The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Monday, 04 October 2021 13:51

Tennessee Lookout: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency reportedly plans to raze mature hardwood forest

Written by

Bridgestone Main 2048x1365Mike O’Neal, a longtime hunter, surveys an expanse of the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area in Middle Tennessee where clearcutting of public hardwood forest is planned to create quail habitat. John Partipilo/Courtesy of Tennessee Lookout

The plan to clear forest for quail habitat is raising the ire of hunters and hikers, as well as a bipartisan group of state lawmakers

This story was originally published by the nonprofit Tennessee Lookout and is shared (with much appreciation) via Creative Commons License. 

It’s a pretty bird, easily recognizable by dark stripes on rust colored feathers and a distinct two-syllable chirp that announces its name: “bob” (the high note) then “white” at a lower pitch — also known as the northern bobwhite, a species of quail.

The otherwise unassuming bird is now at the center of a fight over public lands in White County, Tennessee, pitting the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency against an unlikely coalition of hikers, hunters, cavers, local business leaders and state lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle.

Internal TWRA documents leaked to a local hunter last month revealed plans to clearcut 2,000 acres of old-growth hardwood forest in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area to establish quail habitat and a research center focused on the birds, whose steeply declining populations have spurred national efforts to restore grasslands where the species thrive.

The land slated for deforestation, a late-1990s gift to the state from the Bridgestone Corporation – then the Bridgestone/Firestone company — is part of stunning and centuries-old vistas visible along the path heading to Virgin Falls State Natural Area, where 7 waterfalls are connected by trails through tall canopies just north of Fall Creek Falls. For generations, the area has also drawn deer and turkey hunters to state owned land that offers hunting access at a fraction of the cost often associated with hunting on private property.

“It’s going to scar the view-shed for most of the Bridgestone property,” said Marvin Bullock, president of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce.

Bullock is an energetic booster who grew up in the area and takes pride in his track record at the chamber. The county has seen a tourist-driven economic turnaround in recent times – aided, in some respects, by the pandemic. Six years ago, when Bullock first started the job, there were 50 empty storefronts and office spaces in downtown Sparta.

“Now you’d be hard-pressed to find 10,” he said. “We have 400 remote workers and 80 Airbnbs. That’s a good indication of what an attraction Virgin Falls is. Right now we have some hardwoods that three of us together couldn’t reach around. It would take generations to grow them back. This is a really terrible idea that is not just aesthetically unattractive, it is economically unattractive.”

TWRA gets pushback

Since the map was leaked last month, hikers and hunters, and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, which is concerned about potential erosion damage to the Caney Fork River from clearcutting, have mobilized members across the state to weigh in. A bipartisan trio of lawmakers, Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, also a Nashville Democrat, have pressed TWRA for answers. A community meeting organized by Sherrell is set for Monday evening in Sparta.

“You’re going to be walking through a burned-out wasteland if this happens,” said Campbell, who said she has been getting emails from constituents upset by the plans.

After weeks of pushback, TWRA has begun to respond publicly — a step it has not been required to take in its deforestation plans for public lands. The agency has no public notice requirements when it clears timber on the nearly 1.5 million acres is controls across the state, a sore point among those now learning of the plans in White County.

TWRA biologist Aubrey Deck told the Lookout last week that some of the pushback is a result of a misunderstanding.

The leaked map, Deck said Friday, is a “conceptual map for a larger project, not a planning map,” he said. 

“The only plan right now is for 250-290 acres (of deforestation),” he said. “The exact acreage is still to be determined.”

But Deck made clear that agency officials have hopes for a wider deforestation effort.

TWRA has designated the Bridgestone Firestone property as a “Quail Focal Area” — a linchpin in a comprehensive five-year strategic plan to repopulate Northern Bobwhites in Tennessee. Quail habitat requires at minimum of 1,500 acres in each Quail Focal Area to sustain the species, the strategic plans says.

“We can’t commit to X number of acres, but we would love to expand existing fields by 1,000 acres,” Deck said. 

A population in ‘dire straits’

Deck said plans to reestablish quail in Tennessee have been in the making for 20 years. Quail and other, non-game species have been in the decline for the past 40-50 years, and TWRA cites estimates that 80% of the Northern Bobwhite population has disappeared recent decades. Quail are game birds, and part of TWRA’s long-term quail goals are geared toward readying public lands for sport hunting.  

