The Republican chair of the Tennessee Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday asked state officials to consult with the legislature before embarking on part of a controversial plan to cut hardwood forests in a White County wilderness area.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency planned to cut about 2,000 acres of forest in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area, a popular hunting, hiking, and recreational area adjacent to Virgin Falls State Natural Area, about halfway between Knoxville and Nashville.
The plans came to light only after local hunters spotted paint stains on tree trunks in late summer marking logging plans, then obtained a leaked map from the agency showing plans to cut large swaths of forest on the pristine public lands on the Cumberland Plateau. The TWRA has halted at least some of those plans after the fierce backlash that followed from hunters, local officials, visitors and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers.
“If there are plans to clear that area in the future, I’d like you to discuss it with lawmakers ahead of time,” Senator Steve Southerland, a Morristown Republican and committee chair, told agency officials on Wednesday.
“The felling of these trees is the concern of people there and we’re just listening to people across the state, from every end, calling and emailing clear-cutting in that area,” Southerland said. “We want to make sure we use our state forests in the best management practices.”
TWRA is under no obligation to seek public input or comment before logging on public lands, a pain point among the diverse group of stakeholders who use state lands for hunting, fishing, kayaking and hiking.
Elected officials and business leaders in White County have also criticized TWRA’s lack of communication about plans that would directly impact a local economy that benefits from wilderness area visitors, along with relocating remote workers and retirees. Local officials have hired an attorney who plans to challenge future plans as potentially in violation of the US Endangered Species Act.
State forest officials have said logging the Bridgestone site is part of a comprehensive plan to restore northern bobwhite quail and other species in the state by creating grasslands or savannas. Agency officials have said grasslands were one where the broad canopy on the plateau now rises – a point hotly disputed by some forest scientists.
Quail populations are declining sharply, TWRA officials said. The northern bobwhite quail, while not an endangered species, has seen its populations decline by 80% in recent decades, the agency said. Clearcutting would restore populations of the northern bobwhite — Tennessee’s official game bird — opening up more bird hunting opportunities and exposing the public to a variety of landscapes.
Jason Maxedon, TWRA’s deputy executive director, reassured lawmakers that Bridgestone’s plans were on hold for now.
“We’ve put that project on hold for now,” Maxedon said.
“We want to go back to the table to meet with the voters and the people up there and look at some options to see what can benefit everyone and maybe us too,” he said. “We’ve even talked to other partners about the possibility of maybe some land swapping, so we have several things we’re looking at.”
sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, told conservation officials on Wednesday that she was weighing options to give more formal legislative oversight to the agency, which makes clear decisions out of public view, then profits financially from them. The agency routinely sells wood on public lands to private companies, using the profits to fund the agency’s priorities, rather than putting them into the general state fund. The agency earns approximately $900,000 annually from wood sales.
“This is about more than Virgin Falls,” Campbell said. “I think this has to do with the fact that we as citizens of Tennessee own that land. This is our country, not TWRA’s country, and I think through this tough battle with the Virgin Falls area we found that it was very, very hard to be heard – and this is mostly from fighters – so I’d would really appreciate if we could look at the implementation of some regulatory guardrails as we have no oversight from the legislator and how they spend their money.”