Controversy as TWRA seeks to convert forest to grassland in White County

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness area encompasses more than 10,000 acres in White County and contains numerous forested areas, trails, and waterfalls. But, when word got out that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency planned to convert hardwood forest areas into Savanna grassland to act as a quail habitat, many locals objected to the planned changes.

Aubrey Deck, the TWRA WMA Coordinator for Region III, says that these potential changes to the wilderness area are still in the planning stages.

“We’re still in the process of vetting,” Deck said. “The proposed plan with the easement holder part of the property is in a conservation easement, and so, we don’t have that process completed yet. But, if it does pass muster with the easement itself, right now, our plan is to fen approximately 230 acres.”

However, even the proposed changes have been controversial.

State Representative Paul Sherrell says that many of his constituents have concerns about the impacts on people who frequently visit the area. Many local hunters, hikers, and campers want to keep the wildlife management area as is.

“So we do have a lot of people that are concerned they’re taking away this beauty that Firestone Bridgestone gave the people back years ago,” said State Rep. Sherrell. “They gave it to the State of Tennessee to manage it and keep it like it was for, and people are just not happy with what they want to do.”

Some residents are concerned that the TWRA plans to remove trees in this area because of the profit potential. The TWRA does keep the profit from the sale of any trees that are cut.

However, Deck says that this is standard procedure for the TWRA.

“The money goes back to TWRA, and that money is used, it can be used to buy more equipment for law enforcement, it can be used to buy more equipment for the property managers to manage the property, it can be used to buy seed, fertilizer, etc. So, that money will be used for future wildlife conservation projects, period,” Deck said.

The potential sale of lumber is a sticking point for many who regularly use the wilderness area.

“They’re wanting to cut the beauty trees because the hardwood brings $50 a ton to cut it,” State Rep. Sherrell said. “If you take it to the market, or if you go across and cut the pine that’s over there, It’ll bring maybe 20 or $25 a ton.”

TWRA denies this is a factor in their decision-making process.

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“We don’t receive pressure to make make money. That’s just not something that we do,” Deck said. “If we did receive that pressure, this would be the last stand in the woods that we would cut. It is not a highly marketable stand of timber.”

The TWRA also hopes that converting the 230 acres into grassland will help encourage plant and animal diversity.

“We’re not artificially causing the system to be there, the system wants to be there naturally, that we are restoring the ecosystem that naturally would be there,” Deck said. “If you go back, you know, 100 years plus, all the way back to 1000s of years, you know, there is a record of that the majority that the Cumberland Plateau was more grasses and wildflowers than trees.”

Right now, many citizens are pushing the TWRA to go across the Piney Fork River and turn an area of pine trees into the quail habitat instead. As this story continues to develop, News 2 will bring you the latest updates.

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