The Republican chair of the Tennessee Senate Committee on Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources on Wednesday asked state wildlife officials to consult with the legislature before embarking on any part of a controversial plan to clear hardwood forests in the White County wilderness area.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has planned to clear about 2,000 acres of forest in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness, a popular hunting, hiking, and recreation area adjacent to the Virgin Falls Nature Area, located roughly midway between Knoxville and Nashville.
The plans only emerged after local poachers spied paint marks on tree trunks to mark felling plans late last summer, then obtained a leaked agency map showing plans to cut large swaths of forest on pristine public lands in the Cumberland Plateau. TWRA halted at least one part of those plans after the severe shock that followed, of fishermen, local officials, visitors and a bipartisan group of MPs.
“If there are any plans to clear this area in the future, I would like you to discuss them with the legislature beforehand,” Senator Steve Sutherland, a Morristown Republican and chair of the committee, told agency officials Wednesday.
“Removing these trees is a concern of the people out there and we are just listening to people across the state, on every end, calling us and emailing us to clear up in that area,” Sutherland said. “We want to make sure we use our state’s forests in best management practices.”
The TWRA is not required to seek public input or comment prior to harvesting timber from public lands, a sore point among a diverse group of stakeholders who use the state lands for hunting, fishing, kayaking and hiking.
White County elected officials and business leaders have also criticized TWRA’s lack of communication about plans that would directly impact the local economy benefiting visitors to the wilderness area, along with telecommuting workers and retirees. Local officials have appointed a lawyer planning to challenge any plans moving forward because they potentially violate the Endangered Species Act in the United States.
State wildlife officials said removing the plots on the Bridgestone property is part of a comprehensive plan to restore northern partridge quail and other species to the state through the creation of grasslands or savannahs. Agency officials said grasslands were once prevalent where a broad canopy of trees now rises on the plateau – a point hotly contested by some forest scientists.
TWRA officials said quail numbers are in sharp decline. The northern partridge quail, although not an endangered species, has seen its numbers decline by 80% in recent decades, according to the agency. Clearcutting would recreate populations of northern partridges – the official game bird of Tennessee – providing more bird hunting opportunities as well as exposing the public to different types of landscapes.
Jason Maxidon, deputy executive director of the TWRA, reassured lawmakers that Bridgestone’s plans are on hold for now.
“We have now paused this project,” Maxedon said.
“We want to get back to the table and meet the voters and the people out there and look at some options going forward to see what might benefit everyone and maybe also us,” he said. “We’ve even talked with other partners about the possibility of maybe some land swaps, so we have a lot of things to look forward to.”
Senator Heidi Campbell, a Democrat from Nashville, told wildlife officials Wednesday that she was considering options to provide more formal legislative oversight for the agency, which makes clear decisions away from public opinion, and then benefits financially. The agency routinely sells timber on public lands to private companies, using the profits to fund the agency’s priorities, rather than depositing it into the state’s general fund. The agency earns approximately $900,000 annually from lumber sales.
“This is more than just Virgin Falls,” Campbell said. “I think it has to do with the fact that we as Tennessee have that land. This is our land, not TWRA land, and I think we’ve found by going through this uphill battle with the Virgin Falls that it’s very hard to hear our voice – and that’s mostly hunters – so I would really appreciate if We can look at implementing some regulatory protection barriers because we don’t have any oversight from the legislature and how their money is spent.”