On the grounds of The Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s historic home, a massive sinkhole that had been used as a dumping ground for decades — possibly as far back as the 1800s — is getting a much-needed spring cleaning.
The Nature Conservancy and The Hermitage are collaborating on a cleanup project to remove old appliances, tires, furniture and all sorts of household waste that have accumulated in the sinkhole. The purpose is more than cosmetic.
"The Hermitage — the Ladies' Hermitage Association – continually strives to be responsible environmental stewards of the more than 1,120 acres of land entrusted to it," says Howard Kittell, President and CEO of The Hermitage. "We want not only to preserve the historic buildings and objects that belonged to the Jackson family, but to protect and enhance the landscape that Andrew Jackson knew as his home and livelihood. This partnership with The Nature Conservancy is an outstanding example of the cross over between historic and environmental stewardship — divergent interests supporting one another's missions."
Sinkholes — which form naturally in limestone through the etching of water over centuries — reach down into groundwater tables. Any garbage or chemicals in a sinkhole can contaminate groundwater for miles around, because groundwater flows just as surface water does. This sinkhole, with a mouth that is 20 feet by 40 feet wide and depth that is as yet unmeasured, is situated just one mile from the Cumberland River to the west and one mile from Old Hickory Lake to the northeast. Because of the high water table and the depth of the sinkhole, pollution of the nearby river and the lake is a very real possibility.
Although now a part of The Hermitage’s 1,100-plus acres and historically owned by Andrew Jackson, the sinkhole was for many years not part of The Hermitage grounds. The parcel of land that includes sinkhole was acquired in 2002. Recently, The Nature Conservancy approached The Hermitage with a solution for the problem it had inherited: a grant program that covers 75 percent of the costs of cleanup and allows The Hermitage to match 25 percent with its own expenditures and in-kind labor costs.
Funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Landowner Incentive Program is managed in Tennessee by The Nature Conservancy. It was the Conservancy’s Cave Program Manager Cory Holliday who contacted The Hermitage with the grant offer and a plan to clean the sinkhole and restore it to a safe, natural state.
"Sinkholes are direct conduits to our groundwater in Tennessee. The Nature Conservancy is really pleased to offer landowners the opportunity to clean up sinkholes on their property," says Holliday. "I think the Hermitage project really illustrates that this is a widespread and universal problem in Tennessee, and we're really happy to be part of the solution."
In addition to the positive environmental impact, the sinkhole cleanup offers a rare opportunity to explore a mysterious underground cavity that is rumored to open up into a cave – and might even include cast-away items from as far back as Andrew Jackson’s era. “There’s always a mystery behind sinkholes. Over the years, local residents have shared with us the memories of playing in caves on the Hermitage grounds,” states Paula Hankins, VP of Marketing. “We’re not only interested in the possibility of a cave system but also the rare opportunity to uncover the past through archaeological finds.” The Hermitage’s archaeological team will be engaged to inspect the site for historical objects once it is safely secured.
The cleanup began in mid-April and is expected to conclude by early May. A local firm, Treeworks, has been contracted to do the hazardous, hands-on work of removing the decades of trash as well as the plantings and landscape restoration. The cleanup will include sorting the debris for proper disposal and recycling efforts. Cost for the project is expected to be approximately $20,000. Three other sinkholes on the property that are less contaminated are candidates for future cleanups.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
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