We’ve been working on the Bridgestone Wilderness issue since last fall. We build a website that details the labyrinth of issues and lack of accountability with the Tennessee Natural Resources Agency (https://www.tennesseeheartwood.org/bridgestone-wilderness.html) The site cover a range of topics from the actual logging to the legal covenant to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s (TWRA) propaganda that “closed canopy old growth forests are biological deserts”. Our coalition has been working to clarify this gross misstatement enough to where the agency is now backtracking and dropping that scientifically inaccurate statement that was clearly designed to justify logging older forests. (It didn’t even accurately describe what is largely 60-year-old recovering second growth on the plateau part of Bridgestone).
Forest researcher John Johnson and I have taken several trips to Bridgestone to survey the forest, meet with local opposition leaders, and had an excellent “issues outing” hike that was attended by 15 locals. After talking back and forth with Sparta Chamber of Commerce Chair Marvin Bulluck, I suggested that our growing coalition have a strategy meeting. We met at the Sparta Chamber of Commerce. Participants included John, Marvin, a member of the Cookeville City Council, and some local outdoors/sportsmen. We agreed the top priorities should be: promoting Bridgestone and its scenic values; advocating for more transparency from TWRA, which has not only promoted this project, but has aggressively dismissed local concerns about the Bridgestone issue, while up to now being secretive about this and many other projects that it has going on throughout the state; and reaching out to ecologists, academics, and land managers who have reservations about the sudden rush towards large scale land conversion. As we well know, the record of such “restoration” projects has been mixed. We have spent over a decade visiting these kinds of projects in the region, ranging from the National Forests of the Cherokee, the Chattahoochee, the Pisgah, and the Daniel Boone, to the notorious 8600 acre “oak grassland” failure at the Land Between the Lakes that inspired the biggest forest protests in the region in decades. A short slideshow on these failures can be found here (https://www.dropbox.com/s/ygwphp2uykj4pn1/Some%20shortleaf%20pine%2C%20pine-oak%2C%20and%20oak-savannah%20restoration%20problems%20%281%29.pptx?dl=0 ).
As we have acknowledged on our website, not all restoration of grassland and open woodland habitats is inappropriate. We have commended TWRA for its work at Kyker Bottoms, a Ridge-and-Valley habitat where open lands has a strong historical occurrence. Places like the Black Belt Prairie of Mississippi and Pennyroyal Prairie of Tennessee and Kentucky are certainly worthy of attention. However, the claim by some advocates of the Bridgestone project that 1.9 million acres of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee alone should be converted to grassland is overreach based on a speculative model promoted by the Nature Conservancy – a model whose research and methodology still has not been published or peer-reviewed. The failures of large-acre projects of the 8600 at the LBL and the Brawley Mountain project in the Chattahoochee raise questions of scale and the ability to maintain what historically may have been smaller, ephemeral sites. If nothing else, a legitimate debate on historical lands composition is in order.
We continue to monitor the Tennessee State Forest Timber Sale program (current sales with maps can be found here https://www.tn.gov/agriculture/forests/state-forests/state-forest-timber-sales.html ). The continued trends of clearcuts turning diverse mixed hardwood forests in to low-biodiversity stands of a couple of species like poplar or white pine (often with encroaching invasive species are happing all over, from Prentice Cooper and Franklin on the Cumberland Plateau to Natchez Trace to the west to the Ridge and Valley of Chuck Swan. We are now on our seventh year of monitoring these cuts and it is time for serious reform. (our presentation on these issues here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/rzauntcvy36npni/tennessee%20state%20forest%20issues%20%281%29.pptx?dl=0 )
Our attempts at friendly engagement with the State Forester did not yield results in 2020, so we decided last fall that it was time to take things to the legislature…
Senate Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Presentation
As an outgrowth of our work on Bridgestone, we have been forging an alliance with Senator Heidi Campbell, the main supporter on the Senate Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee. Sheryl and I have had a couple of Zooms on strategy for Bridgestone, as well as to go over state forest issues, and the changing face of “ecological logging”. I was able to get the chance to present on state forests and the problems with restoration logging before the SEANRC last month. I had only 10 minutes, so we had to sacrifice complexity for brevity. Testimony with follow up Q and A here (https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/videowrapper/default.aspx?CommID=640000 February 23, we come in around 18:30). Senator Nicely had some excellent questions and brought up how all this state forest logging is depressing the private timber market. We’re working with Senator Campbell on coming up with some alternatives for state lands and for accountability reform of TWRA. The Senate is increasingly troubled by the lack of transparency and accountability by this agency. As one Senator has privately said, TWRA should never have been “turned loose” the way it has since the 1970’s. A couple of troubling examples of this is how the agency has no publicly available maps of all the lands it manages and a lack of public records on over 600 timber sales that it has made in the last decade. By contrast, our state forests at least have detailed timber sale announcements and maps with clearly delineated borders are freely available. Issues of funding structure and the nature of its board are also notable.
