Residents, hikers, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts are not happy with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s plans to alter the landscape of the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness, which extends between White and Van Buren counties.
“It’s come to the attention of area residents, hikers, hunters, and nature lovers alike that Aubrey Deck, WMA director, has plans to clear cut the hardwoods, spray the vegetation, and attempt to make the area a predominant quail habitat,” Mike O’Neal, a White County resident and local hunter, hiker, and kayaker, said. “With that said, the aforementioned plans would destroy hiking trails, hinder the turkey and deer hunts as well as populations. Why is the WMA director choosing to destroy this beautiful area for one species?”
According to Marvin Bullock, president at the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce and outdoor enthusiast, the cutting, which is scheduled to begin this fall, will include trees between Eastland Road and the Virgin Falls parking area and will destroy the trails to Jenny’s Branch, Polly’s Branch and Puncheon Camp Falls.
“I have had several hunters approach me who are not in favor of this,” Bullock said. “TWRA plans to remove the hardwoods between Firestone Ranch and Virgin Falls, which will apparently include the Chestnut Mountain Trail. This action will clear the area like the area across from the Virgin Falls parking lot - - but this is hardwoods.”
Bullock said he also had been informed the purpose of the cutting is to create quail habitat, but the confusion stems from the fact there is already a quail habitat in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness.
“Currently, Firestone Ranch and the clearing across from Virgin Falls has created about 1,000 acres of quail habitat,” Bullock explained. “I can understand the removal of the non-indigenous pine, but I, like many others, I am not happy about the destruction of those hardwoods.”
Both Bullock and O’Neal and the host of other hunters and hikers that have stated their displeasure for the TWRA’s plans have said they are not at all opposed to the creation of a savanna (a grassy plain with few trees), which is what will happen when the hardwoods are removed but that they are opposed to its location.
“Just so everyone understands, we are not opposed to TWRA making a savanna, they have 3,000 plus acres of various stages of pine in Van Buren County to do this savanna and leave the hardwoods,” O’Neal said. “This [the cutting of the hardwoods as planned] will eliminate acres of deer and turkey habitat to benefit quail hunting only. Maybe one in every hundred hunters even hunt quail.”
Also troublesome to those who have been researching the proposed project is the fact the area was a gift from the Bridgestone Firestone Company. The Tennessee Trails Association, along with the Friends of Virgin Falls, have worked and fought to be sure the property remains pristine and beautiful. Also of concern is the discovery that if and when TWRA does the cutting of the hardwoods, they can keep 100 percent of the profits from the sales.
“The TWRA is the only government entity that gets to keep their profits,” O’Neal said. “So the money from the sale of the trees, what will they do with it? They are keeping the money from a gift that they were supposed to preserve.”
Additionally, the excavation will pull out many of the root systems that sit on the ridge above the Caney Fork River, which could result in erosion and ultimately cause damage to the river and the species that thrive there as well.
O’Neal and Bullock have been calling on residents, hikers, outdoor enthusiasts, and even those who like to come from other parts of the state to contact local and state government representatives as well as their TWRA commissioners to state their opposition to the location of the new savanna.
Recently, State Representative Paul Sherrell attended a TWRA commission meeting in Cookeville with O’Neal.
“I was asked by my constituents to take concerns to the TWRA commissioners regarding the clear cutting of timber on the Bridgestone/Firestone Wildlife Management Area in White County,” Sherrell said. “The purpose of the clear cutting would be to create a quail habitat.”
Sherrell said he is helping the residents in his home county to oppose the plan and is hoping to host a town hall style meeting between residents and the commission in the near future.
“I have not heard anything concerning their decision but will try to keep you updated as I know,” Sherrell said.
He also encouraged anyone with concerns or questions to call his office at (615) 741-1963. Sherrell said will attempt to answer all messages as soon as possible.
O’Neal said they were told in the meeting they wouldn’t be cutting close to any of the hiking trails, but a quick trip to the area shows that trees have already been marked and that they clearly border trail markers.
“It’s time to come together. TWRA Bridgestone WMA needs us all to reach out and voice your opinions via emails to Chairman Ripley as well as district commissioner McLerran,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal said email addresses, phone numbers, and office locations for all officials and commissioners are available on the TWRA website.
“Timing is important as this is expected to begin this fall,” O’Neal said. “Please let these commissioners know we as licensed hunters don’t want this type of management.”