Forever Wild buys north Alabama landmark Walls of Jericho

THOMAS SPENCER News staff writer
Publication Date: February 1, 2004  Page: 17-A   
Photo by Bryan Bacon
Photo by Bernard Troncale

ESTILLFORK As you travel up the Paint Rock Valley toward the Walls of Jericho, the mountains close around you. The pavement ends. And for miles the dirt road is alternately rugged and rocky, mud-rutted and wheel-well deep in water. The final mile on foot, crisscrossing the stream in the narrowing canyon, can be downright treacherous.
But for as long as folks in this isolated valley on the northern edge of Alabama can remember, people have made the journey. The reward is the destination: a natural rock amphitheater cupped by steep limestone cliffs.
Here, the Paint Rock River's headwaters tumble out of the Cumberland Mountains. A crystal-clear stream plunges 50 feet off a ledge, disappears into a cave, erupts again from a cave in the limestone and cascades down a succession of stair-step waterfalls.
Davy Crockett lived just over the state line in Tennessee and is said to have hunted these lands. People were baptized in the calm pools below rock terraces that the water carved into great curving pews.
"It was like a pilgrimage," said Judy Prince, a native of the valley. "Young and old alike would go, many times on Sunday afternoon."
People courted here. A minister was known for writing his sermons here. Prince's elderly aunt requested she be brought here one last time before she died.
"It is a really sacred place," Prince said.
For almost three decades, the land has been closed to the public, but in March it will be purchased by Forever Wild, Alabama's land preservation trust; shortly thereafter it will be opened to the public.
"We would hope to have it open in the summer months," said James H. Griggs, director of the land division of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The Walls of Jericho is the centerpiece of a huge expanse of timberland that went up for sale last year. In a complex series of sales, The Nature Conservancy enabled a North Carolina timber company to purchase an 82,000-acre tract by promising to buy 21,453 acres of the most scenic and ecologically sensitive land.
The Conservancy was able to borrow $14 million to purchase the land with the understanding that Forever Wild would buy the 12,500 acres in Alabama for about $9 million. The Conservancy is holding the rest of the property while Tennessee gathers the money to buy it.
The property is dotted with caves; the streams that start there form the Paint Rock River, home to 100 species of fish and 45 of mussels. Seventeen of those mussel species are rare or imperiled, and two are found nowhere else in the world. Three globally imperiled fish occur in the Paint Rock River.
In its biological diversity, the river resembles the Cahaba River, but the land along the Paint Rock does not face the same sort of development pressure, giving concerned parties an opportunity to preserve its environmental diversity and beauty. But that pressure will build as Huntsville grows.
"This is one of our top priorities in Alabama," said Jeff Danter, executive director of the Nature Conservancy's Alabama chapter. "Huntsville is growing so fast we don't have a lot of time to influence what happens to this landscape."
Building trust
The Conservancy is working hard to build trust with the residents of the Paint Rock Valley, who have a historic distrust of outsiders.
The road that winds back toward the Walls of Jericho performs a twining dance with the Paint Rock River, past cattle pastures and small cotton fields. There are places where, after a good rain, the river can rise and strand people in the bends. There is a history of moonshining in the valley and not much history of law enforcement.
Even the names of river mussels seem to grow out of the local imagination: the round hickory nut, the pink heel splitter, the three horn warty back, the snuff box, the shiny pigtoe.
Judy Prince, 60, who left the region to spend 30 years in Birmingham as a mental health professional, is working with the Nature Conservancy as a bridge to the community.
Her family has been deep in the valley for generations. Her brother and father operated Prince General Merchandise and were postmasters at Estillfork, the last dot on the map before the road turns dirt.
Prince said people in the valley are glad the Walls will be preserved, but they want a say in how it is developed. "Ask the people there what they want done," she said.
The expected visitors "don't need to abuse the Walls of Jericho," she said. "It needs to be preserved."
Doug Fears, the Nature Conservancy's local representative, works on convincing the residents that the Conservancy is their ally in their desire to conserve the Paint Rock Valley. The Conservancy hopes the area can remain in low-intensity agriculture rather than fall prey to dense development.
Fears grew up in the valley, then spent years as a professional fund-raiser for the Boy Scouts in Tennessee. He planned to retire, but went to work for the Conservancy after finding out about its efforts to preserve the Paint Rock and the Walls.
"We used to go up there with my father, and I used to take my daughter up there," he said. "These were special places to me."
For forever
The scene varies greatly, de pending on the season and the amount of rain. In the winter, icicles drip from the cliffs. In the spring, trillium wildflowers spill down the mountainside. In the summer, wild hydrangeas bloom along the creek bed.
Too much rain and it's dan gerous, if not impossible, to reach the Walls. Too little and the sight is not as dramatic. "To really see it, you have to pay the price and get your feet wet," Fears said.
At full tilt, the water spills down the main channel and wa ter shoots out of other holes in the wall "like a fire hose," Fears said.
He went on a hike recently and sat down with his 29-year-old daughter beside a waterfall in some of the land preserved by the Conservancy. And she marveled at the thought that, forever, fathers and daughters would be able to sit in that setting.
"That pretty much put it in perspective," Fears said. "This isn't a job. It's a great honor and privilege."