State conservation officials have reluctantly scaled back plans to raze large areas of public forest in rural White County after backlash from local residents, a looming lawsuit and last week’s demand from a bipartisan group of 34 Tennessee lawmakers to “plan all action against the immediately.”
However, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency took a defiant tone in letters sent to members of the General Assembly — critics including Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta and Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville – stating that the agency was “looking forward” to cleaning up other areas of the property instead.
Both lawmakers have criticized the agency’s lack of transparency in developing plans to raze 2,000 acres of pristine forest on public lands prized by hunters, hikers and local businesses and tourists. The stated goal of TWRA was to create grassland habitats for declining species of northern bobwhite quail.
“The decision is made in response to community opposition and is not based on the best science or what is best for wildlife,” said the letter to lawmakers from Chris Richardson, TWRA’s deputy director.
“In future management decisions, we will continue to communicate with the public, and we will remain mission and data-driven in our decision-making,” the letter said. “The management plans we have in place to convert closed deciduous forests to other critical and diverse habitats continue in Tennessee.”
“We look forward to creating more savanna/grassland/bushland habitats on other parts of BSFS and will look to improve our communication efforts with the General Assembly and the citizens of Tennessee going forward.”
However, the agency has yet to pass this latest information on to officials in White County, whose governing body voted Tuesday — before TWRA’s notice to lawmakers — to hire an attorney to investigate potential legal action against TWRA.
“We are very concerned,” said Austine Warehime, the attorney. “While TWRA claims to have listened to the community, their letter (to lawmakers) appears to prove otherwise. TWRA informed a member of our community that they are shutting down the entire project. Less than 48 hours later, they changed their story again.”
Scientists, too, are beginning to publicly question TWRA’s underlying rationale for clearing large areas of the hardwood canopy on the Cumberland Plateau. TWRA officials have claimed that much of the plateau was once grassland — a point some forest scientists strongly dispute.
Forest and grassland scientists plan to call a public meeting next month to discuss and discuss the ecological implications of TWRA plans on the plateau, said Jon Evans, a biologist from the University of the South.
Under TWRA’s revised plans, only one plot of the Bridgestone lands originally slated for demolition will be spared. The agency will still continue to clear other areas of the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area.
TWRA will no longer continue to cut down the northern portion of the property, known as “The Farm”, but will continue to make cuts to much of the southern portion of the property, known as “Big Bottom” marked on the TWRA map below.
Neither the letters to lawmakers nor a press release issued Thursday made clear how much acreage of forested land needs to be spared, nor how much remains to be cleared.
“TWRA leadership has failed to communicate effectively their plans to cut 2,000 acres in the Bridgestone Centennial Wilderness area,” Campbell, the Nashville Democrat, said Thursday.
“Their failure to communicate the ill-conceived plan has brought together hunters, hikers, corporations, environmentalists, Democrats and Republicans. Faced with a lawsuit over endangered species, and additional lawsuits on the horizon, TWRA has once again changed their plans without any input from the public, or experts who can ensure that their deforestation plans will not affect federally endangered species.”
Threatened Species Trading Challenge
State officials were notified in January that clearing the site may violate federal endangered species law.
On Jan. 10, Marvin Bullock, the president of the Sparta/White County Chamber of Commerce, gave a 60-day notice to state officials, the United States Department of the Interior and the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit that has been appointed as the custodian of the property, of his intention to file a complaint. Bullock is also represented by Warehime, the attorney who now represents White County.
The letter also mentioned the Bridgestone company, which donated the land to the state under certain conditions, including that it would be preserved as a wilderness area. These conditions are laid down in restrictive covenants.
The covenants list more than 30 species of plants and animals of interest to the state and federal government, including at least six species listed in the Endangered Species Act by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The Caney Fork River Watershed, located within the property, is one of the country’s major watersheds for high-risk fish and mussels, including five endangered species, according to those documents.
Bullock said on Thursday he was “disappointed”.
“With the undated press release I received yesterday, it appears that TWRA has changed the words ‘temporarily deferred’ to ‘at the moment,’” he said.
Bullock and county officials are awaiting an updated map of the plan and are “examining what legal rights White County may have to stop the plan if it doesn’t comply with local, state or federal laws,” the attorney said. warehime.
“Even more disturbingly, TWRA is ignoring their unbridled power by saying they ‘look forward to’ more deforestation projects in Bridgestone, which they affectionately refer to as grassland projects,” Warehime said.
“The fact that TWRA has communicated their intentions to the General Assembly, the Governor and the Fish and Wildlife Commission (cc’d on the letters) illustrates why White County is upset about the communication. Again, TWRA is changing the playing field without communicating with the province or its residents.”
TWRA did not respond to a Lookout request for details of the revised project.
Earlier, TWRA announced that they would offer the clearing on the Bridgestone lands to timber companies in February.
The wildlife agency is unique among state institutions in that it keeps the proceeds from the sale of public funds within its own budget, rather than transferring them to the state’s general fund. Legislation proposed this year would put a stop to that practice.