and is used to acquire land that is threatened. Because the fund is in jeopardy of being cut for the 2012 fiscal year, Ramsey is looking for the support of local politicians.
“Being up there with those other finalists and learning about their projects and experiencing their feeling and passion that they have for their conservation work has re-energized me and inspired me to work harder than ever to help preserve and protect what we have here in the Southern Appalachians, particularly in this great region of Northeast Tennessee,” he said.
With the possibility of creating a state park out of a portion of the Rocky Fork tract, Ramsey’s cause has come a long way since the project “fell into his lap” after the late Frank Gentry Jr. of Unicoi asked him to become involved in 1996. After accepting a local leadership role in 2005, Ramsey said he was determined to keep Rocky Fork from becoming a resort complex.
Now, the future looks green and pristine for the largest undeveloped mountain tract in the Eastern United States, thanks in part to the conservation hero of the year.
“It was almost like fate,” Ramsey said. “Here is this huge project that really needs people to get behind and support it and it was like I was meant to come back home and work for the protection of the mountains here and our natural resources.”