TROUT
The Journal of Coldwater Fisheries Conservation
SUMMER 2004

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Reviving Coal Creek Tennessee

By Tim Zink

Ask most TU volunteers about effective stream restoration tools, and you’ll likely hear about hammers, fishing nets and electroshocking equipment. But after more than three years of working to restore a local trout stream, members of the Clinch River Chapter are apt to provide a slightly different response.

They might tell you, for instance, about Coal Creek Health Day, a major chapter event late last October. Biologist John Thurman spent the day waist-deep in Coal Creek, showing schoolchildren how to find life in a waterway where some still dump garbage. Meanwhile, physicians Hiroshi Toyohara and Robert Casey, and dentist Bob Greer were inside the Briceville Elementary School gymnasium, providing free medical examinations for kindergartners through fifth graders.

And wandering through the crowd, greeting friends and talking up river conservation, was the event’s originator, Barry Thacker—professional engineer, TU volunteer and most recent winner of the Hoover Award, the highest humanitarian honor given to members of the engineering profession. The award recognizes engineers whose personal and professional achievements have made the world a better place. Past winners include three presidents and business leaders like David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett Packard Corp.

Thacker earned the award for recognizing that events like Coal Creek Health Day can be a vital part of a holistic conservation strategy, one that takes into account the needs not only of the fish but also of the local community. With the help of TU and the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, a nonprofit he founded, Thacker is demonstrating that protecting a river sometimes means investing time and resources in activities that have nothing to do with fish but everything to do with improving the quality of life for local people.

A Rough Beginning

Although most Briceville citizens now consider Thacker a friend, it wasn’t always that way. Protest signs and angry finger-pointing prevailed the first time he approached the townspeople to enlist their help cleaning up abandoned mine damage to Coal Creek, a tributary of the Clinch River located on the edge of the Cumberland Mountain range.

“Folks told me in no uncertain terms that they had far bigger problems than trout,” Thacker recalls. Once an affluent coal town, Briceville now struggles with a host of ills, including flooding, poverty, inflated school dropout rates and a chronic lack of access to health care. Poor water quality caused by abandoned mine drainage compounds these problems.

A mining and industrial consultant in his professional life, Thacker admits to feeling daunted as residents listed their complaints. “At first I was thinking, ‘I’m no social worker,’” he says, with typical frankness and good humor. Thacker had come to know the creek while fishing it with his son, however, and he believed he could help restore it. More importantly, he wanted his children to understand just how much the hard work of one person could accomplish.

So he struck a deal with the townspeople. “I agreed to help them to the degree that I could, if they would eventually help me,” he recalls.

Thacker’s first step was to assemble—from scratch—a core group of willing hands. He turned to the groups for which he had volunteered in the past, the Boy Scouts of America and Trout Unlimited.

“I simply couldn’t have done this without the help of the Clinch River TU boys,” Thacker says. “Their support was the critical component in making all this happen.”

Buzz Buffington, past president of the Clinch River chapter, remembers the day Thacker first approached the chapter about the project. “We had done some stream enhancement projects on another Clinch tributary, Clear Creek, but were frustrated by the small scale of what we could actually do there. When Barry pitched his big Coal Creek project, everyone looked around the room and said, ‘This is it.’”

Holding Back the Flood

Next, Thacker needed to find a way to win the trust of the townspeople. Rev. Roy Daugherty, whose wife Della now greets Thacker on volunteer workdays with homemade cornbread instead of cautions, knows the intransigence of the community well. For more than 20 years, Daugherty has taught hunter safety courses in Briceville.

“When I first started, guys thought they had a God-given right to jacklight and poach. It was what their daddies and granddaddies did, so it took me a long time to begin to change their minds. Sometimes it’s hard work, and it’s what Barry’s up against now.”

Recognizing that “you gotta do what people care about,” Thacker choose to tackle one of Coal Creek’s most pressing problems: flooding. More than 130 volunteers, including many TU members, showed up in 2000 to clear deadwood and debris from the pilings of 13 old railroad bridges. They hoped that removing pinch-points would enable the creek to handle significantly more water without overflowing.

