SPARTA, Tenn. – It is a pretty bird, easily recognizable by the dark stripes on the rust-colored feathers. Known as the bobwhite quail, a species of quail, its distinct chirp announces its name with a two-tone chirp that sounds “bob” and “white.”
The otherwise modest bird is now at the center of a fight for public lands in White County, Tennessee, pitting the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency against an unlikely coalition of hikers, hunters, cavers, and local business leaders and lawmakers on both sides of ray politics.
Agency documents obtained by a local hunter last month revealed plans to clear-cut 2,000 acres of ancient hardwood forest in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area to establish quail habitat and center. research focused on birds, whose sharply declining populations have spurred national efforts to restore grasslands where the species thrives.
The land earmarked for deforestation – a gift in the late 1990s to the State of Bridgestone Corp. and later the Bridgestone / Firestone company – is part of the beautiful, century-old vistas visible along the path to the Natural Area of the state of Virgin Falls, where seven waterfalls are connected by trails through large canopies just north of Fall Creek Falls. For generations, the area has also attracted deer and turkey hunters to state-owned land that provides access to hunting at a fraction of the cost often associated with hunting on private property.
“This will damage the view on most of the Bridgestone property,” said Marvin Bullock, chairman of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce.
Bullock is an energetic booster who grew up in the region and takes pride in his bedroom background. The county has seen a tourism-led economic turnaround of late – aided, in some ways, by the pandemic. Six years ago when Bullock started his job there were 50 empty storefronts and offices in downtown Sparta.
“Now you would be hard pressed to find 10,” he said. “We have 400 remote workers and 80 Airbnbs. This is a good indication of how attractive Virgin Falls is. Right now we have hardwoods that the three of us couldn’t reach together. It would take generations to get there. grow them back. It’s a really terrible idea that’s not only aesthetically unattractive, it’s economically unattractive. “
The TWRA is pushed back
Since the map was released last month, hikers, hunters and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, who are concerned about potential damage to the Caney Fork River from clearcuts , mobilized members from across the state to weigh in. .
A bipartisan trio of lawmakers – Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, Senator Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, also a Democrat from Nashville – lobbied TWRA for answers. A community meeting hosted by Sherrell is scheduled for Monday evening in Sparta.
“You’re going to walk through a burnt-out wasteland if that happens,” said Campbell, who said he received emails from voters upset by the plans.
After weeks of pushback, the TWRA began to respond publicly – a step it was not forced to take in its plans to deforest public lands. The agency has no public notice requirement when it clears timber on the nearly 1.5 million acres it controls across the state, a sore point among those now learning of the plans in the White County.
TWRA biologist Aubrey Deck told Tennessee Lookout last week that part of the pushback was the result of a misunderstanding.
The map the hunter obtained, Deck said on Friday, is a “concept map for a larger project, not a planning map,” he said.
“The only plan at the moment is 250 to 290 acres [of deforestation]”, he said.” The exact square footage remains to be determined. “
But Deck has made it clear that agency officials are hoping for a larger deforestation effort.
The TWRA has designated the Bridgestone Firestone property as the focal point for quails – a key part of a comprehensive five-year strategic plan to repopulate Bobwhite quail in Tennessee. Quail habitat requires at least 1,500 acres in each focal area of the quail to support the species, according to strategic plans.
“We can’t commit to X number of acres, but we would like to expand the existing fields by 1,000 acres,” Deck said.
Deck said plans to reestablish quail in Tennessee have been in the works for 20 years. Quail and other non-game species have been in decline for 40 to 50 years, and TWRA cites estimates that 80% of the bobwhite quail population has gone extinct in recent decades. Quails are game birds, and part of TWRA’s long-term quail goals is to prepare public lands for sport hunting.
“The population is in a desperate situation,” he said. “We are providing endangered ecosystems and restoring habitat. Quail is also a game bird, and that’s part of what we do at TWRA.”
Restoring the property to a savannah welcoming to quail and quail hunting – a grassy plain with few trees – would also benefit other species: among which are prairie warblers, field sparrows, big- blue bill and many endangered plants, according to TWRA. Grassland vegetation also provides food sources for the growth of deer antlers and nesting opportunities for wild turkeys.
Deck said he didn’t expect the plan to be pushed back.
“Every time you cut trees, there is a whole series of people who disagree,” he said. “The level of attention came as a surprise to me. We are not likely to run out of dense canopy forests.”
The property itself was a gift from Bridgestone, the first in a series of three donations of land totaling 16,000 acres in White County given to Tennessee by the tire manufacturing giant to manage like a wilderness since 1998.
The gift came with strings attached, and they are set out in the deed. Among them: “no cutting of wood nor any removal or destruction of trees will be authorized”.
This provision has limited exceptions, including to preserve and protect property against damage caused by fire, insect infestations, disease or other forces of nature.
Bridgestone officials were alerted to the discussion regarding the proposed cut and immediately contacted the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, which serves as a third-party custodian overseeing the property and enforcing the terms of the deed, said Sara Stanton, spokesperson for the society.
The company, which is otherwise not involved in the management of the property, has asked the Tennessee Wildlife Federation “to confirm that it is carefully reviewing TRWA’s proposal and fulfilling its obligation to meet the commitments put in place at the time. of the gift, ”Stanton said.
“To date, we have not received a final decision from TWF, but we understand that a conclusion should come in due course.”
Nate West, communications director for the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, said he was in talks with TWRA “to fully understand their current plan so that we can do that with legal counsel.”
“In the broad sense, as a non-profit conservation organization, we have supported throughout our 75 year history the proactive and scientific management of land to maintain or restore diverse habitats and diverse wildlife”, West said in an email. “Whatever the outcome of this proposed project, the point is that savannahs are an endangered habitat in the Southeast that was once common and provided critical habitat for many species across Tennessee. “
“Not against quail”
In late September, in the early hours of the opening Saturday of the hunting season, Mike O’Neal drove his truck past the trail entrances, handing out flyers to hunters in camouflage gear and hikers carrying backpacks along from the only road that winds through the wilderness. In places along the road, blue paint on the trees marked the planned cut lines.
O’Neal is a long-time hunter, among the first to get his hands on the agency’s map, which was printed on the flyers he handed out from his vehicle. The leaflets also urged people to contact TWRA and their state officials to oppose any plans to cut timber in the forest.
“We’re not against quails,” O’Neal said. “We’re against the location. They want to cut the same pieces used by hunters. A lot of people who hunt here, they can’t afford a hunting lease, and some of these guys aren’t as young as they are. ‘were. They would have to walk too far if this thing happens. “
O’Neal said he was particularly puzzled by the clear-cutting plans for old-growth forest as the Bridgestone Firestone property also contains several thousand acres of non-native pine, a fast-growing tree that can repopulate itself in not much time. .
“It seems like it was a great experience for TWRA to collect the quail,” he said. “But if that doesn’t work, what have you lost? Thousands of acres of hardwood you’ll never see again in your life.”
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