State put on 60-day notice of lawsuit over plans to raze hardwoods on public lands

The plan to raze 2,000 acres of hardwood trees in the Bridgestone wilderness area could impact endangered species

By: - January 21, 2022 7:37 pm
Tree trunks in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area in Sparta marked for clearcutting, despite local opposition. Photo: John Partipilo

(Photo: John Partipilo)

A controversial plan to raze 2,000 acres of hardwood trees on state-owned land in White County may harm numerous protected species in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act, a legal notice delivered to state wildlife officials and the Bridgestone company alleges.

The Jan. 10 letter from an attorney representing Marvin Bullock, the president of the Sparta/White County Chamber of Commerce, puts on notice state officials, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and Bridgestone Americas, and its Japan-based global headquarters, of an intent to sue within 60 days if the plan is not halted. Bullock is pursuing legal action as a private citizen.

“The TWRA has betrayed the people of White County and the people of Tennessee,” Bullock said in a phone interview Thursday. “I also believe Bridgestone has just turned around and put their hands over their eyes and said ‘if that’s what TWRA wants to do…’ They should be stepping in and enforcing what they put in writing for this land.”

Marvin Bullock, president of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce, opposes deforestation efforts in the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area to create quail habitat. Photo: John Partipillo

The land in question lies within 16,000 acres bequeathed to the state as a gift by the tire company on the condition it remain wilderness.  The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency plans include razing 2,000 acres on the property — the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area — to create grassland habitat for the Northern bobwhite quail, a game bird whose populations have plummeted in recent years.

TWRA officials have announced they will seek bidders for the clearcutting — and the valuable hardwood trees to be harvested — next month.

The plan has infuriated local officials and residents, hunters and hikers, environmental groups and local business owners, and a bipartisan group of Tennessee lawmakers, who have criticized the agency for its lack of transparency and questioned its authority to dispose of Tennessee’s natural resources as agency officials see fit.

TWRA has also come under criticism for keeping the profits from the sale of timber on public property. It is the only state agency with the authority to retain the proceeds from the sale of the state’s natural resources, instead of those proceeds flowing into the state’s general fund.

The letter from Bullock’s attorney, Austine Warehime, cites a provision in the original transfer documents — known as restrictive covenants — spelling out the condition of Bridgestone’s gift of the land.

The land is home to more than 30 species of plants and animals that are of state and federal concern, including at least six species listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act, the covenants said. The Caney Fork River Watershed, located inside the property, is among the nation’s most important watersheds for at-risk fish and mussels, including five endangered species.

“Disturbing this land without an extensive survey is highly likely to destroy the natural habitat and kill multiple species of animals that are protected by the Endangered Species Act,” Warehime said. “The Defendants wish to engage in one of the most destructive, human led, natural disasters in the history of the state. Mr. Bullock has the power to stop this act through the power of the Endangered Species Act and will commence his action in 60 days.”

A December 2021 map shows plans to harvest 2000 acres of timber in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area

It is unknown whether the TWRA has already assessed the potential impact on endangered species of their deforestation plan.

The Tennessee Wildlife Federation was given the responsibility for ensuring the state act as good stewards of the donated land.  After the TWRA’s deforestation plans were made public, the TWF conducted a legal review that found the plan did not violate the conditions of the gift from Bridgestone.

Neither the TWF nor the TWRA has made that legal review public, and it is unknown whether the review considered endangered species.  A spokeswoman for TWRA did not respond to questions from the Lookout on Friday.

Colleen Dolan, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Tennessee Wildlife Federation, declined to comment on the intent-to-sue notice. In response to a follow up request for a copy of her organization’s legal review, Dolan sent an email that said “we won’t be engaging on this issue at this time.”

Sara Stanton, a spokeswoman for Bridgestone, said company officials are aware of the potential for legal action and following the concerns about razing the land “very closely.”

“Bridgestone was not part of the development of this proposal and has made no endorsement of it,” Stanton said. “Bridgestone gifted this land to the State of Tennessee in 1998, and The Tennessee Wildlife Federation (TWF) is the third-party caretaker responsible for overseeing it.

“While we are not involved in the management of this area, Bridgestone has been following the proposal and the concerns all parties have raised very closely. We continue to work with all parties to understand the extent of the plan and commitments to the governing covenants. It is important to Bridgestone that the environmental covenants we established when the land was donated are upheld.  Bridgestone has proudly donated 16,000 acres to the State of Tennessee over the past three decades, and we will continue to rely on the third-party nonprofits as the caretakers to protect the land for generations to come.”

Intent to Sue Letter 1-10-22 by Anita Wadhwani on Scribd

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.