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suttree landing scenicSuttree Landing is among the South Knoxville waterfront locations that will be connected via an ambitious city streetscaping project.  Courtesy City of Knoxville
Walk it out: Knoxville plans $10m in streetscape, transportation improvements along Tennessee River in SoKno

The city announced March 24 it will soon embark on part of an ultimately $10 million project to improve walkability and pedestrian safety in the burgeoning South Knoxville waterfront community.

The improvements aim to better connect Sevier Avenue with the waterfront, and include sidewalk construction on main neighborhood streets, better lighting and curb and drainage work near Suttree Landing Park, according to a release from the city. It's part of a long-term plan to install and improve sidewalks and bike lanes and generally make the area less dependent on automobiles. Aesthetic improvements such as the relocation of overhead utilities are also planned.

“Connectivity and walkability on and near the South Waterfront are important,” said city Deputy Chief of Economic and Community Development Rebekah Jane Justice. “Here on Waterfront Drive, a privately-developed apartment community is planned, but these public sidewalks and other upgrades will benefit the entire community. It’s a step in the right direction toward making it easier for pedestrians to get between Suttree Landing Park and Sevier Avenue,” Justice said in a press release. 

"In the coming few years, the city will be investing $10 million in a streetscape overhaul of Sevier Avenue – relocating unsightly overhead utility lines and adding bike lanes, improved sidewalks, street lighting, on-street parking and a new roundabout at the Sevier Avenue, Island Home Avenue and Foggy Bottom Street intersection," according to the release.

Here's the rest of the announcement from the city: 

"By the end of the year, new sidewalks will be constructed on sections of Waterfront Drive, Langford Avenue, Dixie Street and Empire Street – a $733,263 project that also will add new streetlights and drainage, curb and utility upgrades in the area near Suttree Landing Park on the South Waterfront. 

Knoxville City Council last evening on March 23 authorized Mayor Indya Kincannon’s administration to execute an agreement with Design and Construction Services Inc., the company submitting the lowest, most responsive bid to do the Waterfront Drive Roadway Improvements Project. 

Work on Claude and Barber streets in the vicinity will be undertaken as funding becomes available. 

This type of project, Justice said, is a good example of the City investing strategically to advance one of Mayor Indya Kincannon’s core priorities – building healthy and connected neighborhoods. 

Oneof those planned private investments is South Banks, an apartment community that Dominion Group hopes to construct by next year off Waterfront Drive. 

Connecting the Sevier Avenue commercial corridor with Suttree Landing Park by improving public infrastructure between the two points is a short-term city objective. It’s the first of much more to come."

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BarrensA volunteer removes invasive plants from an Oak Ridge cedar barren as part of a Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning effort to keep the barren in its natural prarie state.  Anna Lawrence/Hellbender Press

Volunteers play the part of fire to maintain the native grasses and wildflowers at an Oak Ridge cedar barren

OAK RIDGE — It’s called a barren, but it’s not barren at all. It’s actually a natural Tennessee prairie, full of intricate, interlocking natural parts, from rocks and soil to plants and insects and animals.

There’s lots of life in these small remaining unique collections of grasses and conifers that are typically known, semi-colloquially, as cedar barrens. 

Many of these “barrens” have been buried beneath illegal dumping or asphalt, but remnants they are still tucked away here and there, including a small barren in Oak Ridge owned by the city and recognized by the state as a small natural area.

The seven-acre cluster of cedars, large hardwoods and small open patches of native grasses such as long stem, blue stem and Indian grass, used to be much larger. A large portion of the original barren now lies beneath medical facilities, commercial development and a community college campus in the area of Fairbanks Road and Briarcliff Avenue.

These unique ecosystems need fire to thrive, and modern firefighting practices, road building and development have stopped this semi-regular natural cleanse of woody plants, shrubs and natural and exotic invasives, which encroach upon and can ultimately overcome the natural plants in these vanishingly rare grasslands.

In many instances, humans have replaced fire to ensure these special places don’t disappear. 

That’s why three dozen people showed up on a chilly but sunny Saturday in early March to strip shrubs, saplings and even larger trees from the small but classic barren adjacent to Jefferson Middle School. The goal: Help its small grassland expand and avoid terminal encroachment from incompatible vegetation.

Cedars take well to the shallow, rocky soil that is characteristic of these communities, but the most important features of these vanishing places are native prairie grasses and accompanying rare plants and wildflowers and their associated insect and animal species.

“We are doing what nature used to do with the occasional wildfire,” said Tim Bigelow, a board member of Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, which organizes the barren weed wrangles several times a year.

Natural and intentional low-intensity ground fires historically nurtured such landscapes, eliminating woody plants and ensuring there was enough open space and sunlight for the associated grasses and flowers to thrive in a prairie environment. 

And yes, there are prairies in Tennessee. Historically, most of these barrens were on or near the Cumberland Plateau or along the Kentucky

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Wildflower Photographer in Whiteoak Sink 04172019A visitor to Whiteoak Sink in Great Smoky Mountains National Park photographs a wildflower.  Courtesy National Park Service

Park managers hope new rule will limit trampling of the flowers people flock to photograph. Meanwhile, there's sad news about the sink's resident bats.

