Scenic Tennessee President Brings Prose and Passion to Her Roles as a Writer, Advocate, and Conservation Leader
An accomplished conservation writer, nonprofit leader, and environmental advocate, Scenic Tennessee President and Scenic America Board Member Marge Davis is a driving force in scenic conservation in the Volunteer State and nationwide. In recent years, she has guided Scenic Tennessee onto an innovative new path: organizing the 2022 Scenic Symposium in partnership with Scenic America, developing a new online viewshed registry to protect Tennessee’s most treasured views, and launching a new fundraising effort to broaden Scenic Tennessee’s scope and impact. For her decades of contributions to the scenic conservation movement, Marge is truly a scenic hero.
Born in Portland, Maine, Marge developed an interest in scenic conservation during her college years. She attended Bates College in Lewistown, Maine—an old mill town located on the heavily polluted Androsoggin River. The river was a central focus for Senator Edmund Muskie, who championed the Clean Water Act in 1972—a movement that caught Marge’s attention.
“I really didn’t think about environmental policy until I was in college. I took for granted that other people made those decisions,” she recalls.
After graduating with a degree in English, she got a job at the Maine Audubon Society. The organization had recently stepped up to defend against an attack on Maine’s returnable beverage container deposit law—or “bottle bill”—which had been enacted in 1976.
“By that point, I was able to make a case for being an environmentalist,” she recalled. “That’s when I began to understand the need for activism, advocacy, and for people who understand policy.”
A few years later, Marge left Maine for Tennessee at the behest of a friend who was relocating to Nashville. Ready for a change, she landed a development position at Fisk University and quickly got involved with a Tennessee chapter of the National Audubon Society, ultimately serving as its president. In the process, she connected with local members of the Sierra Club and joined in on an effort to launch a bottle bill program in Tennessee.
In 1986, while working at the Tennessee Environmental Council and pursuing a doctorate in English at Vanderbilt University, Marge was invited to become a part of Tennesseans for Scenic Beauty, a group that was organizing locally to fight against billboard proliferation in collaboration with the Coalition for Scenic Beauty, Scenic America’s predecessor organization. Her involvement with the organization waned after she graduated in 1989 and began working as a writer and editor, but it came back in full force in 2003 when she was asked to re-join its board of directors. She agreed on one condition: That the group would take the lead on another push for a Tennessee bottle bill.
“Litter, recycling, and the bottle bill became our top priorities for the next 15 years. We worked really hard, made some good progress, and created great friendships,” she recalls.
Under Marge’s leadership, the group organized creative events, including “Cycling for Recycling,” a statewide bicycling tour, and “Pickin’ Up Tennessee,” a collaboration with dozens of Tennessee musicians and communities to encourage cleaner roads. Funded by a $100,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the video-based project combined daily litter clean-ups with outdoor music performances and visits to some of the state’s most scenic places.
In 2019, Marge and her colleagues—having committed to build Scenic Tennessee into a strong chapter of Scenic America—handed off the bottle bill effort to another organization to turn their attention to broader scenic pursuits. Today Scenic Tennessee reflects that expanded scope and mission. The organization is actively preparing to host the 2022 Scenic Symposium in Nashville, October 19-21. It also recently launched Tennessee Vistas, a crowd-sourced, data-driven effort to catalog, preserve, and protect the state’s most important scenic views. This broader focus puts Scenic Tennessee in a solid position for future growth, Marge argues.
“Preserving open space is a key issue for Tennessee,” she says. “We’re still in this fantasy land thinking that we have unlimited open space, but we’re losing 100,000 acres of farmland a year, much of it to development and housing subdivisions.”
To advance this work further, she envisions new opportunities with the open space community: agriculture, land conservancies, land trusts, and related groups. She advocates for working with local land trusts to put easements on farmland, and to purchase sensitive vistas to maintain them for their aesthetic, health, and climate benefits.
When not occupied with her conservation pursuits or her work as a member of Scenic America’s National Board of Directors, Marge likes to keep her skills sharp as a writer. Twice named Conservation Communicator of the Year by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, she is currently updating her 1997 history of the conservation movement in Tennessee, Sportsmen United. And following a trip to Sutton Hoo in England earlier this year, she is now drafting an article for a woodworking magazine about the replica rebuilding of the Anglo-Saxon burial ship. She lives on a lake outside Nashville in Mount Juliet with her husband, Paul, former director of Tennessee’s water quality agency, and their two rescue dogs.