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Rep. Ryan Williams a Face of TN’s Political Future

Newly elected House GOP caucus chief in prime position to champion Upper Cumberland issues, potential

Congratulations, Cookeville. Your state representative in Nashville is arguably the most popular member of the 74-member House Republican supermajority.

He’s also now among the most powerful.

Just days after winning a landslide re-election bid on Nov. 8, incumbent state Rep. Ryan Williams won appointment to serve as chairman of the House GOP caucus for the next two years in the Tennessee General Assembly.

Williams earned selection to the position by beating Rep. Kevin Brooks of Cleveland in the intra-party caucus elections that Republicans held in Nashville on Nov. 17.

Williams won 47 votes to Brooks’ 23.

The job of majority-party caucus chairman in either the House or the Senate is among the most politically influential roles in the Legislature.

“In the last three weeks, I’ve met more with the governor one-on-one than I did in the previous four years,” Williams said in a phone interview on Dec. 1. “That’s just the difference it makes.”

Williams said his new assignment will likely benefit not just Putnam County, where his district is located, but the entire region. Having “a voice for the Upper Cumberland” involved in setting the state’s policy agenda will ensure that issues important to citizens of the plateau and Highland Rim won’t get overlooked, he said.

State Sen. Paul Bailey, a Republican from Sparta, said he’s very pleased a regional lawmaker has assumed such a high-ranking role. “It’s wonderful news for the Upper Cumberland,” he said.

Williams’ ascension to caucus chairman bodes particularly well for farmers and forestland owners and others who live and work outside urban population hubs, said Bailey. His Senate district includes Putnam, White, Cumberland, Jackson, Overton and Bledsoe Counties.

“Ryan is someone who can definitely speak up for the rural communities of Tennessee, and especially the Upper Cumberland,” said Bailey. “He knows our values and he appreciates the challenges that we face. He will be able to take that message to Nashville.”

During the caucus elections, GOP lawmakers also tapped members for other leadership posts, including a new majority leader and a nominee to serve as speaker of the House, which will again be Beth Harwell of Nashville.

Williams won more caucus votes than any other Republican seeking a House leadership slot.

He replaces Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin, who served as caucus chairman for eight of the last ten years. Casada this year sought and won the title of majority leader, beating out Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah, 42-29. That position was previously held by Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, who didn’t seek it again this year.

Speaker Harwell turned away a challenge from Jimmy Matlock of Lenoir City, 40-30, thus ensuring her third term presiding over the House of Representatives.

In an interview with Center Hill Sun after the caucus votes, Casada described Williams as “the face of up-and-coming leadership in the Tennessee House of Representatives.”

“I am really excited about Ryan’s tenure in the leadership,” said Casada. “He will bring in fresh ideas, fresh legs and hard work to the job.”

Likewise, Speaker Harwell praised Williams as a capable legislator whom she expects will excel in his new capacity.

“Representative Williams will be an asset on the House Republican leadership team, and I look forward to continuing to work with him,” Harwell said in an emailed statement. “The next two years we will do all we can to ensure that Tennessee is the best place in the country to live, work, raise a family, and own and operate a business. Ryan has done a great job representing Putnam County and will continue to be a strong advocate for the entire Upper Cumberland region.”

Williams, who is married and has two children, also works as a salesman for J&S Construction Company in Cookeville. He was first elected to the Legislature in 2010. He’s also a past member of the Cookeville City Council and the city’s Planning Commission.

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Military Chopper Accidentally Cuts Through TVA Cables

LANCASTER, TENN. — A U.S. Marine helicopter may have narrowly averted disaster here last weekend after severing a pair of static lines along a high-voltage TVA transmission system in the vicinity of Center Hill Dam.

The system was in fact out of service at the time and therefore not carrying a charge, according to TVA officials.

The incident occurred around mid-morning on Saturday. Residents in the area heard and observed at least one military whirlybird flying low to the terrain above wooded hills and hollows not far from the Caney Fork River, about a mile downstream from the Corps of Engineers dam in northern DeKalb County.

The aircraft was reported by a Marine Corps spokesman to be an AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopter. Its estimated value is more than $10 million.

