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Shady Valley’s rare mountain wetlands

The Nature Conservancy’s wetland preserve Schoolyard Springs, in Shady Valley, Tennessee. Photo by Veronica Burniston.

By Veronica Burniston
Freelance Writer

For nearly four decades, The Nature Conservancy has worked to preserve and restore Shady Valley’s cranberry bogs and wetlands.

“Our mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends,” TNC stated on its website. “Our vision is a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives.”

Settled in the early 1800s, Shady Valley was a land saturated by bogs, creeks, and seasonally wet forest and valley patches. As the population grew, so did the need for land to pasture livestock, plant crops, and cut timber. Founded in 1951 in the District of Columbia, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is a “global environmental nonprofit” with more than a million members. The organization has protected over 125 million acres of land on six continents.

In the 1930s and 1960s, the U.S. government performed two drainage projects in Shady Valley. As a result, much of the wetlands disappeared, leaving only a handful of mountain bogs in the dryer landscape. According to TNC, Shady Valley’s remaining wetlands are one of two Tennessee locations “where American cranberry grows naturally.” In addition, the valley’s wetlands and mountain bogs are home to over two dozen rare species of plants and animals.

For example, the southern bog turtle, an endangered species in the U.S., and the uncommon Appalachian Hedge-Nettle (Stachys appalachiana) were discovered living in Shady Valley’s wetlands. Since the 1979 purchase of Jess Jenkins Cranberry Bog, TNC has accumulated more than 800 acres of conservation land in Shady Valley. After transferring the Jess Jenkins Cranberry Bog preserve to the care of East Tennessee State University, TNC worked to protect and revive the mountain wetlands. Its four valley nature preserves include the John R. Dickey Birch Branch Sanctuary, Schoolyard Springs, the Orchard Bog, and the Quarry Bog.

Donated to TNC in 1996 by Marie Dickey Kalman, the John R. Dickey Birch Branch Sanctuary showcases a diverse habitat of fields, forests, a bog, and two creeks. At present, TNC works to revive “native warm-season grasses” in the farm fields. Purchased in 1998, the Schoolyard Springs preservation now contains 29-acres of wetland. In 2002, TNC constructed a boardwalk over the marshes for the public to explore and learn about the wetland’s diverse wildlife and plant-life.

The Orchard Bog and Quarry Bog together encapsulate about 218-acres. These two mountain bogs are considered “rare remnants of a once vast system of peat wetlands.” The Orchard Bog has been noted to contain several rare plants to Tennessee, including the Wild Cranberry, Hoary Sedge, and Tawny Cottongrass.

All of TNC’s preserves are open to the public. However, it requests visitors to the John R. Dickey Birch Branch Sanctuary to first contact its Shady Valley office at 739-2537. To learn more about The Nature Conservancy, its preservation work, and how to get involved, visit

The Nature Conservancy’s Schoolyard Springs boardwalk in Shady Valley, Tennessee. Photo by Veronica Burniston.