Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials have released details of a controversial plan to cut thousands of acres of forest at a popular White County public hunting and recreation destination.
About 2,000 acres in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area in White County — about halfway between Nashville and Knoxville — will be phased out over the next three years to create a grassy habitat for the northern bobwhite quail, a game bird whose population in Tennessee in recent decades. Under the TWRA plan unveiled at a board meeting in December, a bidding process will begin next month for companies to purchase the rights to harvest trees.
TWRA’s plan has prompted local officials to cut down an area that has long served as pristine wilderness and is an economic boon to local businesses catering to tourists, hikers, kayakers and other visitors who stay in local Airbnbs. stay, visit local coffee shops and fill up their cars at local gas stations.
The White County Board of Commissioners, the county’s governing body, voted unanimously on Dec. 20 in favor of a resolution calling on state officials and elected representatives to “stop the cutting.”
And in a December letter to Governor Bill Lee, White County Executive Denny Robinson explained their reasons:
“When Bridgestone’s land was donated to the state in 1998, citizens and leaders alike were led to believe that the property would remain as wilderness,” Robinson wrote. “When land is handed over to the state, counties lose their ability to levy property taxes. We aim to make up for the difference by paying city taxes.
“TWRA’s plan will worsen access to our county’s top tourist attraction, and it stands in stark contrast to the preservation promised to citizens in the 1990s and contradicts Tennessee Announcement in September 2021 of their intention to ‘use state lands for tourism in rural and ailing counties.’”
The land was handed over to the state by the Nashville-based Bridgestone Corporation with certain obligations, including its maintenance as a wilderness area. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation was appointed as a third-party caretaker to ensure that the state met the terms of the gift. In early December, Tennessee Wildlife Federation officials said they… concluded that TWRA’s plan fulfilled those conditions, because the goal was to create “essential habitat for many species throughout Tennessee.”
However, White County officials, environmental groups and local hunters have pointed to other adjacent areas for potential habitats that do not require cutting down hardwood trees.
“TWRA claims the intent is to create a quail habitat,” said Robinson, the county director. “If quail habitat is the goal, thousands of acres are available to reach this area without clearing the heart of the area.”
Plans for clearcutting in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area included: first leaked last summer in the form of an internal TWRA map which in White County, in an area adjacent to Fall Creek Falls State Park and Virgin Falls State Natural Area, exhibited 2,000 acres marked for deforestation, to create a habitat for the northern bobwhite quail, Tennessee’s official game bird that thrives in savannas with sparse treetops.
The leaked map quickly circulated among local hunters, hikers and civic leaders in White County, who expressed outrage that a pristine wilderness that has stood for generations — even before it was donated to the state — was slated to become felled without public input or notice.
In a hastily called public meeting in October, TWRA officials described the leaked map as a conceptual map accidentally distributed during a field trip with members of Quail Forever, a quail restoration group primarily focused on small game hunters.
TWRA showed a new card to the Only standing participants in the public meeting that outlined plans to clear 230 acres in the first phase of quail habitat restoration. Officials at the time did not comment on whether more hectares would be cut.
The latest TWRA map, like the leaked map, shows that just over 2,000 acres are planned to be harvested in the wilderness area.
About 5% of all land in Tennessee is owned or controlled by TWRA.
“If we want to have a positive impact on wildlife, we must do all we can to manage that habitat for the benefit of multiple species in the land we control,” Brandon Wear, TWRA’s Regional Wildlife Program Manager , said when releasing the agency’s plans.