53rd Annual Conservation Achievement Awards Recognizes Tennesseans Statewide

Nashville – Tennessee Wildlife Federation recently hosted its 53rd Annual Conservation Achievement Awards. The ceremony presented 16 awards to recipients from all corners of the state.

“Tennessee is the most biologically diverse inland state in the nation and we have a long and rich outdoor heritage in our state. No one organization or person can conserve it own their own,” said Michael Butler, CEO of Tennessee Wildlife Federation. “When our organization was just 20 years old, we started these awards to celebrate those making a meaningful difference to Tennessee’s natural resources. Even after fifty-plus years and more than 600 award winners, we are inspired by the work of this year’s honorees.”


The ceremony was emceed by WSM and Grand Ole Opry personality, Bill Cody. Cody presented each award.


Bridgestone, BDY Natural Sciences Consultants, and National Wildlife Federation sponsored the event.


“Tennessee Wildlife Federation is proud to honor the tireless work of our award winners as examples for others to follow,” said Butler.



Andrea Waitt Carlton of Nashville receives the J. Clark Akers, III Award for work spanning Tennessee.


J. Clark Akers, III Award

Andrea Waitt Carlton of Nashville, Tenn. with work spanning the state

When she arrived in Nashville nine years ago, Andrea Waitt Carlton had already established herself as a champion of conservation by investing in projects in Iowa and the southwest United States. Since that time, the Andrea Waitt Carlton Family Foundation’s grants have provided the support Tennessee Wildlife Federation needed to propel the organization to where it is now, greatly expanding its program offerings, strategic capabilities, and staff capacity—and leveraging those enhanced offerings to ensure the Federation has strong footing moving forward.


Z. Cartter Patten Award

Don Barger of Knoxville, Tenn. with notable work in Anderson, Campbell, Morgan and Scott Counties

Barger has dedicated more than 35-years to the conservation of Tennessee’s pristine mountain landscapes. Throughout his career, he has petitioned to have significant conservation areas designated as unsuitable for mining. In 2017, his persistence paid dividends. That’s when 75,000 acres of Tennessee’s North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area received that designation. This safeguarded 569 miles of ridgelines and habitats, including the world’s nesting hot spot for the threatened cerulean warbler.


Dr. Dwayne Estes, also known as the “Prairie Preacher,” receives the Conservationist of the Year Award.

Conservationist of the Year

Dr. Dwayne Estes of Clarksville, Tenn. with work spanning the state

An accomplished professor, Dr. Dwayne Estes is also known as the “Prairie Preacher.” He works hard to restore native grassland habitats and wildlife species to thriving levels. Estes is the executive director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative. In the past several years he has helped secure more than $1 million dollars in funding, including  grants from the National Science Foundation. Estes also serves as a full professor of biology at Austin Peay State University and principal investigator for the Center of Excellence for Field Biology. He also is Curator of the Austin Peay herbarium, a plant museum with 120,000 specimens.


Chairman’s Award

Nicole Wood of Bonne Terre, Mo.

Nicole Wood’s conservation ethic runs deep. The daughter of an active Missouri conservationist, Wood grew up attending and eventually leading Conservation Federation of Missouri annual meetings before propelling herself to a national stage. For most of the past decade, Wood has served as a National Wildlife Federation board member and has liaised with Tennessee Wildlife Federation throughout her tenure. Wood has helped the Tennessee Wildlife Federation effectively package and share programs and initiatives with other affiliates, grow the organization, and impart the true meaning of conservation.


Conservation Legislator of the Year

Representative Charles Sargent of Franklin, Tenn.

Rep. Charles Sargent is an avid boater and conservation champion in Tennessee. Because of Rep. Sargent’s advocacy, $2.33 million of recurring annual funding was directed to maintaining Tennessee waterways. Furthermore, the wetlands acquisition fund has remained protected year after year. Rep. Sargent has also been known to be a strong advocate for Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, ensuring support for best practices and urging constituents to actively participate on the commission.

Christie Peterson Henderson received the Land Conservationist of the Year award.


Land Conservationist of the Year

Christie Peterson Henderson of Ashland City, Tenn. with notable work in Lewis County

Christie Peterson Henderson, the director of land conservation at Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation (TennGreen) has safeguarded more than 14,000 acres of Tennessee habitats since 2012. In 2017 alone, Peterson Henderson’s efforts resulted in the protection of nearly 4,100 acres, making it the second most productive year in TennGreen’s 19-year history. This includes the new Big Swan Headwaters nature preserve in Lewis County. Because of her, Tennesseans enjoy more green, year after year.


Water Conservationist of the Year

Joyce Coombs of Corryton, Tenn. with work spanning Cocke, Jefferson and Sevier Counties

Joyce Coombs, also known as the “heart and soul” of the Pigeon River Recovery Project, has ushered the comeback of many native species of wildlife, including fish, mussels, snails, and aquatic insects in Pigeon River. Her very hands-on approach extends to her passion for teaching. When engaging at educational fairs, Coombs has been known to jump in the nearest creek to retrieve samples and give her students a memorable and engaging lesson.


