Monday, May 13, 2013


A Family’s Fight That Saved Eastern Wilderness

Many people fought to preserve wilderness areas in the eastern United States, but two people dedicated a large portion of their lives to protect an area they learned to love as mixed blood Cherokee children growing up with families that lived in the Sipsey River area of North Alabama.  Jim and Ruth Manasco were children of Indian families whose ancestors called the Sipsey area home; they survived in the upper hill country of the Warrior Mountains which are the highlands that drain into the Black Warrior River Basin.  The Manasco family, who struggled for the preservation and protection of their childhood stomping grounds, helped preserve thousands of acres of wilderness across the eastern portion of the United States.

Long before Jim and Ruth ever met, their mixed Cherokee families had instilled a love for the beautiful and serene canyons of Sipsey; these canyons were formed from a thousand waterfalls that create the eternal sounds of wilderness as they cascade from sandstone bluffs into the streams entering Sipsey River.  This was a land that Jim and Ruth knew as the Black Warrior Forest before it was changed to recognize a white politician known as William B. Bankhead.

In the 1960s, their precious forest as they knew as children was being attacked by the very people who supposed to be its protectors; the forest was being dismantled by the United States Forest Service in the form of clear cutting and conversion of old growth hardwood forests into commercial pine plantations.  Sipsey River along with feeder streams were being filled with silt from extreme timber harvesting and pine stand conversion activities; many rare and endangered plants and animals were being adversely impacted and affected by the actions of an out of control big government agency driven by politically powerful timber corporations.

Jim and Ruth Manasco started the biggest fight of their lives which culminated in the preservation of Sipsey Wilderness Area.  Other eastern wildernesses in United States were create by being piggy backed on the Sipsey Bill introduced by Senator John Sparkman.  Ruth said, “Wilderness is the most important thing I ever done except having children!”

Jim, Ruth, and their children sacrificed to protect the sacred grounds their ancestors had walked for thousands of years before the coming of white man. For years, the Manascos spent three days per week walking, photographing, writing, and trying to draw attention to the plight of the Sipsey River canyons; this was one family’s fight to save and protect the Sipsey area that they had been taught to love as children and knew as the Black Warrior.

Jim and Ruth wanted to honor their Native American ancestors by naming the SipseyRiver area they were struggling to protect and preserve the Black Warrior Wilderness.  From the early 1730’s, the French explorers, trappers, and traders had referred to this upper drainage area of the BlackWarrior River the by its Indian name Riverie de Tuscaloosa; in Muskogee language, tusca means warrior and loosa means black. Therefore, Jim and Ruth felt that it was fitting to call the Sipsey old growth forest they were trying to preserve the Black Warrior Wilderness.  In addition, the Manasco Family knew that the Creek Indian lands lay to the south of the High Town Path that followed along the Tennessee Divide; the divide also defined the northern boundary of the Sipsey River drainage basin.

After deciding on the name of Black Warrior for this new eastern wilderness they were seeking to preserve for future generations to enjoy, Jim and Ruth faced another dilemma; the Black Panther organization became a radical militant group and congressional approval may have been swayed by the close association in the names.  In order not to create a huge controversy in the United States Congress over the name, Jim reluctantly said, “Just call the area the Sipsey Wilderness;” thus, the name of the area came from the Creek Indian word meaning poplar or cotton wood tree and to this day is known as the Sipsey Wilderness Area.

Read more about the Sipey Wilderness in the future book that Jim Manasco and I will co-author, “HIKING SIPSEY: A Family’s Fight That Saved Eastern Wilderness!”