The Move comes After a Threatened Lawsuit over Cuts in Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area
According to a story in the Tennessee/Lookout, state wildlife officials have reluctantly scaled back plans to raze large portions of forest on public land in rural White County after blowback from local residents, a threatened lawsuit and the demand last week from a bipartisan group of 34 Tennessee lawmakers to “stop all action on the plan immediately.”
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, however, struck a defiant tone in letters sent to members of the General Assembly — including critics Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta and Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville — which said the agency “looked forward” to clearing other parts of the property instead.
Both lawmakers have been critical of 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 business and tourism officials. TWRA’s stated goal has been to establish grassland habitat for declining species of Northern bobwhite quail.
“The decision is one that is being made in response to the community’s opposition only and is not based on the best science or what’s best for wildlife,” the letter to lawmakers from Chris Richardson, TWRA’s deputy director, said.
“In future management decisions we will continue to engage with the public, and we will continue to be mission-driven, and data-driven in our decision making,” the letter said. “The management plans that we have for converting closed canopy forest into other critical and diverse habitats are going to continue in Tennessee.”
“We look forward to creating more savanna/grassland/shrubland habitat on other parts of BSFS and will strive to improve our communication efforts in the future with the general assembly and the citizens of Tennessee.”
The agency, however, has yet to communicate this latest information to officials in White County, whose governing body on Tuesday — before TWRA’s notice to lawmakers — voted to retain an attorney to explore potential legal action against TWRA.
“We are extremely concerned,” said Austine Warehime, the attorney. “While TWRA claims to have listened to the community, their letter (to lawmakers) appears to the contrary. TWRA informed a member of our community that they were stopping the entire project. Less than 48 hours later, they have changed their story again.”
Scientists, too, have begun to publicly question TWRA’s underlying rationale for clearing large swathes of the hardwood canopy on the Cumberland Plateau. TWRA officials have claimed that much of the plateau once used to be grassland — a point that some forest scientists strongly dispute.
Forest and grasslands scientists plan to convene a public meeting next month to review and discuss the ecological implications of TWRA plans on the plateau, said Jon Evans, a University of the South biologist.
Just one parcel of the Bridgestone lands originally slated for demolition will be spared, according to TWRA’s revised plans. The agency will still move forward to clearcut other portions of the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area.
TWRA will no longer proceed with clearcutting on the northern portion of the property, known as “The Farm,” but will go forward with cuts on a large portion of the southern portion of the property, known as “Big Bottom,” marked on the TWRA map below.
Neither the letters to lawmakers nor a news release issued Thursday made clear the total acreage of forested land to be spared nor how many remain slated for clearcutting.
_ Anita Wadhwani