State officials still working on acquiring land to allow safe access to new Putnam County natural area
PUTNAM COUNTY – Tennessee park officials are working to open a new state natural area in Putnam County that’s also in close proximity to Burgess Falls. But it could be upward of two years before Window Cliffs, a remote and rugged area highlighted by panoramic vistas, limestone rock formations and waterfalls, is ready for its public debut.
The state has acquired approximately 100 acres and is working on acquiring 150 more that would allow safe access to the property, located off Window Cliff Road between Burgess Falls Road and Cookeville Boat Dock. Window Cliffs will not be a state park, stressed Bill Summers, park manager at nearby Burgess Falls, but a state natural area, which tend to be less developed and better preserved, among other distinctions.
“People hear state parks, and they think cabins, restaurants or campgrounds. This is going to be a hiking area predominantly, and to protect the resource, which is very unique,” Summers said. “There’s only a few limestone arches in the state, and there’s a species that only exists on those cliffs in all of Tennessee.”
He said Window Cliffs has been considered an area of interest for more than 40 years. The Window Cliffs themselves were privately owned until the state acquired two tracts of land totaling 100 acres in 2014 for $575,000.
The state plans to have Summers manage Window Cliffs in addition to Burgess Falls, said Roger McCoy, director, division of natural areas, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which is not unique given the parks’ proximity and existing staff expertise.
“This area has been the state’s focus for a number of years, because of some rare plants that occur on the property and its unique geological feature,” McCoy told the UCBJ. “Window Cliffs State Natural Area protects a listed plant species including the state-endangered plains muhly, a grass for which Window Cliffs is the only known site in Tennessee. Northern white cedar also occurs at Window Cliffs, (a) state special concern tree species.”
Because a land deal is still pending – McCoy said they hope to close on the additional property within the next six months – and staffing and budget amendments need to be made, Summers said it could be upward of two years before the new natural area is officially opened to the public. Once the 150 acres are formally secured, a parking lot and trailhead will be built and a trail constructed.
“The trail will be at least four miles, and it will be a rugged hike in,” Summers said. “It will make for a much different component, since Burgess is a pretty easy walk with a lot of scenery. This is going to be a reality; it’s just going to take some time.”
Local officials were updated on the area’s progress in recent weeks; among them, Putnam County Executive Randy Porter, who said Window Cliffs would “attract more tourism dollars to our county.” While there’s no separation for parks, Putnam County saw a 7.6-percent increase in tourism-related expenditures in 2014, better than the state average. And Burgess Falls, which spans both Putnam and White counties, has also ballooned in visitation. Summers tallied more than 183,000 visitors to the day-use area during the previous fiscal year.
Tourism aside, Summers said it will be more about balance, especially considering Window Cliff’s geography. Window Cliffs is the 85th designated state natural area in Tennessee, McCoy said.
“We’re hoping we can balance that area becoming not so inundated with people that it becomes a problem for EMS to respond,” Summers said. “Like Burgess, it has a lot of natural hazards. Before, people would enter illegally en masse without permission, and of course, there were a lot of injuries and worse. We hope that people will stay on the trails and not take chances.”