Bringing Accountability to TWRA
The Tennessee Natural Resources Agency (TWRA) has been operating for half a century with little transparency and accountability. So powerful is this agency that it lacks publicly available maps of many of the lands that it owns outright or manages. Its timber sale and mineral lease program operates largely in secret. One of the things resulting from the Bridgestone issue has been putting a spotlight on TWRA where it had not been before.
We have been in close contact with several local and state elected officials to assist them in addressing how to take on the agency. We have convened one physical meeting with White County officials and two Zoom meetings with a state senator to strategize and identify important points of reform. The result has included a couple of bills introduced in the Senate. While Senator Heidi Campbell’s bill that would strip the agency’s ability to generate income from timber sales (https://tennesseelookout.com/2022/01/27/bipartisan-bill-would-strip-twra-of-ability-to-generate-income-from-timber-sales/) did not pass, our testimony before the Senate Ag Committee suggesting that TWRA’s timber sale program have the same level of transparency as those of the State Forest Commissions resulted in the introduction of a bill shortly thereafter that did. (https://spartalive.com/stories/senator-bailey-passes-two-bills-regarding-twra,43328) We received congratulations from the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club for inspiring this legislation.
We’ve spent a while working with Lookout reporter Anita Wadhwani who has written several great articles on the Bridgestone issue( here https://tennesseelookout.com/author/anita-wadhwani/ )
She was frank about not being familiar with the different public lands agencies and the many controversies of restoration ecology. We’ve covered the basic issues outlined in the presentations I’ve enclosed. She wants to do perhaps several articles on current land management issues. I’ve suggested that she take a look at the Land Between the Lakes, as it is probably the largest “restoration logging” attempt that is ongoing, and where there has been enough time for “the results to be in” (as in - it's a failure), and for the compelling human interest story that has presented a unique situation where a deep Republican area has gotten elected officials (Senators McConnell and Paul) to pressure what has been a five year moratorium on logging there. (My presentation on LBL issues here https://www.dropbox.com/s/cyz6mz3szjdix94/LBL%20Coalition%20Presentation%20November%202015.ppt?dl=0 ). I also sent her a presentation on some controversies regarding budgeting at the LBL that I prepared for Sen. Blackburn and Hagerty recently (found here https://www.dropbox.com/s/x85dojaei2vedp1/LBL%20Budget%20Issues.pptx?dl=0). We’re working on having her and a photographer meet local activists and elected official there who are a part of the LBL protection coalition.
