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.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. I am glad these girls got to have a good experience, I worked with them several days myself. Unfortunately the science here is incorrect. I wish the author would check with the Bog Turtle scientists involved before printing inaccurate information. That would save a lot of confusion. The chronological information is wrong and misleading. The project has no conclusive results to date, totally premature to make these assumptions. It is unfortunate to mislead people who might look at this article expecting to learn something useful. The number cited is pure fantasy. Those of you out there who are trying to do serious research, do not look here for information. Brad Parker and TNC, when are you going to start fact checking this stuff that gets written about a deceased man’s research? This is an entertaining little piece but let’s get some facts right.

    Sorry Desiree, Jayme and Taylor, to be a fly in the soup here. Hope all is well with you, and keep on enjoying memories of your month here. You did good stuff.

    AWE Lead field biologist Bern Tryon Bog Turtle Research program.

  2. Very cool project. A lot of communities could really benefit from more kids getting this kind of experience at an early age. Nice work.

  3. Wow, what a fantastic opportunity for those students! Splashing around mountain bogs in east TN restoring bog turtle habitat…sign me up!

    I think this kind of meaningful, hands on, environmental education/involvement is just what is needed to cure that pesky nature deficit disorder. The environment which we all depend on for life seems to be slipping out of the mainstream. Projects like this give me hope that we are only witnessing a temporary lull in environmental awareness.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. What a great experience for our future leaders. Encouraging environmental passion in our youngest population is vital–for us, and those who follow.

  5. It’s great to know that Bern Tryon’s work continues to have a positive impact. That work has not only benefitted the bog turtles in Shady Valley and expanded our knowledge about them–it’s now having a positive effect on today’s generation through The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program. We should all be so lucky to leave such a meaningful legacy after we’re gone.

    For those who’d like to read more about Bern Tryon’s bog turtle work, see this article he published in 2009:

  6. I got a chance to meet Jamee Desiree and Taylor and they gave me a lot of hope for the future, as does the continued sucess of the Bog Turtle restoration effort! What a great possitive article. Thanks for sharing it!

  7. What a neat article. How the Head Start,Bern’s work, and the LEAF Program were all tied together was most interesting. I was AWE struck reading Awe,s comments about misplaced and misstated facts and figures. To me, the article was of great general interest and not intended to be anything but that. Having visited Shady Valley several times, only pleasant memories are had of the bog, bubbling springs, and the annual Cranberry Festival.


  8. Thanks for the excellent blog article.
    Gotta love them wee turtles! Bogs ROCK!

  9. cute turtle

  10. i love it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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