Use-permit and mandatory safety course under consideration for entry into gorge area after Sunday tragedy

Trails in and out of the Cummins Falls river-gorge area in Jackson County have been closed as a result of a fatal weekend flash flood that took the life of a 2-year-old boy.

Jim Bryson, deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, issued a memo Wednesday affirming that access to the Blackburn Fork River at Cummins Falls State Park will remain blocked “until we can evaluate the incident and review and implement additional safety protocols.”

The memo was addressed to David W. Salyers, commissioner of TDEC, which is the agency that oversees state parks and natural areas in Tennessee.

“At a minimum, the falls and gorge area will remain closed until the department conducts a full assessment of the circumstances and considers and implements additional protocols to address rain events in the watershed area,” Bryson wrote.

Trails around the state park in the forest above the river gorge are still open.

On Sunday, more than 60 people had to be aided by regional rescue personnel after becoming trapped in the rugged river gorge below Cummins Falls as a result of rising waters and increasingly rapid currents. Fourteen people required “swiftwater or rope evacuation” in order to reach safety.

The child who died, Steven Pierce of Eddyville, Ky., was reportedly separated from his family in treacherous currents and subsequently drowned. His body was located Monday morning “a couple hundred yards” downstream from the falls, a state parks official said.

The sudden stream surge — which arose in just a couple minutes — resulted from thunderstorms dumping rain upstream in the watershed, not over the state park itself, according to state park officials.

Four Tennessee state lawmakers who represent the surrounding region issued a sternly worded letter to Bryson on Tuesday, asking why additional safety measures promised in the past haven’t yet been implemented at the park, which has been the site of fatalities resulting from sudden water-rises before.

“In 2017, your department announced plans to install a warning system at Cummins Falls State Park to better monitor the gorge’s rising water levels,” stated the letter, written by Republican Sen. Paul Bailey of Sparta, House GOP Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton of Crossville, Republican Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville and Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston. “It is now June 2019, another life has been lost and the warning system has still not been installed.”

They said assurances were made following the last fatality that “a system would be implemented in an effort to prevent further deaths.”

“Why has this warning system not been installed at Cummins Falls State Park? It is past time to make installing a warning system a priority,” they wrote. “We cannot continue losing precious lives at one of Tennessee’s most visited state parks. We ask for your immediate attention to this matter and prompt installation of a warning system before more lives are lost.”

Bryson’s memo, sent a day after receiving the correspondence from the legislators, outlines a series of “ongoing actions” to improve safety in the gorge. He said an “After Action Report” will examine park polices and investigate park staff’s actions “before, during and after the incident.”

Bryson said TDEC is in communication with the National Weather Service to better monitor the watershed above Cummins Falls and develop “a new protocol for warning of potentially dangerous situations.”

Also, water-level measuring devices will be placed upstream to alert park staff to surge hazards, he said.

“An emergency procurement authorization has been secured to purchase and install a water flow monitoring system as an early warning system,” wrote Bryson, who was just last month appointed to the TDEC position in which he now serves. “It will be installed with all possible speed.”

In the future, the Cummins Falls State Park may establish “a permit requirement that will help us manage the visitation and ensure visitors have attended the safety program before going down into the gorge.”

Cummins Falls park staff, he added, “will be set up to have monitors for regular weather updates and the ability to receive notification from the flow meters that we are working with (Tennessee Tech University) to implement.”

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, June 3, 2019:

Most Tennessee Promise Saturday events are on June 22

NASHVILLE – Tennessee State Parks are offering volunteer events at 54 of the 56 state parks for Tennessee Promise scholars to fulfill their community service hours. Most of the events are on Saturday, June 22.

“This is an excellent opportunity for Tennessee Promise students to meet their requirements and be a part of the outdoors at the same time,” said Jim Bryson, deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. “Tennessee Promise is giving students a great chance to further their education, and we’re glad Tennessee State Parks can be a part of that.”

Tennessee Promise Saturday includes a variety of work projects at the parks, including landscaping, invasive plant removal, litter pickup, trail maintenance, and more. Participants should wear appropriate clothing for the work and bring items such as water, snacks and sunscreen. Students should check with each individual park on the activities planned and details on what they will need to do and bring.

Students are encouraged to find details about service hours at state parks by visiting https://tnstateparks.com/about/special-events/tn-promise-saturday.

Tennessee Promise provides students the chance to attend tuition-free any of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology or other eligible institutions offering an associate degree program. One of the requirements to maintain eligibility is to complete eight hours of community service. For the class of 2019, the deadline to complete the community service is July 1. The parks also accept help on Tennessee Promise Saturday from any volunteers who wish to participate.

The two parks not part of Tennessee Promise Saturday are Big Cypress Tree State Park and Dunbar Cave State Park, but students near Dunbar Cave can go to nearby Port Royal State Park for its event.

This weekend state parks and wildland recreation areas across Tennessee will be hosting guided hikes, special activities and volunteer events in celebration of National Trails Day.

On the first Saturday of June for the past 26 years, the American Hiking Society has promoted a nationwide gathering of hikers of all ages, abilities and experience levels to discover or rediscover a sense of beauty and adventure along a local public-lands footpath.

Thousands of the trail-marching meet-ups are hosted throughout the country throughout the day.

The concept for National Trails Day is to connect people with a wide range of trail activities on a single day.

This year, National Trails Day is expected to “establish a trail service world record” by having “the most people improving trails in a single day,” according to AHS.

National Trails Day represents “an opportunity for people to feel connected to nature and to learn about a Tennessee State Park at the same time with the guidance of a park ranger,” said Anne Marshall of the Department of Environment and Conservation. “Whether you’re interested in a park’s history, seeing incredible views or taking a challenging trek, our parks give everyone that feeling that you can’t get anywhere else.”

