Photo by John Partipilo / The Tennessee Lookout / Tree trunks in the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area in Sparta, Tennessee, are marked for clearcutting despite local opposition.

SPARTA, Tenn. — Officials with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency faced considerable pushback last week 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 Oct. 4 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.

"Bridgestone-Firestone is one of the gems of White County," said Elizabeth McDonald, one of two dozen people who spoke against the plan until the meeting grew too late to get through the long line of residents who signed up to address the TWRA.

"It's a place that is so beautiful, so intact, and it can never be replaced. I appreciate caring about quails, but you have people in this room who, for generations, have called this home. You have to understand you are attacking our homes."

The meeting was organized by Rep. Paul Sherrell, a Republican who represents the area, after an internal TWRA map leaked to a local resident revealed plans to cut 2,000 acres of hardwood trees on the property bequeathed to the state by the Bridgestone Corp. in 1998.

The map quickly circulated among residents, and so did the outrage. The old-growth timber slated for demolition lines the path heading to Virgin Falls State Natural Area, where the tree canopy also shades hiking trails through a series of scenic waterfalls. The forested area slated for demotion forms part of a popular deer and turkey hunting area, too.

Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, and Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville — who said she has heard complaints from her Nashville constituents and others across the state who routinely visit the wilderness area — also attended the meeting.

In a series of PowerPoint presentations, TWRA officials outlined the urgent need to establish grassland habitats in Tennessee, not only for the northern bobwhite but for native plants and birds for whom savannas — sparsely treed grasslands — are critical to survival.

Clearing forest would benefit at least 70 species with the greatest conservation needs, said Wally Akins, TWRA's wildlife and forestry assistant chief.

"Close-canopy forests have limited value to many species," he said.

Hundreds of native plant species remain essentially dormant underneath the forest canopy, waiting to emerge, said Dwayne Estes, executive director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative. Savannas are "the forgotten landscape of the South," he said.

"Savannas are endangered ecosystems on their last legs," he said. "This is not just about the wildlife. It's not just about the quail. We, right now, are on the precipice of a collapse under our feet." The northern bobwhite, whose populations have plummeted by about 80% in recent decades, are the "canary in the coal mine," Estes said.

The hour-long presentation by state biologists, who sometimes used technical terms and flashed a series of bird, flower and grass slides to illustrate species that would benefit from deforestation, left many in the room unpersuaded and impatient.

"This came off as you trying to tell me my opinion isn't right and you know the science better," said Theresa Lawson, a Sparta native who now lives in Nashville. "I grew up on that mountain and my heart is still there."

Turkey, deer and squirrel hunters also objected to the plans, which could wipe out prime forested areas used by hunters for generations in the region, well before the area was established as state-owned lands.

"There is a time and a place for this," said Mike O'Neal, a lifelong resident of the area who hunts on the public lands. "This is not the place. I'm not against hunting quail at all. I'm for this beautiful place. You cannot cut hundreds of acres and take that away from people. Do not wipe out this area. Our kids will not see what we have seen."

A small group of hunters passionate about restoring quail for game hunting spoke, too.

Robert Grieving said habitat restoration efforts, like the ones TWRA is pursuing, have benefited hunters for decades.

"If, years ago, we didn't decide to take steps to conserve wild turkey, we wouldn't have the hunting we have here," he said. "You can't find a quail here unless you go up to a reserve and pay $400 a day. We can all sit here and say, 'let's do this somewhere else.' If we did that, we wouldn't have the wild turkey we have here."

Ending the meeting, Akins — TWRA's wildlife and forestry assistant chief — said the agency was "still in the planning stage of this whole thing. Nothing is set in stone."

It remains unclear what TWRA's current plans are for the area. The leaked map showing the agency planned to clear 2,000 acres of old-growth hardwood was "inadvertently" distributed on a field trip with members of Quail Forever, a quail restoration group geared primarily toward small-game bird hunters, according to Akins.

"It was not vetted with the agency through proper channels, but it has caused a lot of discussion and that's why we're here tonight," he said.

Since the leaked map was circulated, TWRA has issued a new map showing its plans to clear about 230 acres in the Bridgestone-Firestone area for quail habitat in its first phase of habitat restoration. Agency officials did not make clear Monday night how many acres of forestry growth would be leveled in subsequent phases. A five-year strategic plan published by the agency identifies the Bridgestone property as a key "quail focal area" for ongoing restoration efforts. The document notes that at least 1,500 acres of grassland is the minimum needed for quail habitat in a quail focal area.

The Bridgestone-Firestone area was deeded to the state with conditions, including a prohibition against clearcutting on the property except for certain exceptions. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation serves an oversight role to ensure state officials adhere to the conditions. A representative said they were reviewing TWRA's plans with attorneys to see if they comply with the conditions of the gift.

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