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 agency officials "look 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. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency'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, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency 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 [Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness] 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 the agency's notice to lawmakers - voted to retain an attorney to explore potential legal action against the agency.
"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 Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's underlying rationale for clearing large swathes of the hardwood canopy on the Cumberland Plateau. Agency 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 Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency 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 Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency revised plans. The agency will still move forward to clearcut other portions of the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency 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."
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.
"The leadership at TWRA has failed to effectively communicate their plans to clearcut 2,000 acres in the Bridgestone Centennial Wilderness area," Campbell, the Nashville Democrat, said Thursday.
"Their failure to communicate the poorly conceived plan has brought together hunters, hikers, businesses, environmentalists, Democrats and Republicans. When faced with an endangered species lawsuit, and additional suits on the horizon, TWRA has once again changed their plans without any input from the public or experts who can ensure their deforestation plans will not impact federally endangered species."
Endangered species act challenge
State officials were put on notice in January that clearcutting on the property may run afoul of the federal Endangered Species Act.
On Jan. 10, Marvin Bullock, the president of the Sparta/White County Chamber of Commerce, gave 60-days notice to state officials, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit appointed as a guardian of the property, of his intent to file suit. Bullock is also represented by Warehime, the lawyer who now represents White County.
The letter also put on notice the Bridgestone company, which donated the land to the state under certain conditions, including that it be preserved as a wilderness area. Those conditions are spelled out in restrictive covenants.
The covenants cite more than 30 species of plants and animals that are of state and federal concern, including at least six species listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act. The Caney Fork River Watershed, inside the property, is among the nation's most important watersheds for at-risk fish and mussels, including five endangered species, according to those documents.
Bullock said Thursday he was "disappointed."
"With the undated press release that I received yesterday, it appears that TWRA has simply changed the words 'postponed temporarily' to 'at this time,'" he said.
Bullock and county officials will be awaiting an updated map of the plan and "investigating what legal rights White County may have to stop the plan if it does not conform with local, state or federal laws," Warehime, the attorney, said.
"Even more disturbing is TWRA flouting their unbridled power by stating they 'look forward to' more deforestation projects at Bridgestone, which they affectionately call grassland projects," Warehime said.
"The fact that TWRA has communicated their intentions to the General Assembly, the governor and the Fish and Wildlife Commission (cc'd on the letters) exemplifies why White County is upset about communication. Once again, TWRA is changing the playing field without communicating to the county or its residents."
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency did not respond to a Lookout request for details of the revised project.
Previously, the agency announced it would put the clearcutting on the Bridgestone lands out for bid to timber companies in February.
The wildlife agency is unique among state agencies in keeping the proceeds of sales of public resources within its own budget, instead of transferring them to the state's general fund. Legislation proposed this year would bring that practice to a halt.
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