Tree trunks in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area in Sparta have been marked for clearcutting, despite local opposition. / Tennessee Lookout photo by John Partipilo

A plan by Tennessee wildlife officials to raze portions of a popular recreational area in White County has received a stamp of approval from the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to support the hunting and fishing policy objectives advanced by federal and state lawmakers.

The endorsement came as a surprise because neither the Tennessee Sportsmen's Caucus nor the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus have yet to take a position on the plan, which has met fierce opposition from local hunters, environmental groups and area residents.

(READ MORE: TWRA officials face pushback over plans to raze old-growth forests in White County)

Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, and Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper are both members of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, serves on the executive council of the National Association of Sportsmen Caucuses. The caucuses typically set the agenda for public policy issues, not the foundation.

The plan by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency calls for clearing hardwood trees from a section of the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area to establish habitat for the Northern bobwhite quail and a research center focused on the game birds, whose populations have plummeted by more than 80% in recent decades, according to state officials.

When a map showing plans to clear 2,000 acres of the wilderness area leaked late this summer, local hunters and economic development officials were outraged. The map called for cutting hardwood trees in areas frequented by hunters and hikers in a popular and scenic area just north of Fall Creek Falls.

TWRA officials later said the map was a conceptual map rather than an actual plan and announced at a community meeting called in response to local opposition that they initially would raze closer to 240 acres in the initial clearing, but did not clarify how many acres would ultimately be cleared to make way for savannas favored by quail. A five-year strategic TWRA plan to restore quail habitat notes that a minimum of 1,500 acres of grassland is needed for quail.

some text
Marvin Bullock, president of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce, compares plans to clearcut parts of the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area to the highlighted recreation spots in tourist brochures. / Tennessee Lookout photo by John Partipilo

(READ MORE: Environmentalists concerned about logging impact on Tennessee state forests' health)

The property in question was bequeathed to the state in parcels beginning in 1998 by Firestone Corp. — now Bridgestone Firestone — with certain conditions, including maintaining it as a wilderness area. Company officials have asked the Tennessee Wildlife Federation to review the plan to see if it meets those conditions. The federation holds the conservation easement for 9,231 acres of the property — and its role is to review and ensure activities undertaken on the property comply with the easement.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the tire giant said the company has not yet received a formal determination from the Tennessee Wildlife Federation.

"We trust that they are thoroughly reviewing the proposal against the land use covenants put in place at the time of the donation," said Sara Stanton, the spokesperson for Bridgestone Americas.

The Tennessee Wildlife Federation is "reviewing the specifics of TWRA's proposal internally," said Kate Hill, a federation spokesperson.

Hill said the federation did not play any role in the Congressional Sportsmen Foundation's decision to endorse the plan.

The Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation did not respond to a request for comment about its decision to endorse the plan.

(READ MORE: Local conservation group critical of 133-acre Prentice Cooper timber sale)

In White County, residents and officials continue to oppose the deforestation plan. Marvin Bullock, president of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce, has opposed the plan on economic development grounds: Visitors frequent the area to hike, kayak, hunt and fish, and an increasing number of new residents have relocated to the area during the pandemic as remote workers.

Bullock, who created the website, is hoping to rally residents in other parts of the state where quail restoration efforts are underway because "their favorite forest might be scheduled for removal."

TWRA quail restoration efforts call for creating grasslands at Lick Creek Bottoms in Greene County, Kyker Bottoms in Blount County, Bark Camp Barrens in Coffee County and Wolf River in Fayette County.