Long before the Wolf River Conservancy was founded in 1985, local paddlers had explored the upper, middle and urban sections of the Wolf River in canoes and kayaks, and were well aware of the river’s beauty. A popular canoe trail had been established on the Bateman Bridge to Moscow, Tennessee, segment of the upper Wolf and a canoe outfitter was renting canoes to facilitate float trips.
In 1991, two Wolf River Conservancy board members established the 8-mile Ghost River canoe trail between LaGrange, TN, and Bateman Bridge near Moscow, on a section of the Wolf renowned for the frequency with which visitors lost their way while paddling it (canoe trail markers were added in 1992). Recognizing the unique natural beauty and diversity of the Ghost River section, members of the Wolf River Conservancy also knew that it flowed through private lands and could be logged or negatively impacted in any number of ways at any time. Consequently, the Wolf River Conservancy – at that time, an all-volunteer organization - expanded the number of trips through the Ghost River section in order to raise awareness, encouraging local news media and other community members to participate. The hope was that, should the need arise one day, enough people would value the Ghost River section to save it.
In 1995, the Wolf River Conservancy’s worst fears were realized when a timber and development firm purchased a 4,000 acre plantation from the Beasley family which encompassed 5 miles of the 8-mile Ghost River section. This plantation also included over a 1,000 acres of highly developable uplands. The timber and development firm planned to strip the timber and then auction off hundreds of parcels of the old plantation for “ranchettes”. The firm paid $3 million for the tract. Wolf River Conservancy asked the new owners how much they would sell it for, and the answer was $4 million. Still an organization of volunteers alone, the Wolf River Conservancy had only four months to raise the $4 million needed to rescue the Ghost River section from destruction. The organization printed a brochure for public distribution explaining the crisis and asked its membership and other community members to contact Governor Don Sundquist. The response was phenomenal; the governor received hundreds of calls and letters and was ultimately persuaded to provide $3 million, the fair market price, if the Wolf River Conservancy would raise the additional $1 million needed to acquire the property before the scheduled auction. As the auction date approached, the WRC membership and board was able to raise over $60,000, but this fell far short of the necessary $1 million. Just one day before the auction, a great hero emerged: W.S. “Babe” Howard, President of Millington Telephone Company. Mr. Howard borrowed the $1 million, allowing the Wolf River Conservancy to purchase the 4,000 acre plantation and rescue the uniquely beautiful Ghost River section from destruction.
Scott Ledbetter, a noted community leader and fundraiser, then spent a month of his life raising $1.2 million in pledges from other community leaders and Wolf River Conservancy supporters to repay Mr. Howard. This goal was met in 1997. The Wolf River Conservancy was also awarded a $600,000 North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant for the Ghost River section’s rescue and protection. The NAWCA grant and other donations allowed the Conservancy to hire its first staff member, Executive Director Larry J. Smith. The remaining funds were used in partnership with Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to protect an additional 3,000 acres of land. Now, the 2,220-acre Ghost River State Natural Area and the adjoining Wolf River Wildlife Management area comprise a total of 7,000 protected acres.