John Partipilo photographed Mike O’Neal, a longtime hunter, as he surveyed an expanse of the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area where clearcutting is planned to create quail habitat.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers on Tuesday urged Tennessee wildlife officials to immediately halt all plans to clearcut 2,000 acres of hardwood trees at the publicly-owned Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area in White County.
Calling the plan damaging to the environment and the local economy, and criticizing the state’s Wildlife Resources Agency for breaching its duty to the public and a “shameful lack of communication and transparency,” the letter from 34 Republican and Democratic legislators said their concerns thus far have been “met with deaf ears.”
“The TWRA is breaching its duty to protect natural wildlife in Tennessee,” the letter to TWRA’s executive director, Bobby Wilson, said. “Citizens of Tennessee assert their will onto the government, not the other way around. There is a shameful lack of communication and transparency with this plan and the TWRA has offered little to no assistance to taxpayers.”
The letter is a rare display of bipartisanship in Tennessee’s often-fractious legislative body, signed by Rep. Paul Sherrell, a Republican who represents the area in White County where the wilderness area is located and Rep. John Ragan, the Oak-Ridge Republican who chairs the Government Operations Committee along with Nashville Democrats, Sen. Heidi Campbell and Rep. John Ray Clemmons.
“You have successfully united Tennesseans from all walks of life against the plan. Republicans, Democrats, hunters, environmentalists, business people and public servants all disagree with TWRA’s plan for public land,” the letter said.
A spokesperson for TWRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawmakers’ letter comes a week after the TWRA was put on a 60-day notice of a lawsuit over its plan to clearcut 2,000 acres of forest in the popular hunting, hiking and recreation area near Sparta, Tenn. by Marvin Bullock, executive director of the Sparta/White County Chamber of Commerce.
The letter noted that lawmakers “support preventative legal action,” although it did not make clear if this was in reference to Bullock’s action, or other potential legal challenges. The letter also noted the efforts by residents and local leaders to point to alternative public lands for quail habitat that would not require cutting hardwood trees.
“Citizens proposed alternate plans which would minimize the effect on existing community norms and environmental standing,” the letter said. “These plans have been ignored by TWRA.”
The land in question was a gift to the state of Tennessee by the Bridgestone company that came with the condition it be preserved as a wilderness area. The nonprofit Tennessee Wildlife Foundation, appointed an independent overseer of the state’s use of the land, determined the plan met the conditions of the company’s gift. Neither the TWF nor the TWRA has released any analysis or written documents that describes how that conclusion was reached.
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