By Tony Gonzalez | The Tennessean
SHORT MOUNTAIN -
A remote Tennessee mountain where drug dealers grew and hid mounds of marijuana for more than a decade will soon become protected parkland.
Nearly 1,000 acres on Short Mountain in Cannon County will be kept free of development to instead remain wild and natural for hunters and hikers -- an unusual outcome for forfeited drug property.
But this was no ordinary land. The gentle slopes and craggy ridges amazed federal drug investigators who were in on the raid and led scientists to discover species of crayfish, salamanders and beetles not found anywhere else. And the water that runs off the mountain -- the tallest point in Middle Tennessee at 2,074 feet -- flows down in every direction.
The deal to conserve the drug land, signed recently after years of negotiations, is one of just four such transfers in the nation in 15 years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. It's also by far the largest.
In Tennessee, such an arrangement has no precedent. A huge win for conservationists, who worked for years to convince government and police agencies of its merit, the deal preserves some of the most beautiful land in the state. Those who put it together say that made more sense than selling it off to recoup all of the money poured into the drug investigation.
"It's irreplaceable land, it's irreplaceable habitat, it's unique to Tennessee," said Neal Appelbaum, president of the Stones River Watershed Association. "The idea that this would have been sold off and developed never really made sense. But everybody had to come to the agreement that this is the right thing to do. Lots of people could have had reasons not to."
Marijuana on a patchwork
Five law enforcement agencies, including local, state and federal authorities, used undercover informants and court-ordered phone surveillance to catch Jeffory Carl Young, 55, of Cannon County, and Morris Roller, 59, of Warren County, in 2006. Prosecutors said the pair grew marijuana on a patchwork of 2,200 acres -- and imported even more by the truckload -- while making millions of dollars as multistate wholesale distributors.
Along with their outlaw operation, they also gained a local reputation for unsolicited acts of kindness and environmental stewardship.
After the arrest but before trial, Appelbaum, 44, set in motion years of haggling over the future of the properties.
In 2008, a year after a Chattanooga jury convicted the dealers, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen and the Heritage Conservation Trust Fund approved a $154,000 grant to protect the "Roller-Young Tracts." That pleased state wildlife and environment officials because portions adjoined lands that were already protected.
But preservation wasn't guaranteed until deeds were signed April 10, Appelbaum said.
"We've gotten through this 5½ years of discussing, debating, negotiating, paperwork, process and ownership," he said. "Now it's: Where are we going to go with this for the next 100 years?"
On clear days, Short Mountain provides a view of Nashville some 50 miles northwest -- not as though that matters much to locals who have turned away from urban living.
On and around the mountain lie more than 1,000 acres in the Pea Ridge Wildlife Management Area for hunters, the Butternut Valley Nature Center for school field trips, and trails for the Cannon County Walking Horse Association. And there's the Short Mountain Sanctuary, a 365-acre mountain farming collective that became widely known as an enclave for gay men who sustained their existence from the land.
A whiskey distillery and coffee company also take the mountain's name.
But until the new agreement, there was one landowner whom people didn't see a lot of: the government. The 500 acres at the top of the mountain are privately owned, one of only two designated state natural areas not in government hands. The peak -- not open to the public -- is home to Short Mountain Bible Camp, where a cabin deck overlooks thick woods that stretch out to the distant horizon.
Dusty pickup trucks like Appelbaum's bounce along the lightly traveled roads, where the bending yellow center lines are merely a suggestion.
"It feels like you're in a state park," Appelbaum said.
Scientists have long studied wildlife here.
David Withers, a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation zoologist, has studied the Short Mountain crayfish, which was discovered in 2006, and the state-endangered Brawley's Fork crayfish.
"It's one of the few places that I've ever seen where the two occur together," Withers said. "It is a rich system, and the creek appears to have a nice diversity."
Brian Miller, a Middle Tennessee State University biologist, focused on the cave salamander -- the official state amphibian. While searching in a cave behind a waterfall on Jeffory Young's property, Miller found salamanders that have been threatened by development in nearby counties.
In 2005, as federal authorities spied on Young, the drug dealer welcomed Miller and others to conduct research on pristine parts of the property. To people living nearby, Young's hospitality fit with other good deeds.
