Despite his unquestionable contributions to the creation of Tennessee’s newest state park and despite having earned a national conservation award for those contributions, David Arthur Ramsey declines firmly to let anyone credit him as the man who “saved Rocky Fork,” a wilderness paradise about 10 miles from Erwin.
Rocky Fork, which in the 1990s and for about a decade thence appeared likely to see its wilderness aspects destroyed, became a protected Tennessee state park in 2012 thanks to the work of a wide range of individuals and organizations, Ramsey said in a interview with The Greeneville Sun last week.
Ramsey, one of the individuals who worked to maintain the scenic wilderness status of Rocky Fork, said his role was largely informal and focused mostly on communications between the various people and groups involved and serving as a spokesman for them for media purposes.
His latest foray in spreading the word about Rocky Fork is a privately published book, “Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild,” which in words and dozens of photographs tells the story of an area largely unknown even to many Northeast Tennesseans.
Most of the high-quality photos in the large-format book were made by Ramsey and fellow nature photographer Jerry D. Greer. Both are established photographers who live in Northeast Tennessee — Ramsey in Unicoi, Greer in Johnson City.
Ramsey wrote the text, with editing by Frances Figart. The book is copyrighted by Ramsey and Greer.
At the end of the book, Ramsey lists the “Champions of Rocky Fork,” a group comprised of 38 individuals and 19 organizations instrumental in the fight to preserve the wilderness nature of the rugged area. Names on the list of individuals include political and public figures such as Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker, Phil Bredesen, Heath Shuler, Richard Burr, Ed E. Williams III, Phil Roe, David Davis and others.
Ramsey, with seemingly characteristic humility, did not include his own name in that list of 38.
Ramsey’s love of Rocky Fork is personally rooted. His family has a long association with the area, going back to when his third great-grandfather settled there from North Carolina after the Civil War. That man, Job Ramsey, is buried today on a ridge overlooking Rocky Fork Creek.
Job Ramsey’s life as a Civil War soldier embodies the stark division that characterized Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina in that conflict: Job fought for both the Confederacy and the Union, in that order.
He was present as a Confederate soldier at the infamous massacre of Unionists at Shelton Laurel, North Carolina. What Job Ramsey’s level of involvement in that bloody event was, or what his attitude toward it was, is something his descendants have not been able to ascertain. What is known, though, is that sometime after Shelton Laurel, Job Ramsey deserted the Confederate ranks, came to Greeneville and enlisted as a Federal.
The catalyst for David Ramsey’s entry into the effort to preserve Rocky Fork was a random visit one day in the mid 1990s from a fellow Unicoi County man and friend, Frank Gentry, who told him in the course of a conversation mostly about fishing, “Rocky Fork might be in trouble.”
The owners of the Rocky Fork acreage were raising the leasing fee that allowed the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to include the 10,000-acre tract as public management lands, making TWRA a caretaker and protector of that land.
Rumors were flying that the land might be sold, possibly leading to private development that would destroy its wilderness nature. “We sure can’t let that happen,” Gentry told Ramsey, who agreed.
That encounter with Gentry happened inside the Mahoney’s Outfitters store in Johnson City, where Ramsey was working (as he still does, part-time) after having come home from living in Knoxville several years.
That informal conversation, unknown to Ramsey at the time, was opening a new chapter of his life, one that would make him come to believe destiny was at work in his return to his native county.
A long, twisting, and frequently discouraging journey through legal, corporate and governmental mazes was about to start for Ramsey and others, including the influential and highly connected Johnson City jurist, judge and outdoor recreationalist Ed E. Williams III, since deceased.
Williams, who like Ramsey and Gentry loved Rocky Fork, was to be a key player in years to come in the effort to ensure the wild Rocky Fork area did not become a network of roads crisscrossing a gated community.
The complex legal, financial and governmental battle over Rocky Fork is explained in full in Ramsey’s book.
Ramsey today finds a few take-aways in those turbulent twists and turns, though, that can be summed up succinctly. The first: the preservation of Rocky Fork, and the involvement of all those who made it happen, “is an example of what can happen when people come together in a common cause.”
He recalls hearings and meetings in which people from conflict-prone constituencies — environmentalists, hunters/fishers, mountain bikers, hikers, campers — lined up side-by-side, literally, to harmoniously advocate keeping Rocky Fork a protected wilderness.
A second take-away: “Rocky Fork today would be little more than the front name on the gate of some private development if not for the leadership of Sen. Lamar Alexander.”
Alexander was one of the public officials who helped champion the Rocky Fork preservation cause and provided political muscle toward making the area protected public land in 2008. Four years later, a big piece of it also would become a new state park, ensuring its accessibility and protection well into the future.
The fight to get there was hard and complicated, though, as Ramsey can attest.
Alexander wrote the foreword to Ramsey’s book, which is available through Ramsey’s website, www.ramseyphotos.com, and at Mahoney’s in Johnson City. Sales outlets within Greene County appear likely in the near future.
In his foreword, Alexander writes: “In December 2008, after a 10-year effort, Rocky Fork was finally protected. Since that time, most of Rocky Fork has become part of the Cherokee National Forest and 2,036 acres have been designate as Tennessee’s 55th state park.”
Alexander writes further: “Rocky Fork may one day be Tennessee’s most popular park, thanks to its section of the Appalachian Trail, miles of native brook trout streams with cascades and waterfalls, a historic battle site, a black bear reserve and other wildlife habitat, plus its high elevation, producing magnificent mountain vistas.”
In 2011, Ramsey received the National Hero of Conservation Award from Field and Stream Magazine and the Toyota Motor Company.
Organizations with whom Ramsey worked closely in the Rocky Fork effort include the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, The Conservation Fund and more than a dozen others.
A Tennessee State Parks website describes Rocky Fork like this: “Rocky Fork State Park is 2,076 acres of scenic wilderness in Unicoi County, in the southern Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee. The park is approximately 30 minutes from both Johnson City and Asheville, N.C., and 10 miles from Erwin, the county seat. Part of the Rocky Fork watershed, the land was designated a Tennessee State Park in October 2012, but wasn’t officially opened and staffed until May 2015.”
Ramsey is an active public speaker who is constantly looking for opportunities to promote and advocate for Rocky Fork.
To contact him for such engagements, or for further information about his book and the park itself, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.