Below is a partial list of hikes and events scheduled for Saturday at Tennessee Upper Cumberland regional state parks. For a full statewide listing of National Trails Day activities, go to https://tnstateparks.com/about/special-events/national-trails-day-hikes/

Edgar Evins State Park

Millennium Trail Hike. 8-11am. Roughly 2.5 mile hike over moderately strenuous terrain.

2nd Annual Storybook Trail Ribbon-Cutting Party. 10am-1:30pm. Hike on the half-mile trail to see the new book, “Anybody Home?” Event includes craft-making for kids and a wild animal show.

Cummins Falls State Park

National Trails Day Hike. Meet at 9am, Tiny House by parking lot for 2.5-mile round-trip. Stops along the way by old Cummins house, waterfalls overlook and base of falls. (See page 1 story.)

Cedars of Lebanon

2:30-4pm. Explore newly acquired Sadie Ford Historic Farm.

9am-noon. Volunteers gathering for trail-maintenance and park beautification activities. Meet at Nature Center.

Fall Creek Falls

Hike to the Base of Fall Creek Falls. Meet at 9am at the Main Overlook of Fall Creek Falls at 9:00am central time for a short but strenuous hike to the bottom of the falls.

Virgin Falls State Natural Area

Hike to Virgin Falls. 8am-4pm. Strenuous 9-mile in-and-out trip. Features spectacular waterfalls and other lovely Cumberland Plateau water features. Hike is free, but call for registration (limit 20 people).

Rock Island State Park

Collins River Trail Hike. 10am. Meet with ranger at trailhead on National Trails Day for free interpretive walk around moderately difficult two-and-a-half mile-loop.

Burgess Falls State Park

9-10:30am. Park Manager Bill Summers will lead free guided stroll.

South Cumberland State Park

Work on Collins Gulf Trail. 9am-3pm. Join staff for a day of building trail in beautiful Collins Gulf to celebrate NTD at South Cumberland SP.

Cordell Hull Birthplace State Park

Lecture: Tennessee’s Superb Suffragists: A Legacy of Leadership. 1pm. Tennessee women’s suffrage movement scholar Paula F. Casey will discuss ratification of 19th Amendment.

Press Release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, May 14, 2019:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee State Parks will celebrate National Trails Day with free guided hikes at all 56 state parks on Saturday, June 1.

This will be the third of the state parks’ signature hikes this year, following First Day Hikes in January and Spring Hikes in March. Thus far, 4,787 park visitors have participated in the hikes.

“This is an opportunity for people to feel connected to nature and to learn about a Tennessee State Park at the same time with the guidance of a park ranger,” said Anne Marshall, acting deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. “Whether you’re interested in a park’s history, seeing incredible views or taking a challenging trek, our parks give everyone that feeling that you can’t get anywhere else.”

The American Hiking Society designates the first Saturday in June as National Trails Day as a day of public events aimed at advocacy and trail service. Last year, 108,947 people participated in 1,203 events across 50 states.

Tennessee State Parks are offering a variety of ranger led hikes, night hikes, history hikes, nature hikes or trail clean-up hikes. With more than 1,000 miles of trails, ranging from easy paved trails to rugged backcountry trails to scenic waterways, the state parks have something for everyone.

For more information about the hikes visit: https://tnstateparks.com/about/special-events/national-trails-day-hikes/.

A former Republican state senator and candidate for governor has been selected to oversee Tennessee’s system of state parks and natural areas.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation announced Monday that Nashville entrepreneur and marketing specialist Jim Bryson, who in 2006 ran an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign against incumbent Democrat Phil Bredesen, will replace Brock Hill as deputy TDEC commissioner.

Jim Bryson

Hill, a Cumberland County native, was let go earlier this year following allegations of “workplace misconduct.”

The department’s press release is below:

TDEC Announces Bryson Deputy Commissioner for Parks and Conservation

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner David Salyers today announced the appointment of Jim Bryson as deputy commissioner of Parks and Conservation at TDEC.

“Jim’s experience in business, state government and community involvement, coupled with his passion for the outdoors, makes him uniquely qualified for this position,” Salyers said. “I look forward to working with Jim to make Tennessee State Parks the best run state park system in the nation.”

“I am honored to be chosen for this role and I look forward to serving Tennessee in this capacity,” Bryson said. “We have an outstanding record in parks and conservation in Tennessee, and I am committed to building on that success alongside the incredible staff. This is a special opportunity for us to preserve and enhance enjoyment of the great natural wonders of our state.”

Bryson is founder and president of 20/20 Research Inc., a market research consulting, project management and technology firm based in Nashville. The business launched in 1986 and is a global leader in online qualitative research software and services. Its QualBoard research platform is used by clients in over 90 countries and in more than 30 languages. Bryson served three terms as president of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, an international association of research professionals.

Elected in 2002, Bryson served four years as a senator in the Tennessee General Assembly, representing Williamson and Davidson counties, and was his party’s nominee for governor in 2006.

Bryson’s love of the outdoors began in rural Arkansas, living near Lake Dardanelle and Lake Dardanelle State Park. He spent many days and nights in the park, on the lake or in the woods hiking, camping, hunting and fishing.

Bryson is founder and president of The Joseph School, providing a globally competitive education for poor and orphaned children in Haiti. He was a founding board member of the Marketing Research Education Foundation, focused on improving global childhood education. He is a member of the Nashville Downtown Rotary Club and First Baptist Church in Nashville. He received a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University after graduating from Baylor University. He and his wife, Carol, have four children and two grandchildren.