The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Anita Wadhwani

DSCF8531 scaledMarvin Bullock, president of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce, opposes deforestation efforts in the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area to create quail habitat. John Partipillo/Courtesy of Tennessee Lookout

Oak Ridge Rep. John Ragan joins bipartisan pushback against state plans to raze forest for quail habitat

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

SPARTA For decades, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has kept the profits from the sale of timber and other natural resources on publicly owned lands, folding the payments from logging companies into the agency’s annual operating budget.

bipartisan bill introduced in the Tennessee Legislature this week seeks to bring that practice to an end. The measure, introduced by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, and Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, would require TWRA officials to transfer all proceeds from the sale of the state’s natural resources into Tennessee’s general fund — the process typically followed by other Tennessee agencies that generate income.

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DSCF8232 1 2048x1365 Tree trunks in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area in Sparta marked for clearcutting, despite local opposition.  John Partipilo/Courtesy Tennessee Lookout

Hundreds of citizens publicly reject TWRA Middle Tennessee deforestation plans

This story was originally published by the nonprofit Tennessee Lookout and is shared (with much appreciation) with Hellbender Press via Creative Commons License. 

Officials with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency faced considerable pushback Monday night (Oct. 4) at a public meeting in Sparta over plans to raze old growth forest in a popular hunting and recreation area located about halfway between Nashville and Knoxville.

A standing room-only crowd of more than 200 people filled the town’s small civic center to hear directly from state officials about what had been — until now — an unpublicized internal agency plan to clear forest on public lands in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area to create grassland habitat for northern bobwhite quail, a game bird whose populations have plummeted in Tennessee.

“Bridgestone Firestone is one of the gems of White County,” said Elizabeth McDonald, one of two dozen people who spoke against the plan until the meeting grew too late to get through the long line of residents who signed up to address the TWRA.

“It’s a place that is so beautiful, so intact, and it can never be replaced. I appreciate caring about quails, but you have people in this room who, for generations, have called this home. You have to understand you are attacking our homes.”

The meeting was organized by Rep. Paul Sherrell, a Republican who represents the area, after an internal TWRA map leaked to a local resident revealed plans to cut 2,000 acres of hardwood trees on the property bequeathed to the state by the Bridgestone Corporation in 1998.

The map quickly circulated among residents, and so did the outrage. The old-growth timber slated for demolition lines the path heading to Virgin Falls State Natural Area, where the tree canopy also shades hiking trails through a series of scenic waterfalls. The forested area slated for removal forms part of a popular deer and turkey hunting area, too.

Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, and Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville — who said she has heard complaints from her Nashville constituents and others across the state who routinely visit the wilderness area — also attended the meeting.

In a series of powerpoint presentations, TWRA officials outlined the urgent need to establish grassland habitats in Tennessee, not only for the Northern Bobwhite, but for native plants and birds for whom savannas — sparsely treed grassland — are critical to survival.

Clearing forest would benefit at least 70 species with the greatest conservation needs, said Wally Akins, TWRA’s wildlife and forestry assistant chief.

“Closed-canopy forests have limited value to many species,” he said.

Hundreds of native plant species remain essentially dormant underneath the forest canopy, waiting to emerge, said Dwayne Estes, executive director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative. Savannas are “the forgotten landscape of the South,” he said.

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Bridgestone Main 2048x1365Mike O’Neal, a longtime hunter, surveys an expanse of the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area in Middle Tennessee where clearcutting of public hardwood forest is planned to create quail habitat. John Partipilo/Courtesy of Tennessee Lookout

The plan to clear forest for quail habitat is raising the ire of hunters and hikers, as well as a bipartisan group of state lawmakers

This story was originally published by the nonprofit Tennessee Lookout and is shared (with much appreciation) via Creative Commons License. 

It’s a pretty bird, easily recognizable by dark stripes on rust colored feathers and a distinct two-syllable chirp that announces its name: “bob” (the high note) then “white” at a lower pitch — also known as the northern bobwhite, a species of quail.

The otherwise unassuming bird is now at the center of a fight over public lands in White County, Tennessee, pitting the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency against an unlikely coalition of hikers, hunters, cavers, local business leaders and state lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle.

Internal TWRA documents leaked to a local hunter last month revealed plans to clearcut 2,000 acres of old-growth hardwood forest in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area to establish quail habitat and a research center focused on the birds, whose steeply declining populations have spurred national efforts to restore grasslands where the species thrive.

The land slated for deforestation, a late-1990s gift to the state from the Bridgestone Corporation – then the Bridgestone/Firestone company — is part of stunning and centuries-old vistas visible along the path heading to Virgin Falls State Natural Area, where 7 waterfalls are connected by trails through tall canopies just north of Fall Creek Falls. For generations, the area has also drawn deer and turkey hunters to state owned land that offers hunting access at a fraction of the cost often associated with hunting on private property.

“It’s going to scar the view-shed for most of the Bridgestone property,” said Marvin Bullock, president of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce.

Bullock is an energetic booster who grew up in the area and takes pride in his track record at the chamber. The county has seen a tourist-driven economic turnaround in recent times – aided, in some respects, by the pandemic. Six years ago, when Bullock first started the job, there were 50 empty storefronts and office spaces in downtown Sparta.