“The population is in such dire straits,” he said. “We are providing ecosystems in danger and restoring habitat. Quail is also a game bird, and that’s part of what we do at TWRA.”

Restoring the property to a quail-friendly and quail-hunting-friendly savanna  — a grassy plain with few trees – would benefit other species, too:  among them prairies warblers, field sparrows, blue grosbeak, and numerous endangered plants, according to TWRA. Grassland vegetation also provides food sources for deer antler growth and nesting opportunities for wild turkeys.

Deck said he didn’t expect the pushback on the plan.

“Anytime you’re cutting trees, there’s a whole host of folks that don’t agree,” he said. “The level of attention has been a surprise to me. We are in no danger of having a shortage of closed-canopy forests.”

The property itself was a gift from Bridgestone, the first parcel in a series of three land donations totaling 16,000 acres in White County given to Tennessee by the tire manufacturing giant to manage as a wilderness since 1998. The gift came with strings attached: they are spelled out in the deed. Among them: “no cutting of timber or removal or destruction of trees shall be permitted.” That provision has limited exceptions, including to preserve and protect the property from damage caused by fire, insect infestation, disease or other forces of nature.

Bridgestone officials were alerted about discussion regarding the proposed cutting and immediately contacted the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, which serves as a third party caretaker overseeing the property and enforcing the covenants in the deed, said Sara Stanton, a company spokeswoman. 

The company, which is otherwise uninvolved in management of the property, has asked the Tennessee Wildlife Federation “to confirm they were thoroughly reviewing TRWA’s proposal and fulfilling their obligation to uphold the covenants put in place at the time of the donation,” Stanton said. “As of today, we have not received a final determination from TWF, but understand a conclusion should be coming in a timely manner."

Nate West, director of communications for the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, said it was in talks with TWRA “to fully understand their current plan so we can do that alongside legal counsel.”

“Speaking broadly as a conservation nonprofit, we have supported throughout our 75-year history the science-based, proactive management of lands to maintain or restore diverse habitats and diverse wildlife,” West said in an email. “Regardless of the outcome of this proposed project, the fact is savannas are an endangered habitat in the Southeast that were once common and provided essential habitat to many species across Tennessee.”

‘We’re not against quail; we’re against the location’

In late September, in the early hours of the opening Saturday of hunting season, Mike O’Neal steered his truck past trail entrances handing out fliers to hunters in camouflage and hikers sporting daypacks along the a single road that winds through the wilderness area. At points along the road, blue paint on trees marked planned cut lines.

O’Neal is a longtime hunter, among the first to get ahold of the leaked map, which was printed on the fliers he handed out from his vehicle. The fliers also urged people to contact TWRA and their state representatives to oppose any plans to clear timber in the forest. 

“We’re not against the quail,” O’Neal said. “We’re against the location. They’re wanting to cut the same parts used by hunters. A lot of people who hunt out here, they can’t afford a hunting lease, and some of these guys aren’t as young as they used to be. They’d have to hike too far if this thing goes through.”

O’Neal said he was especially perplexed by the plans to clear-cut old growth forrest when the Bridgestone Firestone property also contains several thousand acres of non-native pine trees, a fast growing tree that can repopulate in a short period of time.

“It seems like this is a big experiment for TWRA to get the quail back,” he said. “But if it doesn’t work out, what have you lost? Thousands of acres of hardwoods you’ll never seen again in your lifetime.”

Rate this item
(1 Vote)

Related items

  • TWRA to establish prime trout fishing opportunities at Big Soddy Creek Gulf
  • Bald eagle release by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

    This bald eagle was shot but successfully rehabbed at Memphis Zoo

    STEWART COUNTY — April 8, 2022  Return to the wild!

  • Tennessee Lookout: TWRA delays clearcut in Cumberlands as tourism official files suit
    in News

    DSCF8531 scaledMarvin Bullock, president of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce, opposes deforestation efforts in the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area to create quail habitat. John Partipillo/Courtesy of Tennessee Lookout

    Oak Ridge Rep. John Ragan joins bipartisan pushback against state plans to raze forest for quail habitat

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    SPARTA — For decades, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has kept the profits from the sale of timber and other natural resources on publicly owned lands, folding the payments from logging companies into the agency’s annual operating budget.

    bipartisan bill introduced in the Tennessee Legislature this week seeks to bring that practice to an end. The measure, introduced by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, and Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, would require TWRA officials to transfer all proceeds from the sale of the state’s natural resources into Tennessee’s general fund — the process typically followed by other Tennessee agencies that generate income.

