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The Copper Basin

At the junction where east Tennessee, northcentral Georgia, and southwest North Carolina meet, the Copper Basin stands out in startling contrast to its surroundings—the epitome of man's disregard for nature. Its denuded red hills shimmer with glowing colors ranging from soft pastels to dark copper and reddish hues, surrounded by a ring of lush green mountains, thus giving the illusion of a bowl or basin. Various ranges in the Blue Ridge province, some with elevations reaching 4,200 feet, can be seen in every direction.

Approximately 35,000 acres of rolling hills, the Copper Basin has been described as a moonscape, a red desert, or a beloved scar (by people who were born, raised, and continue to live in this area) and is damaging testimony to the long-term effect of acid rain. However, unlike present-day acid rain, that which produced the Copper Basin fell close to its point of origin, was highly visible, and had an immediate as well as long-range effect. Efforts to reclaim the proper balance of nature have been numerous and reportedly represent the most extensive reclamation project attempted in the United States.

Devastation of the Copper Basin is usually attributed to the copper mining industry. Other factors, however, also contributed. Burning by the Cherokee Indians, followed by early settlers' burning to clear land, established a pattern of land abuse early on. According to Tennessee historian J. B. Killebrew in 1874, the Copper Basin area was "a barren sterile region prior to 1850."

In the mid-1800s, the arrival of the copper mining industry was heralded with exuberance, as it provided much-needed livelihood for the local mountain people. During this period the Copper Basin was a veritable boom area, with people converging from every direction to participate in the mining, as well as the development of the railroad. The basin's forests were badly cut over to obtain fuel for copper smelting, then subjected to copper sulfide fumes generated by open-air roasting of copper ore. The fumes—spread farther when high smoke stacks were added after 1907—hung close to the ground or mixed with frost, fog, or rain, killing nearly every remaining tree, bush, shrub, weed, and growing plant in the 35,000-acre area. At that time little thought was given to the effect on the land. Even today, in spite of the ravaged land that remains as a result of copper mining, the people who worked in the mines and their families are fiercely proud of their barren hills.

The devastation was twofold when mining operations ceased. The land was exhausted, as was the morale of the people left with no source of income. Adding insult to injury, long after the copper smelting fumes were controlled, Tennessee law permitted open-range cattle grazing. Lowland farmers drove and later trucked cattle up into the basin for free grazing, having burned the land indiscriminately to encourage springtime growth of thin sedge pasturage.

Reclamation began with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s. It has continued through the efforts of at least three copper companies as well as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), U.S. Soil Conservation Service, U.S. Forest Service, Tennessee Division of Natural Resources, other state agencies, and the Universities of Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. The hillsides have been roughly regraded, partially terraced, and thickly planted with pines, bush clover, weeping lovegrass, clumps of Japanese knotweed, and kudzu. Rock check dams have been built and locust seedlings planted in the accumulated soil above the dams.

The Tennessee Chemical Company still operates a sulfuric acid plant in Copperhill, Tennessee. However, the area's future seems to point to tourism, with the proliferation of whitewater enthusiasts who pass through this area on the way to nearby rapids of the Ocoee River.

The Copper Basin is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Tennessee Chemical Company has given the old abandoned Burra Burra mine, together with 17 hilltop acres with old buildings, to the Ducktown Basin Museum. In 1988 the state of Tennessee purchased the museum to commemorate the copper mining area as the state's first historical industrial site.

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