“Now you’d be hard-pressed to find 10,” he said. “We have 400 remote workers and 80 Airbnbs. That’s a good indication of what an attraction Virgin Falls is. Right now we have some hardwoods that three of us together couldn’t reach around. It would take generations to grow them back. This is a really terrible idea that is not just aesthetically unattractive, it is economically unattractive.”

TWRA gets pushback

Since the map was leaked last month, hikers and hunters, and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, which is concerned about potential erosion damage to the Caney Fork River from clearcutting, have mobilized members across the state to weigh in. A bipartisan trio of lawmakers, Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, also a Nashville Democrat, have pressed TWRA for answers. A community meeting organized by Sherrell is set for Monday evening in Sparta.

“You’re going to be walking through a burned-out wasteland if this happens,” said Campbell, who said she has been getting emails from constituents upset by the plans.

After weeks of pushback, TWRA has begun to respond publicly — a step it has not been required to take in its deforestation plans for public lands. The agency has no public notice requirements when it clears timber on the nearly 1.5 million acres is controls across the state, a sore point among those now learning of the plans in White County.

TWRA biologist Aubrey Deck told the Lookout last week that some of the pushback is a result of a misunderstanding.

The leaked map, Deck said Friday, is a “conceptual map for a larger project, not a planning map,” he said. 

“The only plan right now is for 250-290 acres (of deforestation),” he said. “The exact acreage is still to be determined.”

But Deck made clear that agency officials have hopes for a wider deforestation effort.

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2306channelGrading along Maryville Pike in Knoxville pumped sediment into a nearby stream and on to the Tennessee River. The owner of the property was cited for violating state water-quality laws. Courtesy Knoxville Stormwater Management

Tennessee Homebuilders Association and Tennessee Chamber of Commerce support reduced site inspections

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

Cindy Whitt and Judy Alexander, neighbors in the Westhaven subdivision in Williamson County for nearly 15 years, have watched their development grow from a small new-build subdivision of 500 homes to now more than 2,500.

In that time, on their regular walks together, they’ve also witnessed the results of dwindling green space as construction has surged:

“Almost everything from the construction runs through our storm sewer,” said Alexander. “Even though the developers put up fences (designed to prevent silt from escaping) all you need is a really steady rain — it doesn’t have to be heavy — and it all flows into our the Harpeth and the West Harpeth.”

The pair have contacted the Corps of Engineers, the city of Franklin and the state department of environment and conservation, but despite inspections, overflow ponds and new fencing, the problem persists.

“It blows my mind if we can’t even enforce the rules in wealthy Williamson County,” said Whitt, who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970’s.

The women are now among more than 100 Tennessee residents who have voiced their opposition in public meetings and in written comments to proposed revisions to the permitting process for construction companies that Whitt fears will make the problems worse.

The proposed change by the state’s environmental regulators would roll back longstanding regulation for construction site runoff — rainwater that sweeps soil or other particles off site and into nearby waterways, often creating deposits of silt that impact water quality and aquatic life.

In an unusual move, a division within the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation  — the Division of Natural Areas — has weighed in to take issue with the permit change.
“We believe that sites assessments remain a key tool in understanding the character of a site and can provide documentation of ecological resources prior to commencement of construction,”  a staff member in the Division of Water Resources wrote to colleagues at TDEC.
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Duck RiverMarshall CoThis biologically rich stretch of the Duck River could soon be the site of a large municipal water intake facility.

Duck River targeted by thirsty, growing municipalities in Nashville area

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout

Marshall County, located outside what was once considered the boundary edge of growing suburbs circling Nashville, has seen explosive growth of its own in recent years — call it the Williamson County overflow effect, says County Mayor Mike Keny.

Drawn by more affordable housing, jobs and the rural character of the county — about an hour from Nashville in the “heart of the Southern Automotive Corridor” (as local economic development officials call it) — the influx of residents, and some relocating business and industry, has brought new urgency to a long-standing reality.

The county doesn’t have its own water supply. For decades, it has had to pay wholesale for drinking water from the cities of Murfreesboro and Lewisburg. That supply is no longer adequate.

A new proposal by county officials calls for building a water treatment facility along the banks of the Duck River in northern Marshall County capable of siphoning up to 6 million gallons of water per day; establish a reliable local water supply for decades to come.

The need for Marshall County,  to have its own water supply, which it has never had, is becoming more urgent with an influx of new residents. But environmental activists say the nearby Duck River, which is biologically diverse, may not be the best option.  
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2306channelGrading work at a site off Maryville Pike in Knoxville led to silt discharges that resulted in several notices of violation from Tennessee and Knox County regulators. Photo courtesy TDEC.

Critics say new rules could run afoul of Clean Water Act


This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

A state plan to rollback longstanding regulations for construction site runoff is drawing opposition from environmental groups who fear that Tennessee creeks and streams will suffer.

Stormwater discharges from construction sites — rainwater that sweeps soil or other particles off-site — can flow into nearby waterways, often creating silt deposits that impact aquatic life and water quality.

Historically, silt has been one of the primary pollutants in Tennessee’s waterways, a paper explaining the proposed new rules from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, or TDEC, said. Just one millimeter of soil spread over a one-acre site can weigh 5 tons, and “even a minor uncontrolled construction activity can cause major impairment in surface water,” through runoff, the paper said.

Nevertheless, TDEC is proposing significant changes in state environmental oversight of builders, developers, property owners, contractors and subcontractors in controlling runoff.

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