Land & Conservation

David Ramsey: Unicoi, Tennessee

Mountain Man

Photo: Beall + Thomas

Ramsey at Rocky Fork, a ten-thousands acre area of wilderness he helped save from development.

In 2006 David Ramsey picked up a newspaper and saw a nightmare in black and white. A resort developer had announced its intentions to purchase the largest chunk of Southern Appalachian wildlands remaining in private ownership: ten thousand acres of rugged forest and pristine trout waters along the Tennessee–North Carolina border known as Rocky Fork. Ramsey, a manager at an outdoor gear and fly fishing shop in Johnson City, Tennessee, had family roots in the area that reached back before the Civil War. He’d fished Rocky Fork’s runs of brook trout waters since he was a boy. Locals hunted bear and grouse there. Birding was off the charts. And all of it could be lost.

Over the next five years, Ramsey threw heart and soul into saving the last of the best of the Southern Appalachians, even though he’d worked on two earlier efforts to secure Rocky Fork that failed. “Land prices were just going up and up,” he says, “and conservation funds can’t keep up with development dollars. So I knew this would be our last chance—and a long shot at that.” A long shot that finally found its target.

Working with the Conservation Fund and a consortium of local conservation and sporting groups, Ramsey gave more than a hundred impassioned presentations using his own photography of Rocky Fork to sway minds. The effort helped raise nearly $40 million. “I can’t say how many times I saw bear hunters and mountain bikers and birders and hikers standing shoulder to shoulder,” he says. “Never, ever once did these often adversarial groups say a single word of animosity or conflict. That was the most inspiring thing to see.” Almost as inspiring as what was accomplished. Now a part of the U.S. Forest System, Rocky Fork will forever be home to ruffed grouse, black bears, and brook trout—just as it serves as a monument to the tenacity of Ramsey and fellow conservationists who refused to give up.