The helicopter collided with the TVA lines along a 1400-foot span between two rugged hilltops a short distance from Highway 141. It was able to continue flying.

An investigation is ongoing, according to Marine Lt. John Roberts, a public affairs officer. He said the helicopter was, at the time of incident, returning to its base at Marine Corps Air Station New River near Jacksonville, N.C. following a training exercise.

“Why they were flying so low, that’s a valid question as part of the investigation,” said Roberts. “We will figure out exactly how they got into that situation, why they were there, if there was something else going on.”

The cost of repairing the helicopter is yet unknown, he said. “Obviously we can assume there was damage to it, but we just don’t know the extent of that damage,” said Roberts.

There are five lines linking the transmission towers. The two uppermost cables are parallel-running “nonelectrical” static wires designed to protect the system against lightning strikes.

The entire transmission line was under repair at the time, so no electricity was flowing through the system, said Jim Hopson, TVA public relations manager.

Hopson said there’s been no formal tabulation on the cost of damages, but the Marine Corps will likely get the bill ultimately.

“The way this works is that we typically do expect the agency that caused the damage to reimburse us for cost associated with repair,” he said.

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A TVA lineman works to repair static lines linking transmission towers that a Marine helicopter severed in DeKalb County on Oct. 29.

A dispatcher at DeKalb County Emergency Communications in Smithville took a call around 6 pm Saturday from a Marine captain reporting the wire strike. TVA crews began inspecting the damage Sunday night.

A Marine helicopter was observed circling the site of the incident on Monday morning.

Neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. Media relations contacts for both agencies said the United States military investigates all accidents and incidents involving its own aircraft.

The helicopter may have been outfitted with with special wire-cutting devices, which helped avert a serious accident. “Wire strikes…account for about 5 percent of all civil and military helicopter accidents,” according to a 2008 FAA report on the effectiveness of wire-collision protection systems.

Matt Zuccaro, president of the Virginia-based Helicopter Association International, said wire-cutters can prevent “catastrophic results” by “eliminating the possibility that you will get tangled up in the wire.”

“There is also technology that actually detects the wires,” Zuccaro said.

However, the best course of action for pilots to keep clear of power lines is to maintain a safe altitude above them, he said.

“The primary safety protocol for avoiding wires is not to be down at the elevation of the wire environment to begin with,” said Zuccaro, who has nearly 50 years experience flying helicopters, including in Vietnam and as an Army flight instructor. “We recommend that when helicopters are in operation they be up at a satisfactory cruising level — which normally might be at least 1500 feet on an average flight.”

Zuccaro said he expects a full inquiry into the incident. “The military is very good about investigating all incidents and accidents, and they have a very good safety program,” he said.

“The primary question is — and we ask this question all the time ourselves –Why was the aircraft at the altitude it was when it encountered the wires?” he said. “It is either going to be mission-related, or it is going to be another reason that brings to question, Why was the flight operating at that altitude?”

In 2009, a Marine helicopter flying from California to North Carolina struck TVA power lines in White County near Rock Island State Park. The craft was forced to make an emergency landing after offloading 600 gallons of fuel, according to news reports.

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Buffalo at Home Roaming TN Highland Range

America’s newest national symbol is on majestic display at Lazy G Ranch in Putnam County

Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when people think of the great American buffalo.

But prior to the demolition of wild bison herds across this country in the latter 19th Century, the massive, magnificent beasts wandered vast sweeps of the continent — not just the Great Plains and Mountain West.

The historical range of Bison bison bison — which is the buffalo’s distinctive scientifically accurate name — encompassed an immense expanse of the North American interior, from Alaska to Alabama and even into the Florida panhandle.

Buffalo Valley, just off the I-40 Center Hill Dam exit, is said for example to have gotten its name because the area served as a congregating point for migrating bands of bison meandering down to water in the Caney Fork.

The multitude of bison that once ranged this country at the end of the 18th Century, and the magnitude of their demise in the century that followed, is almost impossible for the modern American mind to grasp.

