The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Sandra Goss: Fly your flag for land and water

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Sandra Goss, Executive Director, Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness PlanningTennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning Executive Director Sandra Goss is nearing retirement after decades of tending to the environmental issues facing East Tennessee and the Cumberland Plateau.At cusp of retirement, Sandra Goss reflects on what she and others have saved

This is the latest installment of an occasional series, Hellbent, profiling citizens who work to preserve and improve the Southern Appalachian environment.

OAK RIDGE — I can see the view of Lilly Bluff Overlook at Obed Wild and Scenic River in my mind. The trees are bare save some evergreens. The stream I love to splash around in during warmer times is flowing between the slopes. 

I can see the cliff face in the distance. It would be a great place to interview Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning (TCWP) Executive Director Sandra Goss; after all she and her organization helped preserve the area. It’s also near the places she grew up. She cited the experiences as inspiring her conservation ethic.

Earlier this winter, the Christmas tree in Oak Ridge’s Jackson Square was on its side due to icy gusts and I’ve called off meeting with Goss in person at Panera to avoid torturing her or me with the elements. We could hike, but not stand around.

I’ve seen her at TCWP Christmas parties in Oak Ridge and on hikes though, so just like Lilly Bluff, I can imagine her silver-white hair, smile and glasses as I speak to her by phone. I hear her accent, more Southern Appalachian than the Yankee-ish Oak Ridge accent I speak, nodding to her origin in Crossville.

Goss is retiring Aug. 31, and she’s looking back on her work and forward to the break.

“I’ll be 70. It’s time to retire. I want to visit some friends and relatives and see various places and the time is now. Well, the time is August. Or maybe more truthfully September,” she said.

Before Goss’s time as director, the group led by the late Liane Russell helped establish Obed Wild and Scenic River as federally preserved land. It’s beloved by rock climbers, paddlers, anglers and swimmers across the region and a blessing to the creatures that swim in the relevant waters, even if they don’t realize it. 

During Goss’s time as director, TCWP acquired other land that eventually went to the park. Goss may be humble about her achievements, crediting volunteers. However, my Dad, Larry Pounds, a TCWP board member, told me over Christmas brunch how one of the most iconic vistas of Obed Wild and Scenic River, the forested gorge visible from Lily Bluff Overlook, is thanks to TCWP’s actions under Goss’s leadership.

“It wouldn’t quite be the same view,” my father said, explaining that some areas could have been developed if TCWP hadn’t been involved. 

Goss grew up in Crossville, enjoying the natural beauty of the area before it was officially a Wild and Scenic River with government protection.

“A little trip to Potter’s Ford on Obed River, that was a fun outing. Going down to Devil’s Breakfast table, those were fine outings,” she said. She spoke with love of her father.

“He took me there to appreciate all there is,” she said.

In fifth grade, 1964, she wrote about conservation and the importance of trees in a notebook. “As I dimly recall, I had pictures of trees and information about the roles trees play in our lives,” she said. “I wasn’t at that time talking about climate change but things like soil retention, shade, wood products.

“Through the years I’ve tried to be a good servant of my little corner of the Earth,” she said, though the focus has changed.

“Environmental issues and particularly climate change are life and death issues. This work trying to preserve our lands and waters, it’s good work, and it’s critical work. I like that. I like working on important things,” she said, talking about deforestation, fracking and, especially, the risk to water supply 

TCWP’s work has varied from focusing on the Obed area to more local projects conserving land in Oak Ridge. “Our goal is to do everything that we can with the help of our members and an educated public to have clean air, drinking water and adequate habitat for all creatures,” she said.

She started at TCWP in 1998. At first working with a partner, she became the only remaining paid employee amid volunteers. “One could think of it as Halcyon days,” she noted of her early TCWP time, describing a “much friendlier relationship” with state and national government than nowadays.

She said she remembered “various meetings, discussions, car rides to meetings and discussions in cars with individual board members, individual volunteers. “Over time I came to realize that collectively TCWP people are decent and they’re honest and have good manners. Those traits may sound small, but our work involved contentious issues and passions were high on both sides for issues such as strip coal mining and forestry. It’s so good with both parties be polite and decent and speak the truth. In that way, this fine line that needs to be walked between economics and natural resource preservation can be accomplished,” she said. 

My father,  over Christmas brunch said Goss embodied these “terrific interpersonal skills” herself during her time as executive director. Goss though preferred to speak about her cause rather than herself.

“It seems that the use of our natural resources has been an issue for centuries. I guess it will be an issue as long as there are humans,” she said. “It’s hard for some people to realize that forest and rivers serve a vital function in keeping our Earth able to sustain us. Very little is done to assess the value of the contributions of wild lands and wild waters and it’s relatively easy to show a profit and loss sheet on a proposed development.”

“I am very excited about the trend of TCWP leadership to younger people,” she said. The board as of Jan. 1 will have four new members. “They’re all smart, dedicated people, and they’re younger.

“That’s important to have the people on staff and as volunteers, and on our board who will see TCWP into the mid-century.

“Somebody needs to raise the flag right now for our wild lands and waters,” she said.

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