A related problem was that Coal Creek, in Thacker’s words, “didn’t like to run in one place too long”—years of alteration to the natural streambed had caused the creek to carve new routes, imperiling residents’ property holdings, mobilizing large loads of sediment and increasing the likelihood of flooding. Thacker engineered several streambank-stabilization strategies to encourage the creek to run deeper rather than wider, and volunteers devoted scores of hours to install them.

Their efforts paid off: when a 100-year storm ravaged the Southern Appalachians last spring, Coal Creek stayed within its banks for the first time in years.

A Healthy Collaboration, A Brighter Future

In 2001, Thacker took the next step, mobilizing CCWF and TU volunteers to hold the first Coal Creek Health Day. Clinch River Chapter members like Dr. Toyohara recall Thacker telling them, “Boys, you can’t fish every day.”

The medical professionals in the group didn’t need much prodding. “For many children, it was the first time they had seen a doctor or dentist,” Toyohara says. “It was very rewarding to be able to help them … and to begin teaching them basic things they could do to improve their health.”

The sentiment was echoed by Thurman, the biologist, who was trying to impress upon the kids the connections between their health and the vitality of Coal Creek, and ended up being impressed by the children’s interest and aptitude. “Some of the kids were starting to identify difficult insect species on sight. The amount of knowledge they can retain is really remarkable. … [This work] is gratifying on so many levels.”

To encourage the kids to continue learning, the CCWF started the Coal Creek Scholars Program, an ongoing effort to boost the number of Briceville students attending college. The town dramatically trails state and national averages for high school and college graduation rates: As of the 1990 U.S. Census, 66 percent of adults in Tennessee had graduated from high school, compared to 17 percent of adults in Briceville. Sixteen percent of adults in Tennessee had graduated from college, compared to just 0.5 percent of Briceville’s adults.

To combat these trends, the program has awarded more than $20,000 in scholarships to high school students since 2001. Volunteers also offer assistance in preparing college/technical school applications, contact university admissions officers on behalf of students and lead trips to college campuses.

The foundation attaches just one stipulation to its scholarships—recipients must return to their former elementary and high schools to give presentations as mentors. Often, these Coal Creek Scholars are the first peers students have ever met who have made the jump to higher education. “The kids treat the mentors like they just got back from a trip to the moon,” Thacker says, laughing.

The scholars program also works directly with Briceville Elementary, taking kids on field trips to local sites of historical importance and teaching them to take pride in their coal mining heritage.

“History really runs deep in and around Briceville,” explains Carol Moore, the dynamo who does double duty as Thacker’s professional assistant at work and public relations manager for the CCWF and Clinch River Chapter. “There’s any number of places to learn from,” she says, pointing to the sites where rival sides encamped during the Coal Creek War, an 1891-92 conflict over the use of convict labor in private industry that led to the nationwide abolition of the practice.

“When the kids we take out start to see these places and learn from them, they realize that many of the bad stereotypes about coal miners just aren’t true. They really do have something to be proud of here,” Moore says.

“They’re the best field trips we’ve ever taken,” says Tom Braden, principal and alumnus of Briceville Elementary. “The kids get very excited, but they’re well-behaved. They seem fascinated with this stuff because it’s all around them, but they never knew about it.”

Braden further praises the CCWF because, “It teaches the kids about the past, and it points them toward the future.” He calls Thacker “a blessing,” saying, “I can’t really express in words what all this has meant to the school.” Braden lists a new computer lab and a huge boost in donations of toys, clothing and supplies as results of the public exposure the CCWF has brought to Briceville.

Cleaning Up the Creek

With the social elements of its programs in place, the foundation will devote more time in the near future to the technical aspects of elevating Coal Creek’s water quality, says Thacker. He believes that the creation of four new wetlands near abandoned mine sites will filter out the majority of pollutants that currently reach Coal Creek.

To make the wetlands a reality, Thacker plans to begin aggressively lobbying the members of Congress who control abandoned mine land reclamation funds. He hopes that if government funding can be secured, his professional reputation within mining-industry circles will convince the holding company that controls much of the scarred land in the watershed to partner in cleanup efforts.

The holding company is hesitant to join such a partnership, Thacker explains, because volunteer groups are often immobilized by infighting. If past successes are any indication, however, infighting shouldn’t be a problem at Coal Creek. TU and the local community seem to have discovered the secret to successful collaboration.

Thacker sums it up simply: “We make sure we’re doing this as friends, or not at all.”

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