More than 40 million buffalo are estimated to have roamed what’s now the Lower 48 and upper Mexico two centuries ago, and tens of million more lived north of the U.S. border. In less than 50 years in the late 1800s, buffalo numbers plummeted to near extinction.

“To go from tens of millions of wild buffalo down to thousands — that’s something that is hard to comprehend,” says Eddie Gaw, who runs a herd of aboubisonbwt 30 bison on his Lazy G Ranch a few miles north of Cookeville on Hwy 135.

Today roughly half a million bison exist in America, on both public and private lands. Wild herds are managed by fish and game agencies in 11 states, including the Land Between the Lakes. That’s far, far fewer than the wild wandering herds of centuries past that the Lewis and Clark journals said “darkened the whole plains.”

But all the same, it’s an undeniable turnabout in the bison’s fortunes. And that was brought about by a growing popular appreciation for buffalo, coupled with efforts to preserve the colossal even-toed ungulate’s iconic place in the country’s imagination by ensuring it continues to exist on its landscapes.

Gaw’s buffalo serve as a living local monument to an ongoing conservation triumph. But to him, raising bison in the 21st Century is about planning for the future as much or more than just remembering the past.

Safeguarding a Living Symbol

The bison’s rebound has bisonwebbabymommabeen commemorated this year with its formal recognition as an official symbol of the United States.

In April, Congress passed the National Bison Legacy Act, which designates the buffalo as the “national mammal.” President Obama signed the Act into law May 9.

The Act declares that “bison are considered a historical symbol of the United States.” Buffalo were “integrally linked with the economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes through trade and sacred ceremonies,” the measure goes on.

Furthermore, buffalo historically shaped the terrain they roamed, which aided in the health and survival of other native plant and animal species. “Bison can play an important role in improving the types of grasses found in landscapes to the benefit of grasslands,” the Act reads.

Passage of the Bison Legacy Act marked the climax to a half-decade-long effort by the Vote Bison Coalition, a collection of more than 60 buffalo-advocating businesses, ranchers and nonprofit groups. A statement on the coalition’s website described Congress’s approval of the Act as “a great milestone for an animal that has played a central role in America’s history and culture.”

Marketing Sustainable Meat

The Bison Legacy Act specifically recognizes early efforts by private ranchers in rescuing the buffalo from oblivion.

“A small group of ranchers helped save bison from extinction in the late 1800s by gathering the remnants of the decimated herds,” declares the Act, which also expresses that “bison hold significant economic value for private producers and rural communities.”

Today, bison that are “under the stewardship of private producers” are responsible for “creating jobs and providing a sustainable and healthy meat source contributing to the food security of the United States,” the Act declares.

Dedicated to promoting bison’s potential as a source of beauty, pride and healthy red-meat protein, the National Bison Association is among the groups delighted to see the bison given official national significance along with the bald eagle and the oak, which was declared America’s National Tree in 2004.

“There has never been a national mammal,” said the association’s assistant director, Jim Matheson. “Bison being the largest mammal on the continent, and also probably the greatest conservation success story of America. So we see it as a great fit.”

Some of the bison at the Lazy G Ranch, particularly non-dominant bulls, are slaughtered for meat and hides. But Gaw’s foremost mission is raising awareness. He’s hopeful a charge of bison-promoting publicity related to the National Mammal classification will send more folks his direction for a firsthand look at the country’s newest symbol.

Gaw has set aside about half of his 150 acre spread of rolling grassy pasture for his bison. Over time, he’d like to more than double the size of the herd to around 75, and expand their range to most or all the ranch’s pastureland.

Awesome to Behold

Already, it is not uncommon to see more than a dozen cars pull into his ranch driveway on a Saturday to gaze while the buffalo graze.

What is it about bison that people find so captivating?

bisonwebblizzard

“Blizzard” is a rare white bison. His owner, Eddie Gaw, bought him as a calf two years ago. Like a lot of privately owned buffalo in America, Blizzard’s genetic profile probably includes some trace DNA remnants of beef-cow. Mr. Gaw is a member of the National Bison Association, which opposes ranchers purposefully cross-breeding buffalo with cattle.

“Just look at them,” says Gaw. The two words that typically spring to people’s minds when viewing bison — especially up close — are “powerful” and “majestic.”