Forest Conservationist of the Year

Tennessee Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation based in Chattanooga, Tenn. with work spanning the state

The Tennessee Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation has cultivated and transplanted more than 4,000 blight-resistant chestnut trees in hopes of restoring native forests to Tennessee. Further, the organization has developed assay testing for blight resistance and

monitoring the health of chestnut tree specimens. These tests are being used regularly by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and as a learning tool for other conservation students and professionals.


Wildlife Conservationist of the Year

Charlie Chmielewski of Lenoir, Tenn. with work spanning Blount, Cocke, Knox and Sevier Counties

Charlie Chmielewski is an outstanding conservation volunteer. Over the past 25 years, Chmielewski volunteered more than 2,300 hours and coordinated another 17,000 hours dedicated to monitoring fish and water quality in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To ensure volunteers collected more than 250 water samples each year, some from remote areas, Chmielewski creatively engaged them to take ownership in the project. Because of Chmielewski’s dedication, data have been provided to multiple state and federal agencies to safeguard wildlife and aquatic habitats.


Conservation Organization of the Year

Wolf River Conservancy, based in Memphis, Tenn. with work spanning Fayette and Hardeman Counties

Wolf River Conservancy is dedicated to the protection and enhancement of southwest Tennessee’s Wolf River and its watershed as a sustainable natural resource.The Conservancy has secured thousands of acres of land for the Wolf River Wildlife Management Area and surrounding properties. Accomplishments include successfully conserving one of the last remaining areas of unprotected shoreline frontage.The Conservancy’s Wolf River Greenway project is under construction with 21-miles of newly added trail scheduled for completion in 2020.


Conservation Educator of the Year

Ron Blair of Middleton, Tenn. with work in Henderson County

Educator Ron Blair’s  40 years of dedication to the University of Tennessee Extension has changed lives. Blair has significantly contributed to multiple conservation programs.  He helped design and implement Outdoors, Wildlife, Leadership, and Service (O.W.L.S.), and Outdoor STEM Education at Lone Oaks Farm.Blair leaves an incredible legacy, including the capacity to directly impact as many as 30,000 students per year.

Reporter Mark Pace received the Conservation Communicator of the Year award.


Conservation Communicator of the Year

Mark Pace of Chattanooga, Tenn.

Mark Pace is a young, accomplished journalist who covers the outdoors and environment for Chattanooga Times Free Press. Eager to connect with his readers’ interests, Pace’s portfolio proves he is comfortable covering everything from outdoor recreation to conservation policy and wildlife management. His enthusiasm for the outdoors is sincerely conveyed through his writing and brings conservation issues to the forefront of the public consciousness.

Alexis “Batgirl” Valentine accepts the Youth Conservationist of the Year award.


Youth Conservationist of the Year

Alexis Valentine of Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Alexis “Batgirl” Valentine, only a sophomore at Gatlinburg Pittman High School, has already proven she can hold her own among conservation leaders. Valentine has done extensive research on bats and presented her findings at numerous science and conservation fairs. Valentine received the Governor’s Excellence Award for Wildlife Research and placed at the International Junior Forester’s science competition.


Hunter Education Instructor of the Year

Terry Gardner of Humboldt, Tenn.

Terry Gardner has served as a certified Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Hunter Education Instructor since 1996. In that time, he has certified more than 3,500 students. Gardner has a passion for preserving hunting heritage and imparting that to new outdoorsmen. As a model conservationist, Gardner inspires rising conservationists to ensure tradition thrives.


On Target Award

Brian Weas of Dunlap, Tenn. who works with youth in Bledsoe, Hamilton, Rhea and Sequatchie Counties

Avid shooter Brian Weas daughter inspired him to begin coaching Tennessee Scholastic Clay Target Program athletes. He has inspired many athletes and mentored them to higher levels of competition. Off the field, Weas is a strong advocate for the sport—finding and creating practice spaces to ensure everyone who is interested has the opportunity to participate.


Dan & Cherie Hammond Sharing the Harvest Award

Representative Jimmy Eldridge of Jackson, Tenn.

Rep. Jimmy Eldridge has championed stewardship and conservation on the Statehouse floor and among his peers. Since 2011, Rep. Eldridge has raised more than $12,000 for Tennessee Wildlife Federation’s Hunters for the Hungry program. Venison donations totaled an estimated 48,000 servings for hungry Tennesseans. Eldridge has advocated for sound policy and legislation supporting Hunters for the Hungry and conservation in Tennessee.


About Tennessee Wildlife Federation

Since 1946, Tennessee Wildlife Federation has led the conservation, sound management and wise use of Tennessee’s great outdoors.The Federation has led the development of the state’s wildlife policy and advanced landmark legislation on air and water quality and other conservation initiatives. It has also helped restore numerous species, and introduced thousands of kids to the great outdoors. To learn more, visit tnwf.org.