"Jeff was really considered a Robin Hood character in Cannon County," Appelbaum said.
Work for churches, anonymous gifts
The drug dealers fit in well in a place where government isn't always welcome.
According to one of Young's legal appeals, the federal courts received 53 letters describing his upstanding character. He'd performed work for churches, anonymously bought Christmas gifts for the needy and installed bathrooms for an after-school program and the volunteer fire department -- all at no charge.
"An ideal neighbor," Young wrote of himself in the appeal. "A true asset to his community."
But authorities were looking beyond the good deeds and a sparse cattle operation. They gathered evidence of large-scale distribution of imported Mexican marijuana and small, sophisticated growing fields. David Shelton, a Chattanooga-based special agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, worked the case as part of the ongoing war on what is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise in Tennessee.
"They generally went with multiple, smaller grows," he said. "That minimizes the chance of being located."
Court records describe trucks carrying thousands of pounds of marijuana and money buried in cans around the property. The men coded their conversations and kept a limited clientele, said Shelton, who hesitated to provide details that have grown foggy.
Yet the land itself shines as clearly as ever.
"It was one of the most beautiful grounds I've ever seen," Shelton said. "Hilly, pastures and hillsides ... scattered throughout the valley and mountain. Some wooded."
Young and Roller still own 1,200 acres there -- more than half of their collective holdings, including homes -- under an agreement with prosecutors.
Young is serving 18 years at the low-security prison in Yazoo City, Miss. Roller is doing 16 years at a minimum-security prison in Yankton, S.D.
Appeals they filed have been denied. The Tennessee Supreme Court chose not to take on the case. Another petition for review of Young's sentence remains before the court, but prosecutors say it's a low priority on the busy docket.
State and law enforcement officials said preserving forfeited drug land had never been a real possibility in the fight against Tennessee's pot industry.
In the past decade, authorities have averaged 450,000 plants seized each year -- worth $1 billion to $3 billion, said DEA Special Agent Tim Wilson, who coordinates marijuana eradication from Knoxville.
Funded this year by an $800,000 federal allotment, three marijuana search teams will use helicopters to hunt for marijuana fields from June to October.
Wilson said the Roller-Young outcome is unique partly because agents often find marijuana hidden on property owned by unsuspecting people. Come conviction time, that land isn't seized.
And when land is taken, he said, "usually you see everybody wanting their piece of the pie."
'Everybody kind of stepped aside'
But this time, law enforcement departments gave up their spoils.
The deeds put the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in charge of the land, which must be permanently kept as open space with public access. According to the agreement, any sale would need to be approved by the Tennessee Heritage Conservation Fund, which is part of TDEC.
But the land cannot be split apart.
"The accomplishment is that everybody agreed, the best use is open space, recreation, land preservation," Appelbaum said. "Everybody kind of stepped aside."
Appelbaum was first to suggest protecting the land -- he raised the issue with Cannon County officials the same week Young and Roller went to jail -- and the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation joined the cause.
The deal stayed together despite changes in administration in Washington and Nashville, and turnover among state representatives and commissioners.
Appelbaum remembers an early meeting -- quite divided -- among police, prosecutors, state officials and locals.
"It wasn't an aggressive face-to-face, but it was, 'Let's make our case,' " he said. "There are so many layers of government having to get along ... and with different missions in place. People have used the word historic."
Ultimately, the federal government offered its 10 seized parcels to TWRA and the conservation fund at what everyone agreed was a "bargain price" of $154,000. That was far less than the land's estimated value of more than $1 million, said Nat Johnson, TWRA assistant executive director.
The largest piece of land will become part of the Pea Ridge management area. The remainder will be known as the Headwaters Wildlife Management Area and be opened to the public.
Johnson said he didn't celebrate until the deeds were signed. Over the years, TWRA had written announcements of the land deal but never went public with them because of last-minute snags. Legal questions that nobody had thought of kept popping up.
"Nothing," he said, "approaches the complexity of what has been accomplished here."
But with most of the wrangling now in the past, a complicated process has turned into something much simpler: a mountain forest, wild and free, as untamed as it has always been.