That, and “big,” of course.

Bulls can weigh more than a ton and stand six-and-a-half feet tall at their hulking shoulders, The horns on their mammoth, wooly heads — worn by males and females alike — can grow two feet long. These burly beasts seem not far removed from the Ice Age.

Bison are startlingly agile and fast. “Buffalo can jump six feet vertical. Anything they can lay their chin on, they can jump,” Gaw said. And they can outrun a horse over sustained distances.

Just looking at them is precisely what Gaw wants more people to do at his ranch. He encourages visitors to stop and simply behold the grand critters.

Their stately grace is undeniable, whether ambling slowly along munching at turf, laying about ruminating their cuds, loping over a hill in a rumbling formation, or blithely bathing in a dirt wallow, which Gaw said they do to ward away bugs.

“A lot of people just don’t really know much about buffalo,” he said. “Anytime I see people down by the road watching them, especially if they’ve got kids, I like to go down and talk to them, and maybe educate them a little.”

Gaw is happy to entertain fibisonwebwarningeld trip buses of youngsters and adults. Residents of the Fairfield Glade Retirement Community in Cumberland County were excited to visit after reading a story in the Crossville Chronicle a couple years back about a rare white buffalo calf that Gaw had acquired from South Dakota.

“Blizzard,” as the blond young bull was christened, is a baby no more. But he still attracts an audience, including American Indians for whom a white bison holds particularly solemn spiritual significance.

Gaw said Indians have come to his ranch and sat on the grass for hours at a time meditating on the sight of Blizzard and the rest of the herd. “I’ve even had them write me letters asking for locks of hair,” he said. “If they have buffalo hair in their house, it’s Good Medicine.”Google ChromeScreenSnapz005

One of the best viewing times to watch the bison on Gaw’s ranch is as the afternoon wanes. That’s when they tend to get particularly lively and animated, calves and adults alike.

“In the evening, sometimes they’ll get to running and run the whole area of their field,” said Gaw. “They’re liable to do it for 30 minutes, chasing each other just like they are playing.”

If you’d like to call ahead to book a guided visit, call Eddie Gaw at 931-528-1681. Look them up on Facebook at Lazy G Ranch TN. The ranch address is 6070 Dodson Branch Rd (Hwy 135), which is about five miles north of TTU’s Hooper Eblen Center.

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Burgess Falls Overlooks Closed, Park Still Open

Repairs planned, but not for popular old metal stairway

Storm-damage last summer to scenic observation decks and the unique gorge-descending staircase are keeping prime Burgess Falls viewing points inaccessible this spring.

A notice on the state park’s website declares, “Repair work should begin on the overlook shortly, but the stairs down to the main falls will remained closed.”

Visitors may still hike along the Falling Water River and view various smaller cascades in the park.

“Extensive damage” to the metal staircase and overlooks in July resulted in both being “compromised and badly damaged,” park officials say.

Repairs are planned for the main falls overlook, which will cost around $55,000, and the middle falls overlook after that, said Kelly Brockman, a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman.

burgessclosedsign

Storms last summer blew out two overlooks and the staircase into the gorge at the popular state park along Falling Water River.

Federal money has also been earmarked for park upgrades by way of the Americans With Disabilities Act. “That should help as well,” she said. “We do have funding for that, and we are in the early design process.”

However, no plans are in the works to fix and reopen the staircase, which is fastened to 90-year-old concrete pillars.

“That’s more of a capital project, and we don’t have funding for that right now,” said Brockman.

Located on the Falling Water River southwest of Cookeville, Burgess Falls State Park is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike.

“A lot of folks come from all over the United States to see this, it’s unbelievable,” said Mike Jeffers, whose family runs MMKM Family Produce on Burgess Falls Road.

Jeffers’ business is noticeably off this spring, as it was last year after the overlook and staircase closings.

“We’re down 50 percent, easy,” he said. “People go down there and they come out mad. They drive a long way and they can’t see anything.”

Jeffers, who’s been in business 13 years, figures he can weather the financial doldrums, though. When the Window Cliffs Natural Area opens, “we’ll be right in the middle of both parks,” he said.

