Lawmakers prod wildlife agency for better communication

By: - February 17, 2022 6:00 am
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.

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.

The Republican chairman of the Tennessee Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday asked state wildlife officials to consult with the legislature before embarking on any portion of a controversial plan to clearcut hardwood forests in a White County wilderness area.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency planned to clearcut about 2,000 acres of forest in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area, a popular hunting, hiking and recreation area adjacent to Virgin Falls State Natural Area, located about halfway between Knoxville and Nashville.

The plans emerged only after local hunters spied paint marks on tree trunks marking cut plans late last summer, then obtained a leaked agency map showing plans to cut wide swathes of forest on the pristine public lands on the Cumberland Plateau. The TWRA put a pause on at least one portion of those plans after the fierce pushback that followed, from hunters, local officials, visitors and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers.

“If there’s any plans to clearcut that area in the future I’d like for you to discuss it with the legislature beforehand,” Sen. Steve Southerland, a Morristown Republican and committee chair, told agency officials Wednesday.

Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown (Tennessee General Assembly )
Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown (Tennessee General Assembly )

“The clearcutting of these trees is the concern of people there and we’re just listening to people across the state, from each end, calling and emailing us with clearcutting in that area,” Southerland said. “We want to make sure we use our state forests in the best management practices.”

TWRA is not required to seek public input or comment before harvesting timber on public lands, a sore point among the diverse group of stakeholders who utilize state lands for hunting, fishing, kayaking and hiking.

Elected officials and business leaders in White County have also criticized TWRA’s lack of communication over plans that would directly impact a local economy that benefits from visitors to the wilderness area, along with relocating remote workers and retirees. Local officials have hired an attorney who plans to challenge any plans going forward as potentially violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

State wildlife officials have said that clearcutting on the Bridgestone property is part of a comprehensive plan to restore the Northern bobwhite quail and other species to the state by creating grasslands, or savannas. Agency officials have said that grasslands were one prevalent where the wide tree canopy on the Plateau now rises — a point hotly disputed by some forest scientists.

Populations of quail are in steep decline, TWRA officials have said. The Northern bobwhite quail, while not an endangered species, has seen its populations decline by 80% in recent decades, according to the agency.  Clearcutting would reestablish populations of the Northern bobwhite — the official game bird of Tennessee — providing more bird hunting opportunities as well as exposing the public to different types of landscapes.

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, says she's weighing legislation to create oversight of TWRA. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, says she’s weighing legislation to create oversight of TWRA. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Jason Maxedon, TWRA’s deputy executive director, reassured lawmakers that the Bridgestone plans were on hold for now.

“We’ve put that project on pause right now,” Maxedon said.

“We want to come back to the table and meet with constituents and the folks up there and look at some options going forward to see what might benefit everybody and maybe benefit us as well,” he said. “We’ve even been talking with other partners about the possibility of maybe some land swaps so we have several things we’re looking at.”

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, told wildlife officials Wednesday that she was weighing options to provide more formal legislative oversight over the agency, which makes clearcutting decisions out of public view, then financially benefits from them. The agency routinely sells timber on public lands to private companies, using the profits to fund agency priorities, instead of depositing them in the state’s general fund. The agency earns approximately $900,000 annually in timber sales.

“This is about more than Virgin Falls,” Campbell said. “I think this is about the fact that we as Tennesseans own that land. This is our land, not TWRA’s land, and I think that we found by going through this uphill battle with the Virgin Falls Area that it was very, very difficult to be heard — and this is mostly from hunters — so I would really appreciate if we could look into implementing some regulatory guardrails because we don’t have any oversight from the legislature and how they spend their money.”

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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.