Maxwell D. Ramsey (1934 - 2020) received the Pugsley Medal in 1979 "for the many outstanding contributions he has made to the outdoor recreation and conservation field." He was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and with the exception of his time in the US Army, he has lived in Tennessee his whole life. His grade school years were spent in Harrogate and then Cumberland Gap where his parents were employed by Lincoln Memorial University (LMU).
Ramsey's father taught biology at LMU, coached the women's basketball team, and became a senior administrator at the university. His father was a conservationist. With Dr. Robert Kincaid, a president of LMU, he helped lead efforts to open the 20,000-acre Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (CGNHP). At different times in his life, Ramsey's father was considered for the position Tennessee State Commissioner of Conservation and for Governor of the US Virgin Islands, although neither came to fruition.
When he was age 11, Ramsey started his own career in conservation when he was hired during summer vacation to tie bumper signs on cars of visitors to Cudjo's Cave, a tourist attraction and national landmark in the area. When early pioneers saw the cave, they knew that they were about to enter the Cumberland Gap and the wilderness of Kentucky. The cave was privately owned and operated by LMU at that time, but was later incorporated into the CGNHP. By the age of 13, Ramsey was a guide at the cave leading interpretation tours of the underground labyrinth.
Thus, in his formative years, Ramsey was exposed to precepts of conservation through his contact with CGNHP, his interpretation experiences at Cudjo's Cave, and his father's activism and professional activities as a biologist. Given his interest in history, after high school, he studied history, social science, and biology at LMU. Upon graduation, he enlisted in the US Army for three and a half years. Learning of his interest in biology, the Army sent him to advanced medical technology school. Subsequently, he was sent to Orleans, France, and assigned to the 34th General Hospital, the only major US Army hospital in France. The comments of his commanding officer were prophetic in that they identified qualities which were pervasive during his subsequent career:
"I have found him to be an unusually competent and dependable technician, conscientious in the performance of his duties, meticulous in technique, and completely reliable in discharging responsibilities which are assigned to him."
When he left the Army, Ramsey used his medical technology training to obtain a position with Miners Memorial Hospital which was located in the Cumberland Gap area to service the surrounding coal mining communities.
Ramsey became involved in Cumberland Gap civic life, emerging as head of the town's planning commission. In this role, he led the community's opposition to two major projects that were being imposed upon them. The first proposal was to route a major highway so it would bisect the town. The second was to construct a coal tipple on a railroad siding that was close to a residential area. Both projects were aborted. In successfully deflecting them, Ramsey interacted with several state and federal agencies. During this period, he became increasingly interested in the role and tools of planning, and aware of the role of politics in these decisions. At the same time, he was demonstrating to others his effectiveness in negotiating difficult issues and his commitment to conservation. As a result, he was approached by both the federal Area Redevelopment Administration (ARA), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) inviting him to accept planning positions.
He accepted a position with TVA, an independent federal planning and development agency, whose programs covered portions of seven southeastern states forming the watershed of the Tennessee River. TVA had become the largest single supplier of electricity in the US. Ramsey was initially assigned to cover recreation and conservation resources as a member of a planning team in the agency's Tributary Area Development program. The program used watersheds to define planning boundaries. The mission of the team in each watershed was to inventory the assets of the watershed, identify the resources, and to meet with local residents to develop a plan that optimized the use of those resources. Essentially, he was a liaison between the local residents, local and state agencies, and TVA. During this time, TVA supported his taking graduate courses in state and regional planning at the University of Tennessee.
After six years in this position, Ramsey moved to become assistant chief of the new Recreation Resources branch which had responsibilities for recreation resources throughout TVA. He was appointed in the early 1960s, soon after the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) had published its seminal report. The report brought outdoor recreation to the forefront of the federal political agenda. TVA was a federal agency with substantial outdoor recreation resources, and Ramsey was appointed their representative on the newly-established federal interagency planning committee formed to develop standards in policies emanating from the ORRRC report. All federal land and water managing agencies were represented on that committee, which addressed wild and scenic rivers, a national trail system, federal recreation fees, measuring recreation use, and other related concerns. Subsequently, with a change of presidents, such interagency work was reformulated into the President's Council on Recreation and Natural Beauty during the Lyndon Johnson administration. Ramsey represented TVA staff on matters relating to that council. These interagency contacts introduced others at the national level to Ramsey's interests and capabilities.
In the early 1970s, historical and cultural preservation became a prominent concern in TVA. Legislation had been passed which required all federal agencies, including TVA, to comply with preservation regulations. Nearly all TVA's projects had cultural implications so these new requirements became a primary concern. Subsequently, Ramsey was asked to lead a new Cultural Resources Program for the agency.
