The following is a guest essay by Gabrielle “Gabby” Lynch. Gabby is a Program Manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Tennessee Chapter, where she started her conservation career in 1993. Gabby’s current projects include wetlands restoration and mitigation banking in Tennessee’s Southern Appalachian Mountains, where rare mountain bog ecosystems shelter a trove of unusual plants and animals. Prior to her position in the mountains, Gabby served a number of roles for the Tennessee Chapter, including government relations director and stewardship/land management. Gabby holds a B.S. degree in Forestry & Wildlife from Virginia Tech, class of 1992. Outside of work, her interests include local food initiatives, cooking, hiking and keeping chickens.
This post is dedicated to Bern Tryon, 1947-2011. We dearly miss him.
In 1965, the federal government introduced the Head Start Program for our nation’s needy children. The program’s noble yet simple assumption: health care, nutrition and educational experience will better prepare our youngest citizens for surviving this big, dangerous world.
About two decades after Head Start shined its first light into the lives of so many children and babies, a biologist named Bern Tryon was forming a program at the Knoxville Zoo with a similar premise. His vision centered on bog turtles, an animal that would soon define Bern’s career and life. The Appalachian mountain community of Shady Valley had just been discovered to be Tennessee’s only known bog turtle location. But in Bern’s view, the turtles’ existence there was too precarious; what if some crisis (disease? poacher?) hit Shady Valley and wiped out most or all of its few turtles? Tennessee’s bog turtles needed their own Head Start to boost that wild population, and Bern was the man to do it.
Bern and his colleagues began hatching bog turtles in a safe environment at the zoo, and a program to release young turtles back into the wild was not far off. These turtles spent their first two years growing stronger and wiser within the safety of the zoo’s life-like bog habitats. A bog was found many miles away from Shady Valley for releasing the young turtles, to prevent any unknown, zoo-borne microorganisms from contaminating the valley’s wild bog turtle population. These zoo turtles, now over 150 of them, have successfully colonized their adopted bog. They are even reproducing on their own.
Last month I took another group of youngsters to the Knoxville Zoo, three high school students from outside Atlanta, Georgia. Desiree, Jamee and Taylor were working for The Nature Conservancy’s Shady Valley program as LEAF interns (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future). Since the girls had already splashed around in a Shady Valley bog, learning how to track wild turtles with radio telemetry technology, I wanted them to travel full circle inside Bern’s vision and visit his legendary “captive rearing” operation.
As the girls peered into a tub of incubating bog turtle eggs, I was struck by three heavy thoughts: first, that Bern launched his Head Start dream before these bright, young students were even born; second, that losing Bern to cancer in May was rubbing our hearts raw; and third, that the Conservancy’s LEAF interns had embarked upon their own kind of Head Start. By competing for and winning their LEAF internships, Desiree, Jamee and Taylor opted into a pre-collegiate crash course in conservation biology principles and land management techniques. They are smart, urban kids who want to connect with nature, learn things completely outside their comfort zone, and be stronger and more competitive for life ahead.
Shady Valley’s bog turtles made a huge impression on our LEAF interns. Two of the girls’ top three summer activities involved studying and caring for this wetland creature, which has hung on in Tennessee despite so many odds. But with the right Head Start, turtles and children alike can grow strong and prosper, and give us all hope.
(First image: Jamee Carroll, Desiree Evans and Taylor Lindsay hold an adult bog turtle at Orchard Bog Preserve in Shady Valley. Image credit: © Kathryn Miley/TNC. Second image: A baby bog turtle. Second image credit: © Phil Colclough.)