Cherokee National Forest Unicoi Mountain Logging Project
The final analysis and Record of Decision was made in Marhc. (https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=59945 ). Unfortunately, the Forest Service has not changed from its early proposal a year ago. We made three site visits and analyzed over 30 stands before the agency hosted a field trip ( presentation and legal comments here https://www.dropbox.com/s/girbaz3drz09iw3/unicoi%20proposal%20presentation.pptx?dl=0 and here https://www.dropbox.com/s/yjjrkqtr1ajvnpl/Unicoi%20Project%20Pre-Scoping%20Comments.pdf?dl=0 ). The issues at Unicoi Mountain include some heavy logging along very steep slopes, as well as likely mechanical equipment along the Benton MacKaye Trail. We filed an objection and will continue in our efforts to stop or at least reduce logging on the Unicoi. (https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/vuizrrhrjxos5gfd4y2ry/unicoi-objection.docx?dl=0&rlkey=fnpeu55kvgpfpo9lk1ctd5lns)
Offering Legal Assistance
Last year, we were asked to help Kentucky Heartwood gain access to information about a large “restoration” project on the TN/KY, the Jellico Project in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Since this is on a mountain that is mostly in Tennessee and Kentucky Heartwood has worked with us on important at the Land Between the Lakes, we were happy to help. Also, KYHW has several new young staffers who are learning the ropes. I offered to write a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for what is really just basic info about the composition of the forest stands in question that the agency has on tap anyway. This district has a long history of stonewalling on making information public. We wrote the FOIA in early November, well before the official public comment on the project began. (FOIA here https://www.dropbox.com/s/u8azf6yz0jetssl/jellico%20FOIA.pdf?dl=0 As the public comment opened in mid-January, we pressed them on their slowness and how much of the point of getting the info in the interest of informed public comment would expire when the comment period ended in a couple of weeks. They admitted that the information wasn’t hard to put together, but they kept stalling. On the last day of comment we wrote a “shot over the bow” letter, detailing the legal requirements of FOIA they weren’t in compliance with and demanding a comment period extension. (here https://www.dropbox.com/s/168w7ale3uruo4d/Jellico%20FOIA%20Letter%20February%2025.pdf?dl=0 ) On the next business day we got a letter with the FOIA information and a public announcement of the comment period extension. Kentucky Heartwood has thanked us profusely. We were happy to be of help here. We also visited the sale to get our comments in. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/n6sxlamzh7whsn2/Jellico%20IRMS%20Comments.pdf?dl=0)
Land Between the Lakes Protection Act
Finally, seven years of working on reform of the Land Between the Lakes Protection Act is yielding fruit. (https://www.mcconnell.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/pressreleases?ID=1BE4C142-77BE-4CAE-AC7B-8D873706F57C ). In 2015, we began helping local activists to bring awareness to the mismanagement of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area and the language of the LBL Protection Act of 1996 that left the LBL far too vulnerable to poor funding and the cynical use of “restoration logging” to the district. We helped put together a coalition that got logging halted for several years and kept a spotlight on the district’s funding structure. While this legislation is not perfect, it brings more transparency to the management of the land and provides a more stable funding:
“The bill establishes LBL as a separate unit of the National Forest System with an independent budget. To ensure the U.S. Forest Service devotes necessary funds to recreation and maintenance, it authorizes at least $8,000,000 each fiscal year for LBL. It also specifies that funds collected from charges and user fees at LBL will stay at LBL to perform new work or deferred maintenance.
The legislation changes the makeup of the LBL Advisory Board, requiring the board to consist of thirteen members and placing more control over the board at the local level rather than with the states or Washington, D.C. Members can serve multiple terms but not consecutive terms and must meet twice a year. To increase transparency and effectiveness, the board must distribute the notices and minutes of its meetings to the public and work with the Forest Service to develop an Annual Work Plan and Annual Forest Management Plan and discuss the balance and status of the LBL Management Fund.
Additionally, local communities have expressed concern over a lack of sufficient law enforcement personnel for the vast territory, forcing the unit to pull resources from surrounding counties. Last year the Forest Service conducted a Law Enforcement and Investigations program review in the recreation area which confirmed local officials’ worries and concluded that LBL needs to hire more public safety officers. This legislation encourages the Forest Service to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with state and local entities to clarify jurisdictional issues like policing and requires such a memorandum to be made public.
The bill also provides solace to the families of former residents of the LBL, better defining their status and expanding their access to cemeteries within the National Recreation Area’s boundaries.”
While all the implications for this legislation are too many to discuss here, the overall legislation forces the Forest Service to pivot more to non-logging management and to acknowledge cultural heritage values.
Our outings were a mixture of fun and issues oriented. Last Labor Day weekend, we held our 2nd Annual LBL celebration, complete with a nature walk with Tennessee State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath, and a kayaking to the headwaters of Pisgah Bay.
We have held two issues outings at Bridgestone that were well-attended to focus on the clearcutting and TWRA’s plans to continue logging with no public input.
We are also having “research” outings to select biodiversity hotspots in the Cherokee National Forest that brings volunteers and field scientists together. Our first area of focus for this year is a rare old growth black cherry/hickory forest that we discovered on Big Frog Mountain (outing will be on May 7). This is a little-known forest community that was first described in the 1950’s by Whittaker, but has received almost no research since then. We will also be revisiting a the low elevation table mountain pine-blackjack oak community we found above Tellico Lake to continue cataloguing the biodiversity there.