Ramsey was in the eye of the maelstrom surrounding the high profile Tellico reservoir project. This dam impounds the Little Tennessee River and its tributary, the lower Tellico River. It was the last major reservoir created by TVA and aroused national controversy, since conservationists opposed the destruction of this attractive river valley. In 1973, a local biologist discovered a previously unknown small minnow (snail darter) on the site. Dam opponents initiated litigation using the snail darter's sudden status as an endangered species to try and stop constmction of the dam. By 1978, the dam was almost completed at a cost of over $100 million when the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the endangered species litigants and ordered TVA to cease further construction. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed legislation ordering TVA to complete the almost finished dam, close it and form the reservoir, and exempted the project from any further effects of other existing legislation. Subsequently, the snail darter was found elsewhere in Tennessee and was removed from the Endangered Species List in the mid-l980s. A further complicating factor in the Tellico project was that the dam flooded former sites of prehistoric and historic period American Indians, and Ramsey's cultural remit required him to ensure that TVA addressed that issue.
Ramsey's personal preference as a conservationist was for the dam not to be constructed on this particular river. However, TVA management was strongly committed to building the dam, which inevitably happened. He later remarked:
Sometimes engineers are not very interested in certain conservation issues, but the agency was required, under law, to consider its conservation and preservation responsibilities. Therefore, my job at times was to be persistent to the point of being a nuisance while raising these legal responsibilities. But, you have to be careful you don't overreach to the point where you are no longer listened to.
Once a decision had been made to close the dam, Ramsey's task was to help maximize the conservation benefits from the project. Ramsey recalled, "If the decision makers recognize that your motive is for the agency 'to do what's right' and is not just to oppose developmental projects, then you gain their respect and that's what enables you to get things done. Mutual trust and respect accumulate over time."
As a result he was instrumental inTVA collecting and documenting extensive archaeological and cultural evidence and research, and preserving and protecting large areas of shoreline, woodlands and wetlands, for the public good.
Throughout his career, starting with his formative planning experiences in Cumberland Gap, Ramsey recognized that mastering the art of politics was a key to effective outcomes.
The challenge inevitably is to search for compromise and middle ground with those who have other priorities, to find a resolution that all parties can accept. This approach builds permanency into the resolution of issues. If one interest uses its strengths to ignore the others and 'bulldogs through' a resolution, then at some point in the future, it is likely to unravel when the balance of power subsequently changes.
The Tellico project initiated Ramsey's links with the Eastern and Western Cherokee. He was essentially an advocate for the Cherokee positions within TVA. He helped to found, and subsequently wrote the bylaws for, the National Trail of Tears Association. After retiring from TVA in 1994, he continued as a member of the executive committee of the association and as a member of the Secretary of the Interior's Advisory Board on the Trail of Tears National Trail. In 1995, he received a Gold Award from the NPS for his leadership in the Trail of Tears effort.
As one of the mitigation actions associated with the dam, TVA, under Ramsey's supervision, conducted an evaluation reflecting the past settlements of Cherokee in the area. The Eastern and Western Cherokee examined 38 ideas on how to memorialize the past presence of American Indians in that valley, and subsequently asked TVA to construct a museum on lands offered. It was to tell the story of Sequoyah, a Cherokee who was responsible for, by himself, developing a syllabary which, almost overnight, made Cherokee people literate; a feat that has never been accomplished by anyone else in recorded history. The museum was finished in 1986, near the birthplace of Sequoyah. However, this location, while appropriate, was rather isolated,and attracted relatively few visitors. When Ramsey retired from TVA in 1994, it was struggling to survive financially. Ramsey agreed to head a board to strengthen its financial position.
In 1989, while still at TVA, he had promoted an idea to help stabilize the museum operations, and upon accepting the board responsibility, he again took a strong position on that project. Previous efforts on this had resulted in the Eastern band of the Cherokees Nation approaching TVA proposing to find a developer to construct a public commercial resort on lands leased from TVA at Tellico Lake, near the musetun. Through this project, the annual lease fee and certain other proceeds would be given to the Eastern Band to underwrite that museum's operation, and a needed quality business would be added to the area through a public/private partnership.
A $50-million resort was under construction in 2006, and revenues will start flowing to the Museum in 2007. It had taken Ramsey 17 years to make the idea work. The Cherokees recognized his efforts early on by awarding him an Ambassadorship from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. In 2003, he received the Sequoyah Award, given in the form of a resolution jointly passed by theTribal Councils of the Eastern Band and the Cherokee Nation. The award is given on occasion, usually to a Cherokee tribal member who has made "diligent, uncompensated, significant contributions to perpetuate Cherokee culture and language." In this case, the council suspended the normal rules in order to honor Ramsey for "his perseverance, dedication and commitment to Cherokee cultural causes over many years."
Throughout his career, Ramsey sought opportunities to be involved with professional associations and civic bodies. He was centrally involved in the NRPA merger process in the mid-1960s; was on the NRPA board of trustees and its executive committee; served on numerous professional committees; and was a prominent and highly active member of the Academy for Park and Recreation Administration, leading efforts in developing the Academy's service programs and its relationships with other agencies and organizations. He was also vice-president of American Youth Hostels, and led their long-range planning efforts in the early 1980s.
Ramsey's colleagues and peers frequently describe him as a "bulldog." He has been persistent and tenacious in pursuing the conservation and cultural causes in which he believes. His unselfish commitment to causes and his political acumen has inspired those around him and explain much of his effectiveness.