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Talkin’ Turkey Restoration in TN

Robust return of iconic game bird has been hailed a marvel of modern conservation

Few sounds echoing through the woods are more emblematic of springtime in Tennessee than the exuberant gobble of a strutting tom turkey.

But not so long ago, that sound — along with clucks, cackles, peeps, whistles, yelps and other modes of turkey talk — was all but unheard in the wilds.

By the early 20th Century, turkeys had virtually disappeared from Tennessee. Remnant populations survived only in remote swatches of the Cumberland Plateau and Mississippi River bottomlands.

turkeynwtfToday, however, turkey populations throughout the country appear stronger than at any time since likely before Europeans began settling North America.

And nowhere has the rebound been more impressive than Tennessee and the South. The great turkey turnaround is one of the “tremendous success stories” of American wildlife restoration efforts, said Brad Miller, a regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation.

“Particularly in the last 25 years or so, turkeys have really grown in numbers across the state,” he said. “In 1990, hunters killed a little over 2,600 birds in Tennessee. Fast forward to the year 2000, and they reported killing a little more than 22,000 in Tennessee.”

In the current decade, hunters are bagging in the neighborhood of 30,000-35,000 birds a year statewide, said Miller.

Few have a keener appreciation for the turkey’s arduous odyssey than Tim White, a biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

White’s become something of a Tennessee turkey historian, having investigated two-and-a-half centuries worth of books, statistics, articles and photos documenting the demise and recovery of turkeys across the three Grand Divisions.

He calls today’s overall robust health of today’s flocks “pretty astounding,” given what the future looked to hold in the first half of the last century.

But even well before that, turkeys were facing trouble. Throughout the mid-to-late 1700s and into the 1800s, wild turkey populations had started declining, he told the Center Hill Sun. The culprit then was primarily over-hunting.

War is Hell on Wildlife, Too

But it was the Civil War and its aftermath that set in motion the most ruinous period for the wild turkey. Habitat destruction resulting from four savage years of military operations in the South proved catastrophic for many native wild species, said White.

“The Civil War had some pretty devastating impacts on habitat and wildlife, and not just turkeys,” he said. Estimates suggest that in the years 1861-1865, Union and Confederate armies were clearing 400,000 acres of timber a year just for firewood, White said.

In the war’s aftermath, so continued the “big downward slide for a lot of wildlife, like elk and passenger pigeons that went extinct,” he said. “Deer and turkeys were really hit hard, too.”

“People killed and ate pretty much anything that they could find. There was widespread poverty,” he said. “Most everything was in pretty serious decline.”

Under the Deadening Chestnut Tree

Yet the the nadir was still to come.

Another decimating shock started taking shape in the early years of the 20th Century: The appearance of the chestnut blight. Over the course of the ensuing four decades, virtually all the mature, native chestnut trees in the eastern United States were felled by the disease. Prior to the blight, as many as one in every four or five trees in American hardwood forests are thought to have been chestnuts.

“The chestnut was really common in the Southeast back in the day,” said White. “It was a really important food source — and it was suddenly gone.”

To make matters worse, as the chestnut die-off was climaxing, the Great Depression commenced. And just as in the aftermath of the Civil War, destitute-stricken rural populations often turned to hunting wild meat for basic sustenance, or selling for extra money.

“Everything seemed to be working against the turkey back then,” said White. “The forests had been obliterated all across the Southeast. By the end of the 1930s, we were pretty well at a low point with wildlife — not just in the Southeast but probably everywhere.”

Hatching Restoration Plans

For the entire decade of the forties, turkey hunting was banned in Tennessee. But White said few probably took much notice: There were hardly any birds left to kill anyway.

Over roughly the same period, more than 3,700 pen‐reared “wild” turkeys were released across the state, 200 at a time. Most all succumbed to predation or disease or the general rigors of nature, and the stocking of the quasi-domesticated turkeys was halted in the early fifties.

