The New Sewanee Gates: An update on Breakfield Road

Photo by Robert Mohr (C’21).

By Vanessa Moss
Executive Staff

Midsummer of this year, the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability (OESS) notified the Sewanee community about the installation of two electric gates at the Breakfield and Lake Dimmick access roads. The gates are now installed, but will not be employed until all details about community access have been finalized and the town is informed.

“The number of people coming to Sewanee to value its beauty and uniqueness is growing,” explained Dr. Amy Turner, director of the OESS. According to Turner, people are coming by the thousands to visit Sewanee each year. A growing part of OESS’ work is recreation management: coping with non-University affiliates who arrive in Sewanee to enjoy its unfettered access to trails and caves. 

The gate installed at Lake Dimmick is fairly uncontentious; access to the lake by Sewanee Outing Program and the crew team hopes be simplified by the electronic gates, as well as student access to the Cheston Cabin through the OESS office.

The Breakfield Road gate has caused more tumult.

As stated in the OESS notice, the gate on Breakfield road hopes to “reduce the inappropriate use of vehicles… protect research and teaching areas, reduce road erosion and associated expense, and improve safety and security efforts.”

Pedestrian, bike, and horse access down Breakfield road will remain open, and parking for trail access will be moved to Lake Cheston. From Lake Cheston, visitors will be able to hike to their destinations via the Parallel Trail and other enhanced feeder trails. An updated map for the trail system is underway, including classifications of trail difficulty, and will be placed in kiosks at the Lake Cheston parking area.

Who has access to Breakfield through the gate is one matter currently being finessed. As of now, faculty will have 24-hour access with their ID card in order to accomodate for research in the Breakfield area. 

Staff and students will be limited to visit from dawn until dusk, requiring a code from the OESS to access after dark. All leaseholders, both primary (full-time residents) and secondary (part-time residents) will be able to apply for a Sewanee Banner ID to access Breakfield through the gate from dawn to dusk. Renters or non-leaseholders will not qualify. Additionally, this ID application process is limited to those living directly on the Sewanee Domain––those in the greater Sewanee area (Midway, St. Andrew’s, Jumpoff, Sherwood Rd., and so on) will not qualify, though they will still have pedestrian access from Lake Cheston.

From out-of-state vans pulling up with metal detectors to search for artifacts, to illegal resource extraction and ostensible drug deals, misuse of the land and isolation of Breakfield Road has been rumored, though not confirmed by OESS.

“It’s all conjecture, but it wouldn’t surprise me,” Turner admitted. “13,000 is a lot of acreage to patrol.”

Though there are always 10-20 trail cameras around campus for various wildlife research projects, few incidences of misuse have been caught on camera. One benefit of the Breakfield gate is that all IDs will be recognizable. Turner assured that no one would be actively monitoring the use of the gate––“It’s not a ‘Big Brother’ scenario,” she said––but that in the case of a car accident or a supposed drug deal, the access history of the gate could be pulled.

Still, there has been no ubiquitous acceptance of the new gates. Land management, especially in a private institution that is simultaneously a municipality, is always complicated.

Phil White (C’63) has lived in Sewanee for over 60 years, and now serves as a liaison between the Community Council and the Board of Trustees’ Community Relations Committee. “The gates,” White said, “communicates to friends of the University that they are persona non grata.”

White considers the lowering of the gate a “precipitous decision” that will damage the image of the University to the local residents. Additionally, White doesn’t see community members as the problem.

“The damage to the roads are done by the logging trucks, not normal vehicles. And it’s the students who go out there at night and do drugs, have parties, run their cars into trees, and even fall off the bluff and get killed. But I know a number of people who’ve been walking out there for years and won’t be able to after the gate is put up.”

Although White was pleased to realize that he would qualify for ID card access, he was unsatisfied with the thought that some of his fellow walkers would no longer be able to enjoy the trails. “Day permits are ridiculous––you can’t get a day permit a day in advance, and most people like to walk the trails before 8:00 a.m.”

The use of feeder trails from Cheston down Breakfield will lengthen hiking time, and concentrate visitors to one long stretch of trail. Walking in Breakfield feels isolated because of its many access points: people are spread thin across a large swath of land. Those limited to the Cheston access will not be able to take quick jaunts to Armfield Bluff or Thumping Dick Cove, and some locals may be too infirm to walk to what White sees as the “attractive trails” farthest down Breakfield.

White sees the solution as simple: leave the gate up during the day. “No one who goes out there at night is up to much good,” he agreed, “so closing the gate at night wouldn’t be a problem.”

That method is commonly employed in park systems across the state, including the local South Cumberland State Park, and could be applicable for Sewanee: “Just try it for a year and see how it goes,” White suggested.

The Domain is nearly half the size of the entire South Cumberland State Park system. OESS staff are working to take in and manage increased use of the Domain, but realistically, Sewanee’s domain management team consists of three people. Dr. Turner, alongside Domain Manager Nate Wilson and Domain Ranger Sandy Gilliam. 

“We do the job we’re tasked with,” Turner said.  “To make Sewanee the best it can be. All of us know it can be more.”