Rare plant species known to populate the power line right-of-way:
Additional rare plant species known to be nearby that may be in the right-of-way:
Source: University of Tennessee
SEWANEE, Tenn. -- The Cumberland rosinweed was born to live in the southern Cumberland Plateau's rich, rocky woods.
But plateau life is hard. That's why the sunflower-like aster lives in only a handful of places in three Tennessee counties and is on the Tennessee Endangered Species List.
Last month, basking in a patch of open sun on the TVA power line right-of-way in Hawkins Cove State Natural Area near Sewanee, the Cumberland rosinweed found a new enemy: TVA contractors in helicopters spraying herbicides around the power towers.
But the flower, known in scientific circles as Silphium brachiatum, also has a Sewanee angel or two. The chest-high plant with bright yellow petals may not look too special to the casual eye, but don't get between it and Mary Priestley. Or John Christof.
Last week, Priestley, the curator for the Sewanee Herbarium and editor of the Sewanee Plant Press, drove by the patch expecting to see the sunflowers waving at her. What she found instead was a mass of dying browned brush.
"I was horrified," she said. "And I sent a letter to Tom Kilgore, TVA CEO," she said. "My hope is that going public with a complaint will convince TVA to put checks in place. ... As far as I know, there are no negative repercussions if a mistake like this is made. After all, it's 'just' wildflowers!"
"Just" wildflowers rolls off Priestley's tongue like vinegar.
Christof, manager of South Cumberland State Park, also wrote to TVA, noting that the state in 1985 purchased the natural area's 249 acres for $94,500 for the sole purpose of protecting the Cumberland rosinweed, a large percentage of which grows along the power line.
"This is a loss for the citizens of Tennessee," Christof wrote.
In Priestly's eyes, the Cumberland rosinweed and neighboring rare plant, the eared goldenrod, are people, too. Or at least they should be thought of in something of the same way.
"We have decided as a society that we will take care of the weakest ones. The ones that can't take care of themselves," Priestly said. "And to our credit, we've said this applies to other species, too -- to rare plants and animals. But this one fell through the cracks, even though it's in the rules and regulations."
TVA has apologized.
"TVA sincerely regrets the event that resulted in the aerial spraying of herbicide ... within the Hawkins Cove State Natural Area during the week of July 11," states a letter to Christof dated Oct. 28.
The letter, signed Robin E. Manning, TVA executive vice president for power system operations, along with a similar email from Line Services Manager Jason Regg to Priestley a week earlier, said TVA is "taking immediate action" to reinforce its requirements for contractors to review limits around sensitive right-of-way areas.
"As an agency often tasked with the management of sensitive or endangered species on public lands across the Tennessee Valley, we are aware of the need to protect natural resources such as the state-listed endangered Cumberland rosinweed," Manning's letter states. "Unfortunately, this rare event shows the need for ongoing vigilance by TVA and its contractors."
Priestly and Christof said they know TVA, a good partner in the conservation of other natural areas on the Cumberland Plateau, didn't intentionally ignore an agreement struck with the Tennessee Division of Natural Heritage years ago forbidding herbicides on that section of the power line.
"With 16,000 miles of right-of-way, they've got a lot to look after. But there's something like 80 little natural areas dotted through our area, too," Priestly said.
It's not the first time such herbicide spraying has happened.
Two years ago, Priestley and Christof took on the Tennessee Department of Transportation after road crews put herbicide along U.S. Highway 41-A on the plateau.
The two set up a wildflower workshop at Sewanee: University of the South for the hardened road crews. Priestley recalls with a laugh that the roadworkers came into the meeting looking as though they'd been sent to detention for a day.
But the garden ladies softened them up with food and joking threats of singing flower songs.
Ray Rucker, TDOT's regional director, said the meeting, in the end, was a huge success, and now the crews in Franklin and Grundy counties are believers.
"All of our crew learned a lot and kind of developed a little ownership," Rucker said. "Anytime you learn things about things in the wild, it's good. We want to be friendly to nature, too."
Now road crews mow in Franklin County to keep the highways clear, and they call first to make sure they won't be endangering any seeding plants.
As for the Cumberland rosinweed?
TVA sent a staff botanist to the browning right-of-way in September, who reported that the spraying was "spotty."
That means some of the Cumberland rosinweeds -- and some other rare neighbors there -- have a chance to survive.