Large groups of spring visitors to the geologically and ecologically unique Whiteoak Sink area near Cades Cove will have to obtain permits in an ongoing effort to prevent damage to the sink’s plant and animal habitats.

The sink is home to vivid wildflower displays in the spring, and the 5,000 people who come to see the annual spectacle stray off trails and destroy or damage some plant species.

“The intent of the trial reservation system is to better protect sensitive wildflower species that can be damaged when large groups crowd around plants off-trail to take photos or closely view blooms,” according to a release from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Whiteoak Sink is off the Schoolhouse Gap Trail between Townsend and Cades Cove.

“This trial project will allow managers to determine if better coordinating group access can reduce trampling and soil compaction around sensitive plant populations.”

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Park service postpones 175-acre controlled burn

Citing low humidity and dry conditions, park officials postponed the planned burn until at least Tuesday along the park boundary in Wears Valley in the Metcalf Bottoms area. Another burn is planned near Sparks Lane in Cades Cove later in the week, depending on weather conditions.

The original story is below:

Park managers plan a controlled burn along the park boundary in Wears Cove starting Monday. Don't freak if you see heavy smoke in the area. March is an opportune time to conduct controlled burns for hazardous debris removal and habitat improvement in the interface between rural habitation and protected natural areas.

Fire prevention practices have become more widespread in Great Smoky Mountains National Park since a devastating and deadly November 2016 wildfire that spread into populated areas of Gatlinburg and Sevier County.

Here's the straight skinny from the park service, per a release:

"Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian-Piedmont-Coastal Zone fire management staff plan to conduct a 175-acre prescribed burn along the park boundary in Wears Valley to the Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area.  The burn will take place between Monday, March 8 through Thursday, March 11, depending on weather. Prescribed burn operations are expected to take two days.  

A National Park Service (NPS) crew of wildland fire specialists will conduct the prescribed burn to reduce the amount of flammable brush along the park's boundary with residential homes. This unit was burned successfully in 2009 and is part of a multi-year plan to reduce flammable materials along the park boundary with residential areas.  

“A long-term goal of this project is to maintain fire and drought tolerant trees like oak and pine on upper slopes and ridges in the park,” said Fire Ecologist Rob Klein. “Open woodlands of oak and pine provide habitat for a diverse set of plants and animals, and the health of these sites benefits from frequent, low-intensity burning.”

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 Deselm 004
 Hal DeSelm takes a break during an outing in the Smoky Mountains in the 1970s.  Courtesy UT Tree Improvement Program
 

A life dedicated to the flora of Tennessee

Dr. Hal DeSelm clambered around the crest of Cherokee Bluff in the heat of a late Knoxville summer 22 years ago. The Tennessee River flowed languidly some 500 feet below. Beyond the river stood the campus of the University of Tennessee Agriculture Institute. The towers of the city center rose to the northeast beyond the bridges of the old frontier river town.

DeSelm was not interested in the views of the urban landscape below. He was interested in the native trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses that clung to the ancient cliffside with firm but ultimately ephemeral grips on the craggy soil.

The retired UT professor, a renowned ecologist and botanist who died in 2011, had been sampling the terrestrial flora of Tennessee for decades. The life-long project took on a new urgency in the early 1990s, when he accelerated his data collection in hopes of writing the authoritative guide to the natural vegetation native to the forests, barrens, bogs and prairies of pre-European Tennessee.

Between 1993 and 2002, DeSelm collected 4,184 data points from 3,657 plots across the state. Many of those plots have since been lost to development, highways, and agriculture, or overrun by exotic species, but he assembled an invaluable baseline of the native landscape. Many of the sites he recorded have since been lost to development.

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456915 10150749976200572 259742799 oA view of some of the land preserved by Foothills Land Conservancy on the Cumberland Plateau.   Courtesy Foothills Land Conservancy

Foothills Land Conservancy preserves land and multiple habitats across seven states

Foothills Land Conservancy rang in the new year with the preservation of 250 undeveloped acres along the Little Pigeon River in a rapidly growing area of Sevier County in East Tennessee.

The deal was finalized in late 2020 — a fitting end to the Blount County conservancy’s 35th year.

Foothills Land Conservancy has protected about 135,000 acres in seven states, including 95,000 acres in East Tennessee, since its inception in 1985. For comparison’s sake, that’s nearly a third of the protected land that encompass the 500,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of that land has been acquired since 2006, when former state Sen. Bill Clabough became executive director.

“We’ve been really growing and expanding,” Clabough said late last year from the conservancy headquarters on the century-old Harris family farm in Rockford. 

The farm itself is under a conservation easement, one of several ways the conservancy preserves and protects natural and agricultural lands.

“When you do good work you don’t have to do a lot of advertising,” said Clabough, 69, a likable former country store owner and Wildwood native whose political public service came to an end in 2005 when the moderate Republican incumbent was defeated by a firebrand conservative in the Senate GOP primary. 

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Clabough said of his primary defeat.

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