When his constituents approached State Representative Paul Sherrell with concerns about Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s plans to cut hardwoods in the Bridgestone/ Firestone Wilderness Area, he organized a town hall meeting so they could make their voices heard and ask TWRA for answers.
The meeting, which was Oct. 6 at, Sparta Civic Center, saw over 200 people come prepared to hear answers from 25 TWRA representatives, far exceeding Sherrell’s expectations for attendance.
“I think there’s a lot of interested people – a lot of concerned people,” Sherrell said.
Sherrell stated the attendance at the meeting spoke for itself with how people are feeling about the project that is slated to begin this fall and will result in the cutting of over 200 acres of hardwoods, affecting trails, hunting, and erosion.
“People from all over the state, and even some from out of the state, came to get answers,” he said.
The project would result in TWRA cutting the native hardwood trees on a large number of acres near the Welch Point and Virgin Falls areas of the wilderness in to create a savanna (a savanna is a grassy plain, with few trees) and increase the quail population in the area.
“We’re not against the quail,” Mike O’Neal, White County outdoor enthusiast, said.
O’Neal has been one of the most vocal opponents of the plans and has led a grassroots effort to educate the public and garner support against TWRA’s plans.
“We’re against the location,” he said. “They’re wanting to cut the same parts used by hunters.”
Those, like O’Neal, who oppose the plan are questioning TWRA’s motives for cutting the trees that provide habitat for deer and turkey as well as keep the cliffs and banks from eroding into the riverbanks below. The area is extensively visited by hikers, campers, and other outdoor adventurers.
“TWRA is trying to say that they need to cut the hardwood timber to have the quail habitat, but the people who hike or camp or whatever don’t want the hardwood cut,” Sherrell said. “It’s beside Welch Point and Virgin Falls and all the beautiful place people come to visit. They could go across the river to where there is non-native pine that is no good, and they could do the habitat over there ,and it wouldn’t bother people.”
Sherrell said part of his hope in hosting the meeting was to get answers for the people as to why the TWRA wouldn’t consider the Mooneyham area of the wilderness for the quail habitat instead, as well as to get a clearer picture of what the plans were and to let the organization know what the population really wanted their wilderness to look like.
“We really didn’t get an answer,” O’Neal said about the TWRA’s discussion during the meeting. “I think TWRA was impressed with the number of people that turned out, but I think that they have their heart set on doing this.”
The growing concern for the project has stemmed from a discrepancy in the amount of land that is set to be cleared. TWRA has stated the plan is to cut 250 to 300 acres, but a map that was found shows plans for many more acres.
“According to the map, which they are claiming is not official, that has been circulating, they have designated 2,043 acres,” O’Neal said. “When we asked, Aubrey Deck [TWRA biologist] stated that there were plans to deforest several more acres, but didn’t specify how many.”
Deck said he feels this is a misunderstanding and that the leaked map, which was never meant for the public, is a conceptual map and not a planning map.
“The only plan right now is for 250-290 acres,” Deck said, but did admit that TWRA officials have hopes for a wider deforestation effort in the future. “The exact acreage is still to be determined. We can’t commit to X number of acres, but we would love to expand existing fields by 1,000 acres.”
Again, the concern was expressed about why the hardwood area of the wilderness is being chosen, with opponents to the plan stating there are areas better suited for the creation of the quail habitat than the one being chosen.
“The only reason they are giving is that it is across the river,” Sherrell said. “But the State of Tennessee pays their gas and furnishes their vehicles, so there is no legitimate answer for not using the other area that is located on the Van Buren County side.”
O’Neal, on the other hand ,was told it had more to do with the distance for the birds themselves.
“TWRA has said that maybe they won’t migrate over there, but they’ve moved elk from Canada and the Rocky Mountains, deer from Wisconsin, transplanted river otters and species of fish, but you can’t move quail two miles across the river?” he asked.
O’Neal said if they truly believe the quail may not relocate or populate the area, it seems like the whole project may be more of an experiment than the loss of trees is worth.
“It seems like this is a big experiment for TWRA to get the quail back, and if it doesn’t work out, what have you lost?” he said. “Thousands of acres of hardwoods you’ll never seen again in your lifetime.”
According to O’Neal, the area on the Van Buren County side of the river contains several thousand acres of fast-growing, non-native pines that could repopulate in a short period of time, regrowing the forest if desired. Additionally, he said Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation owns property on that side of the river that would provide for expansion should the project be successful and need to be expanded, arguing that the Mooneyham area of the wilderness makes more sense for the quail habitat.
The focus of the Sherrell’s town hall meeting turned to a matter of money.
“People are asking questions about the financials,” Sherrell said. “It has been brought to my attention that hardwood will bring $50 a ton where the pine will only bring $25 to $30 a ton.”
Marvin Bullock, president of Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce, and someone who has been very outspoken in leading the opposition to the plan, said TWRA has admitted they get to keep the proceeds from the sale of trees, at the same time referring to old growth forests as biological deserts.
When Bullock took a turn during the meeting to present a slideshow detailing the benefits of leaving the hardwood area intact, he was cut off because of time constraints but felt it was more because he was beginning to question if the motive was financial.
“The TWRA went over their time limit,” he stated. “They were supposed to have 20 minutes to present, but used 40 minutes. When I got to the portion of my presentation that was going to show some things they didn’t want, they didn’t allow me the same courtesy.”
It is estimated that an average of 38 tons of hardwood can be harvested for each acre that is cleared, with some variances coming from the age of the trees and the density of the vegetation. At the $50 per ton amount that Sherrell quoted and 250 acres, that would mean that TWRA could see $475,000 from the cutting, however, the agency says that number is grossly over-estimated as they only project they will profit $80,000 from the sale of the wood.
“The TWRA is the only government agency that gets to keep the proceeds from anything they sell,” O’Neal explained. “Any other agency is required to turn that money over to the state to be placed in the general fund.”
While TWRA stood by their claim that the site was chosen as the best possible location for the quail, Jimmy Wallace, another White County outdoors enthusiast who is in opposition to the project, said he spoke with TWRA’s Wildlife and Forestry Assistant Chief Wally Akins after the meeting, and he indicated there may be some financial benefits driving the decisions.
“I asked him a direct question, why would you sacrifice the hardwoods instead of cutting the non-indigenous pine when you have more pine land than you need?” Wallace said. “He gave an answer that had more than one reason.”
Wallace admitted that in the first part of his answer, Akins said they wanted to connect the habitat with the existing land that was already there, hoping to make the transition for the quail easier and encouraging them to migrate to the new savanna.
Wallace then said he turned the conversation to the pines on the Mooneyham side of the river, stating they are 18 to 25 years old and are prime for cutting.
“They are getting ready to create a closed canopy and will have to be cut soon whether that’s where they create the savanna or not,” Wallace said, “but Akins said that there is no market for the pine, and they would have to just leave the wood on the ground should they cut it. He said, ‘so we don’t cut it, because there is no market for it.’”
Wallace said the indication he was given is there is, however, a market for the hardwoods that are being marked for cutting.
While O’Neal, Wallace, and Bullock feel TWRA didn’t listen to their concerns and is set on moving forward, Sherrell hopes otherwise.
“We are going to try our best to continue forward and see if we can get this stopped,” Sherrell said. “I don’t know if they were receptive or not, but a lot of the [TWRA] commissioners were there, so my hope is that [the meeting] helped them connect with their constituents and understand that the people don’t want this to happen, and maybe they can represent the people’s thoughts in further discussions.”