Alys Venable
The Tennesseean
December 16, 2006
Alys Venable

In an ambiguous age when both conservation and consumerism are popular, a group of neighbors in West Meade, Nashville, has opted to go natural.

They have formed The West Meade Conservancy, made up of volunteers whose mission is to preserve the unique natural resources of their neighborhood. Though it began with the woods of Rolling Fork Drive and Jocelyn Hollow Road, supporters from other streets have joined in.

The resources are indeed unique. Instead of Nashville's usual gray limestone, the area's ridgetops, according to native tree and plant specialist Mike Berkley, are composed of a sandy chert in which rare white azaleas and other acid-loving plants grow. Some of the trees are hundreds of years old. An expert called in to identify one family's trees spotted a huge specimen and exclaimed, "That might have been here before Columbus!"

The stretches of mature and old-growth forest are home to a variety of wildlife rarely found within a city: barred owls, Cooper's hawks, pileated woodpeckers, white-tailed deer, red foxes, box turtles, a host of different amphibians and an occasional bobcat.

Some of these animals require a large acreage before they can breed. The conservancy's forested neighborhood and the natural areas on adjacent land owned by developers can provide that space. If those woods remain undeveloped, a rare habitat will be safe.

Noah Charney, West Meade's young John Muir, invited neighbors last April to meet on Earth Day to discuss ways of preserving the woods and wildlife and was amazed when 65 people showed up.

Today the West Meade Conservancy has more than 150 people on its contact list. Its mission now includes preservation of the sections of Belle Meade Plantation wall that surround the neighborhood. It is a tax-exempt organization with a Web site, www.westmeadeconservancy. org, and a plan.

The conservancy's plan is simple: Neighbors who choose to participate sign a registration form identifying the portion of their property to be covered later by a conservation easement and select from a list of activities any they do not want to occur on that land. The current list includes cutting or destroying native trees, destroying native wildlife, building new residential structures and disassembling historic stone walls.

Property by property, the chains of planned easements grow. Neighbors inform other neighbors. Ron Whitaker, a dedicated conservancy volunteer, declares, "Anybody who loves these woods is part of the West Meade Conservancy." A giant map of the neighborhood fills as lots are colored in to show that landowners have joined the registry. Environmental and cultural agencies give advice and support. Eileen Hennessy of The Land Trust for Tennessee comments, "The strength of the conservancy is that it is made up of people who care, not just people against developers."

In addition to providing a wildlife habitat, West Meade's woods benefit Nashville in many ways. They reduce air and noise pollution, absorb heat in summer and release it in winter, prevent soil erosion and manage storm water. Finally, they are a beautiful reminder that humans do not own the planet; they share it.

In this contradictory time when clear-cutting acres of trees to build a mall is partially offset by planting gardens on top of downtown buildings, the West Meade Conservancy stands as an example of single-minded determination to leave nature as it is.