SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
April 30, 1990
Earth Day success story: The Chattanooga choo-choo no longer spews foul air
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April 30, 1990

Back On Track

Earth Day success story: The Chattanooga choo-choo no longer spews foul air

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It didn't happen right away, but day by day the Chattanooga choo-choo blew out less and less corruption. In 1981 the TSP level dipped below the 75 mark for the first time—and stayed there. In '83 the chamber of commerce launched a campaign to boost the town with the previously laughable slogan "Chattanooga Shines!" And in '89 the annual TSP reading was the lowest it had ever been—just 49 micrograms per square meter; and BSO, now superseded by a category called PM[10] (Particulate Matter 10 microns or less in diameter) is well within the government's standard.

Well, that's a marvelous Earth Day bedtime story—but Chattanooga didn't stop with its air. Next came the river. The downtown banks of the Tennessee had been so cluttered with ancient factories, warehouses and shipping piers that there was no way for ordinary citizens to get near the water. That is changing as we speak. Fry's previously unreachable section of the river will soon be only part of Riverpark, a mammoth $750 million, 20-year undertaking that will clean up 22 miles of river shore. The centerpiece will be in the middle of the city, at Ross's Landing (named after the celebrated Cherokee chief John Ross), where a state-of-the-art freshwater aquarium will be completed by the summer of 1992. Tall as a 12-story building, it will have a re-created Southern Appalachian mountain forest under a glass pyramid, complete with waterfall, trout stream and otter pool, as well as living, swimming examples of practically every freshwater fish and reptile known to man.

But the rejuvenation of Chattanooga does not stop at the river's edge. In an area called Hixson, about eight miles northeast of Ross's Landing but still within the city limits, lies a magnificent piece of land—180 acres bordered by the clean limestone-blue waters of North Chickamauga Creek. Here the wooded hills and hidden ponds are as pristine as if they were hidden away in the deepest sylvan recesses of the Great Smoky Mountains. The owner of the land, known as Spangler Farm, is Ben Spangler. Last November, Spangler tried, for the second time, to sell his land to a developer who wanted to move a million cubic yards of fill into the lowlands and build 500 condominiums. It would have been an environmental massacre, but—as happens almost routinely these days in this city of 166,000 inhabitants—a crowd of angry people from nearby neighborhoods rode to the rescue. They call themselves H.E.L.P.—short for Hixson Environmental Land Protection—and they are about 5,000 strong.

They were led by a big, strong, drawling fellow named Dave Crockett. And, yes, he is related: He's the great-great-great-great grandson of Davy Crockett's oldest brother. And, yes, he and H.E.L.P. prevented the Spangler Farm from going condo. Indeed, Spangler himself saw the error of his ways, and today he supports Crockett, a senior marketing executive for IBM in real life, in his campaign to get local government to buy the farm for the relative bargain price of just under $2 million and make it a nature preserve. Crockett's long-term goal is a privately funded environmental education and conference center.

Crockett also happens to be engaged in his first run for political office—as a candidate for the city council in the May 1 municipal elections. He has done much more campaigning for the Spangler Farm environment than he has for a council seat, but somehow he sounds like he has the potential to make a very good politician. "My vision is for a new future, with Chattanooga be coming the national center for the business of the environment," he says. "This is supposed to be the great American growth industry in the '90s—big as electronics in the '60s maybe, they say. And why not have it centered here? Chattanooga is uniquely qualified. We've gone from the worst to the best. We know this environmental business better than anyone."

So for good reason there was an atmosphere of celebration in Chattanooga on Earth Day 1990. The city had resurrected itself. But of course the work here, as elsewhere on this besieged planet, is never done. As Fry watched the festivities taking place in Riverpark, he said quietly, "You see such crud in the river it just kills you. You see people throwing cans out of car windows. You see Styrofoam cups lying in the street. Oh, there is so much ignorance. Some people still talk about Earth Day as if it was an opportunity for radicals to get together and plot. I had a policeman tell me exactly that the other day."

He gazed sadly at his beloved river and sighed. "It ain't only people, I'm concerned for. It's the health and welfare of those fish, too. They're taking a bad beating in that water. They're hurting. I can just feel they are hurting, and they got to have help."

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