TENNESSEE – Crews in eastern Tennessee have been repairing a mile-long segment of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail on the Cherokee National Forest. The site is a sacred corridor — an old footpath that holds spiritual and ceremonial importance for many Tribal members.
The Trail of Tears project has helped the USDA Forest Service become better caretakers of sacred places, on the heels of a mistake in 2014.
Back then, the Forest Service constructed a series of 36 earthen berms across the Trail as part of a larger project to reduce erosion, restrict OHV travel and restore a streambed. No matter how environmentally well-intentioned the project may have been, the work was done without consulting Tribes and without complying with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
In the months and years that followed, the Forest Service met with Tribes and consulting parties, apologized for the damage and completed independent assessments of the archaeology, hydrology and vegetation. This led to a Memorandum of Agreement that was finalized in December 2019.
The agreement contains 17 signatures, including federally recognized Tribes. It outlines the work that is being done now and for the next ten years to address the damage.
Melissa Twaroski has been at the work site since mid-January. As the Southern Region’s coordinator for the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail on national forest system lands, she has witnessed the healing help of volunteers and Tribal representatives who have done everything from swinging sledgehammers to delivering lunch.
“Day after day the crew has been doing lots of arduous work at a much faster pace than we expected,” Twaroski said. “They removed the earthen berms with a small backhoe, compacted the soil into the pits, installed erosion control blankets, staked the straw bales and built a split rail fence.”
The repairs are based on engineered drawings and an approved plan that respects the cultural significance of the site, having been developed by the Trails Enterprise Team with Tribal input.
“We’ve had volunteers from SAWS, the Benton MacKaye Trail Association, the local community and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy working alongside Tribal members and the Trails Enterprise Team.” Twaroski said, “This crew is amazing.”