A pair of bills seeking to place controls on the authority of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency advanced into the legislature on Wednesday, with bipartisan support from the same list of lawmakers who publicly expressed anger at the agency’s plans to clear public lands earlier this year. to make free.
A move by Republican Representative Paul Sherrell and Senator Paul Bailey would require the state conservation organization to put all proceeds from the sale of timber into the state general fund, rather than staying within the state budget. TWRA earns approximately $900,000 annually from the sale of wood on public lands.
Sherrell and Bailey both represent Sparta, Tenn., where TWRA plans to raze 2,000 acres of forest in the nearby Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area, sparking outrage from hunters, hikers, tourist officials and environmental groups.
A second bill, by Sherrell and Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, would prohibit the agency — whose law enforcement arm enforces hunting, fishing and wildlife laws — from seizing boats, trucks, airplanes, RVs, cars or other motorized vehicles from suspects without a court order.
While it’s unclear how many of these assets will be seized by TWRA, with or without a court order, the agency earns about $163,000 annually from auctioning seized items, according to a tax note accompanying the bill.
Both measures were easily passed Wednesday in the Senate Committee on Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Jenifer Wisniewski, a spokeswoman for TWRA, said agency officials continued to work with the bill sponsors but did not comment further on whether TWRA supports or opposes them.
The bills are among a handful of proposed policy changes that would impose limits on the agency’s authority, filed by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers since the conflict first arose over the agency’s clear plans in the fall.
sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, filed similar bills demanding that sales of timber be deposited into the general fund and restricting TWRA auctions of property seized from those defendants. Those bills did not advance. Campbell has since volunteered to support the moves by Republican lawmakers.
TWRA has been the subject of other scrutiny and disapproval from lawmakers this year.
In January, a letter to TWRA from a bipartisan group of 34 lawmakers accused the agency of “violating its duty to protect Tennessee’s natural wildlife,” “an embarrassing lack of communication and transparency” and said the concerns of lawmakers ” were answered on deaf ears”. ears.”
The letter criticized the agency’s failure to respond to concerns and questions from lawmakers about its clear plans.
Last month, in a public hearing, Senator Steve Southerland, Republican R-Morristown, instructed agency leaders to discuss any clear plans on the Bridgestone lands with lawmakers before moving forward. Southerland is the chairman of the Tennessee Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
Located near Sparta, Tennessee and adjacent to Virgin Falls Natural Area, the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area encompasses approximately 16,000 acres, much of which is forested.
A series of bills would both require the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to deposit proceeds from the timber sale into the state’s general fund, and limit the agency’s ability to seize private property without a court order.
TWRA has made no formal public announcements of its plans to clear the area. Local hunters first spotted spray-painted crop marks on trees in August, then obtained a previously unreleased TWRA map illustrating the site of 2,000 acres to be demolished in the popular recreation area that local tourism officials say is critical to the local economy.
The plans called for the creation of savannas on the property, with few trees, to create a habitat for the northern bobwhite quail, a game bird whose populations have fallen in Tennessee — along with other species of animals and plants that thrive in grassy habitats.
Following public pushback, TWRA officials have announced a pause on those plans.
The agency oversees hunting and fishing licenses, wildlife and habitat management, and more than 100 Tennessee wildlife conservation areas and refuges that range in size from approximately 50 acres to more than 625,000 acres.