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Downtown on Main Street, Blackwell Smith, right, longtime resident and business owner in Walker County, speaks about not wanting a Pilgrims Pride chicken plant in McLemore Cove Thursday outside the 1591 Broad Street plant in Chattanooga. Lizzie Caldwell, left, stands with the protest of the plant. Smith represents the McLemore Cove Preservation Society.
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With the Broad Street Pilgrim's Pride plant as a backdrop, Betsy Reed, right, stands with Mary Lou Reed, center, on West Main Street and participates in a protest of a proposed chicken plant that may move into McLemore Cove in North Georgia.

Several outdoor organizations are monitoring a lawsuit filed against Walker County that claims government officials are secretly "conspiring to install a large-scale chicken slaughterhouse" in McLemore Cove.

Area residents worry it could bring foul smells and heavy traffic to the site, a detriment to the county's new outdoor marketing plan.

The 50,000-acre McLemore Cove sits about 3 miles south of Chickamauga, Georgia, in the valley below the convergence of Lookout and Pigeon mountains. The cove is home to several creeks and is used for caving, cycling, Ironman and other outdoor activities because of its natural beauty and scenic views. It's on the National Register of Historic Places and is an area the county wants to market as an outdoor destination.

"One of the reasons people like to bike and hike and rock climb is it's a beautiful location. We don't want to encourage this type of operation in a place like that," said Blackwell Smith, an outdoorsman who has lived in the cove for about 30 years. " It seems like a bad idea."

Walker County Economic and Community Development Director Robert Wardlaw and Commissioner Shannon Whitfield have said they can't discuss any potential plans because of nondisclosure agreements.

In the meantime, outdoor groups and advocates in the region are monitoring the situation. Lula Lake Land Trust and South Chickamauga Creek Greenway Alliance officials are against putting a chicken plant in the cove. The headwaters of the creek's watershed flow into the cove, and the trust aims to preserve the natural and historic landscapes in Rock Creek, Bear Creek and their tributaries, which flow through the area.

"With this overarching mission in mind and the proximity of our protected lands to the proposed site, we cannot in good [conscience] support the relocation of a poultry processing facility to McLemore Cove," Executive Director Mike Pollock wrote in an email. "While we wholeheartedly support business and industry in our county, we see the long-term effects of the facility conflicting with our mission."

The Lookout Mountain Conservancy, meanwhile, has not created a plan with respect to the potential chicken plant but is following discussions on the issue.

The outdoors is becoming ingrained in the county's culture. In the last two years, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded Green Ribbons to two local elementary schools. They represent an honor for the most environmentally conscious schools in the country. The county is also home to renowned outdoor destinations such as Pettyjohn's Cave, has multiple outdoor organizations and has recreational areas like Cloudland Canyon State Park — which features hiking, camping and mountain biking.

Outdoor advocates regularly tout the county as one of the most beautiful in the region because of the cove, surrounding mountains, miles of greenery and open roads.

Walker County officials plan to unveil a new outdoor initiative in the coming weeks. Wardlaw asked the the county's Development Authority to consider a new marketing campaign focused on natural resources during an April 10 meeting, his first since Whitfield hired him to lead the county's economic growth efforts.

Wardlaw praised the "world class" outdoor recreational opportunities and said people visit the county to go through "our beautiful byways up there on the mountain and in the cove."

South Chickamauga Creek Greenway Alliance Chairwoman Sandy Kurtz is concerned about a potential chicken processing plant in the cove and attended a protest Thursday outside Pilgrim's Pride's existing plant in Chattanooga's Southside.

"It just seems like the wrong place," she said.

The McLemore Cove Preservation Society, the nonprofit that filed the lawsuit against the county, has recommended the chicken plant go in one of the county's industrial parks.

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook @ChattanoogaOutdoors.

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