  • Lunker sturgeon are out there again

    WBIR: Holston River sturgeon surging

    The population of lake sturgeon, a survivor since the Cretaceous Era that barely escaped the ravages of modern dams and reservoirs, is on the upswing in the Holston River and other branches and tributaries of the Tennessee River system. The last record of the fish in the valley before restoration efforts began is about 1960, according to WBIR.

    Significantly older fish were identified during a recent inventory of sturgeon, giving hope that some fish were closing in on reproductive maturity. The gradual recovery is largely the result of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Tennessee Valley Authority restoration efforts, WBIR reports.

    “It makes our valley richer; that fish is supposed to be here,” one researcher told WBIR about the significance of the so-far successful restoration of native sturgeon habitats.

  • Part IV: Clear-cut controversy. Thoughts and prayers
    in News

    service pnp pga 09600 09690vLibrary of Congress

    Citizens and scientists weigh in on controversial TWRA logging plan

    For months, Tennessee Lookout has bird-dogged a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency proposal to clear at least 1,000 acres of hardwood forest in the Bridgestone Centennial Wildlife Reserve in White County to create habitat for dwindling bobwhite quail

    Hellbender Press has published most of the stories, with much appreciation to Tennessee Lookout. Most recently, the online news outlet reported that legal hurdles had been cleared to allow TWRA to proceed, at least for now, with its game-bird reintroduction plans at the expense of acres of approximately 65-year-old hardwood forest. 

    Though it was not Hellbender’s original reporting, on our end the social media response to the articles has been thoughtful and reasoned — with, of course, occasional disagreements among commenters. With permission from the posters, I’ve compiled an edited and abridged recitation of some comments, which were too good to languish in the social media ether.

  • Part III: Clear-cut controversy in the Cumberlands
    in News


    Legal opinion cuts path for TWRA forest clearing in White County’s Bridgestone wilderness area despite local opposition

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    A controversial plan by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials to clearcut forest in a popular hunting, hiking and recreation area in order to create habitat for Northern bobwhite quail has gotten a legal go-ahead, despite opposition from residents and local leaders in White County, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and environmental groups.

    The 16,000-acre Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area, a forested area adjacent to Fall Creek Falls State Park and Virgin Falls State Natural Area, was a late 1990’s gift to the state from the tire company that came with certain strings attached, including that state officials “preserve the property predominantly in its present condition as a wilderness area.”

    The Tennessee Wildlife Federation was charged with ensuring the state honors those conditions.

    On Friday, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Wildlife Federation confirmed that outside legal counsel hired to review the state’s clearcutting plan found it “meets the requirements” of the gift.

    “Speaking broadly as a conservation nonprofit, we have supported throughout our 75-year history the science-based, proactive management of lands to maintain or restore diverse habitats and diverse wildlife,” Kate Hill, a Tennessee Wildlife Federation spokeswoman, said via email. “The fact is savannas are an endangered habitat in the Southeast that were once common and provided essential habitat to many species across Tennessee.”

    Neither the Tennessee Wildlife Federation nor the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has communicated the outcome of the legal review to local residents, who have complained for months that they have been kept in the dark and offered no meaningful opportunity to weigh in on plans to radically alter a landscape that is both beloved and central to the local economy.

  • Tennessee Lookout: (Part II) Thick covey of opposition to TWRA quail management at expense of mature hardwood forest
    in News

    DSCF8232 1 2048x1365 Tree trunks in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area in Sparta marked for clearcutting, despite local opposition.  John Partipilo/Courtesy Tennessee Lookout

    Hundreds of citizens publicly reject TWRA Middle Tennessee deforestation plans

    This story was originally published by the nonprofit Tennessee Lookout and is shared (with much appreciation) with Hellbender Press via Creative Commons License. 

    Officials with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency faced considerable pushback Monday night (Oct. 4) at a public meeting in Sparta over plans to raze old growth forest in a popular hunting and recreation area located about halfway between Nashville and Knoxville.

    A standing room-only crowd of more than 200 people filled the town’s small civic center to hear directly from state officials about what had been — until now — an unpublicized internal agency plan to clear forest on public lands in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area to create grassland habitat for northern bobwhite quail, a game bird whose populations have plummeted in Tennessee.