Sen. Mike Bell (Photo: John Partipilo)
Outgoing Republican state Sen. Mike Bell, who announced plans to retire from the Legislature last year, will assume a leadership position inside the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency beginning Aug. 31, the agency announced Wednesday.
Bell will serve as the agency’s senior advisor for Legislative affairs and policy, interacting with lawmakers to promote the wildlife and land management agency’s policy and budget priorities.
Bell’s appointment comes months after an internal agency shakeup led to the departures of three senior TWRA officials in May as controversies dogged the agency. During a months-long stretch in 2021 and 2022, TWRA drew the ire of both Republican and Democrat lawmakers over plans to clearcut forests — and lost a major legal fight over the extent of its enforcement authority. TWRA also has a new executive director, Jason Maxedon, whose predecessor, Bobby Wilson, retired this year.
It will be up to the McMinn County Commission to decide whether to temporarily fill his legislative seat in what would largely be a ceremonial gesture, Bell said. The Legislature does not reconvene until January.
Republican Adam Lowe defeated state Rep. Mark Hall for the seat in the August primary and is expected to sail to victory against Democrat Patricia Waters in a district where former president Donald Trump earned 81% of the vote two years ago.
“I’ve got mixed feelings about leaving the legislature,” Bell said Wednesday. “I’ve loved the 16 years I’ve had in the Legislature. But I’m excited about the new opportunity to go to the TWRA. It’s an agency that not only I know a lot about through the legislative process in carrying a lot of the bills that have affected them over the years and the rules that have come through this committee (Government Operations Committee) that I’ve served on for 16 years. But I’m an outdoorsman. I hunt and fish just about every animal we have in the state of Tennessee that’s legal to hunt and fish.”
Bell said his position with TWRA had been in the works for a year, but he wasn’t certain he would take the job until just recently. He was concerned when Chris Richardson, who formerly had the position, was fired in May, Bell said. For a while he wasn’t sure he wanted to pursue the job, before ultimately deciding to take it, he said.
Richardson, along with Tracey Boyers, TWRA’s General Counsel, and Thomas Moncrief, associate counsel, were let go in May. No reason was given for their departures, but they occurred just after a series of public controversies over the agency’s plans to clearcut forest in the Bridgestone Firestone Wilderness Centennial Wilderness Area, a popular hunting and recreation destination in White County.
The plans, first leaked to local hunters, drew community pushback and ultimately pitted the agency against a bipartisan group of Tennessee lawmakers, who urged wildlife officials to immediately halt all clearcutting plans and accused agency leaders of a “shameful lack of communication and transparency with this plan” and of “breaching its duty to protect natural wildlife in Tennessee.”
“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,” a letter from lawmakers to TRWA last January said.
Bell was not among the 34 lawmakers to sign onto the letter.
The agency also suffered a legal defeat in a lawsuit that successfully challenging TWRA’s routine practice of entering private property without warrants to enforce the state’s wildlife, hunting and fishing laws.
Bell on Wednesday said he has “no clue” whether TWRA would move forward with the controversial clearcutting plans. They haven’t come up in conversations, he said. He also said he did not know why Richardson or other staff were fired.
One of the reasons for his retirement from the Legislature, a part-time position paying a nominal salary, was that he couldn’t make enough money, Bell said. His operates a pressure washing company, work he did himself. Bell said the work was getting more physically difficult for him as he gets older.
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