By Billy Ward
Shady Valley is one of the most beautiful places in Johnson County, indeed the state of Tennessee. October is particularly dramatic as the trees on the surrounding mountains begin their annual display of red, orange, and yellow leaves against a backdrop of blue skies and green pastures. As beautiful as the trees are, the real show is on the valley floor, if you know where to look.
Shady Valley is home to the large fruited cranberry. This time of year you can spot the bright red berry peeking out from underneath a dense carpet of dark green foliage, and surrounded by a diverse community of other unique wetland plants such as cotton-grass and orchids. Relics from the last Ice Age, cranberries remained in the valley as the ice retreated north. The valleys elevation and vast wetland environment allowed the berry to survive as one of only two populations existing in the state. This wetland ecosystem covered several hundred acres of the valley floor until the 1960s when the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and watershed district began a draining project to increase acreage available for agriculture. By 1964-1965 there was approximately 10 acres of cranberry bogs remaining scattered throughout the area.
Wetlands are incredibly diverse and complex ecosystems that not only provide habitat for rare and endangered plants and animals, but are extremely important for people and communities. They filter sediments and toxins from surface water and during major rain events mitigate flood damage to surrounding areas thanks to their ability to absorb tremendous amounts of water. Wetlands are water quality regulators, says Tennessee Nature Conservancy (TNC) Program Manager Gabby Lynch.
The TNC is a private non-profit organization that seeks to protect, restore and manage public land. Lynch, along with Charles and Helen McQueen, work for the conservancy preserving the valleys unique wetland ecosystem along with managing and expanding the cranberry bogs. The organization and its community partners, including farmers, the Shady Valley Ruritan Club and local churches are working together to maintain the nature preserves and the cranberries. Beginning with a single bog in 1979 the TNC now manages approximately 250 acres on the valley floor with 142 acres of that set aside as wetland habitat between three different preserves. The organization operates a small nursery in order to propagate the cranberry using cuttings from mature plants. Volunteers from the community and college students regularly brave the bogs, transplanting the tiny cuttings that soon grow into mature fruit bearing plants.
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.
By Billy Ward