White sees 1949 as the beginning of the bounce-back for turkeys. With the state Legislature’s formation of the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission as a stand-alone agency, more focus and technology was brought to bear on restoration, and regulation of hunting became a primary concern.

turkeyhunting1950s

A state conservation officer tags one of only 14 turkeys legally killed in 1951. That was the first year turkey hunting was open since 1940. (Photo credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives; Dept. of Conservation photo collection.)

Still, the 50s were lean times. Conservation officers at the time reported turkeys absent in more than half of Tennessee. In many of the counties where turkeys were confirmed to exist, sightings were “very rare.”

But things were actually starting to look up.

Wildlife managers in 1951 began attempting to trap both deer and turkeys for transplant, a strategy that would ultimately prove essential for reintroduction efforts across Tennessee. But it was slow going at first, especially for turkeys. It took three years before state officials actually even caught one. According to White, just 119 birds had been relocated by 1960.

However, new systems of trapping would soon prove revolutionary.

The black powder cannon-net — which was later upgraded to a military-grade rocket-net — propelled out when fired and descended upon an unsuspecting flock of feeding birds. The turkeys could then be efficiently captured, tranquilized and transported to new environs.

There’s unmistakable irony in the fact that explosive-driven projectiles, much so responsible for disintegrating wild turkey flocks, did also ensure the revered bird’s extraordinary resurgence.

Even so, the net method still wasn’t an overnight success, and had its ups and downs. In his book, “Boxes, Rockets, and Pens: A History of Wildlife Recovery in Tennessee,” Doug Markham describes how even the howitzer powder-powered net mortars didn’t always work. “If you blinked your eyes, you missed it,” said one former wildlife management official interviewed for Markham’s book. “But even as fast as the rocket nets were, we still had turkeys outrun them.”

Rebound and Recovery

As the years wore on, though, the successes started to mount.

All told, according to White, more than 11,000 turkeys were trapped and relocated in the second half of the 20th Century. The wildly successful programed was ceased in 1999 because it was deemed to achieved the goal of bringing sustainably reproducing, harvestable turkey populations back to all 95 of Tennessee’s counties.

Caston Bowers, 11, and his sister, Laney, 8, always get geared up for going after spring gobblers. Their four-month-old cousin, Lizzie Watson, might have to wait a couple years.

Caston Bowers, 11, and his sister, Laney, 8, always get geared up for going after spring gobblers. Their four-month-old cousin, Lizzie Watson, might have to wait a couple years.

According to National Wild Turkey Federation population estimates, Tennessee is now one of the top states in the nation in turkey populations.

Although calculating accurate aggregate turkey numbers is difficult, NWTF’s 2015 “Spring Hunting Guide” put Tennessee’s statewide flock at 315,000. Only five states had higher totals — Texas with 500,000, Alabama with 400,00, Kansas with 350,000, Georgia with 335,000 and Missouri with 317,000.

“Although the wild turkey once was found only in isolated pockets and inaccessible areas, populations now occupy more square miles of habitat than any other game bird in North America,” concluded an NWTF publication summing up the turkey’s sensational history. “The restoration is truly a modern conservation marvel that is a credit to the wild turkey’s adaptability to a variety of climatic and habitat conditions, as well as to the great bird’s ability to respond well to modern management.”

(Note: The feature image at the top of this story is a portrait titled “Sons of Thunder” by Ryan Kirby. The National Wild Turkey Federation named Kirby its Stamp Print Artist of the Year for 2016. His work is available for purchase at ryankirbyart.com.)

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Spring Colors Reign at Edgar Evins State Park

There really isn’t a bad time to visit Edgar Evins State Park. But if you’re looking for a best time, spring is arguably it.

As winter recedes and summer approaches, colors emerge, then abound. Birds, buds, leaves, butterflies and beautiful Tennessee wildflowers burst forth with vital vernal effervescence. Read more

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Dividing Lands, Divided Loyalties

Tennessee tragically epitomized that axiomatic phrase used to describe America’s terrible 19th Century sectional conflict, “brother against brother.” Read more

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Regional Lawmakers Oppose State Gas-Tax Hike

All seven of the Tennessee General Assembly lawmakers whose districts surround Center Hill Lake have pledged to oppose raising taxes on gasoline and diesel next year. Read more