From pot to park: Seized Tennessee mountain spread converted to preserve

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Visitors to a 1,000-acre mountain tract in Tennessee will have to get high on nature, and not the marijuana once grown there.

The land, on the Volunteer State's Short Mountain, some 50 miles south of Nashville, was seized from a multimillion-dollar pot operation in 2006. After five-and-a-half years of negotiations, state wildlife and law enforcement officials struck a deal to maintain the land as a wildlife preserve. The deal is one of just four such transfers in the nation in 15 years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and by far the largest.

“It’s irreplaceable land, it’s irreplaceable habitat, it’s unique to Tennessee. The idea that this would have been sold off and developed never really made sense," Neal Appelbaum, president of the Stones River Watershed Association, told the Tennessean.

The land was seized by federal agents after an extensive undercover sting. Typically, such land is auctioned off to developers, with the proceeds going to pay for the costs of the drug investigation. But conservation groups fought hard to protect the area's rare ecosystem, according to Appelbaum. He said preserving the land will save several wildlife species -- including species of salamander, crayfish and beetles unique to the area.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the group that ultimately controls the land, has authorized for part of it to be permanently open to the public as the Headwaters Wildlife Management Area. The largest available area of land will become part of the Pea Ridge management area, open to sportsmen and conservationists.

Ironically, the land's prior owners, Jeffory Carl Young, 55, and Morris Roller, 59, had been known for their philanthropic and preservation efforts before being arrested and unmasked as the masterminds of a huge pot operation. Young was sentenced to 18 years and is currently in a Mississippi low-security federal prison. Roller was sentenced to 16 years and is currently in a South Dakota minimum-security federal prison.

Click for more at the Tennessean.