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.”

The body of a 2-year-old boy was recovered Monday morning from the Blackburn Fork River at Cummins Falls State Park.

J.R. Tinch, assistant chief ranger with the Tennessee Park Service, said during a press conference Monday morning that the boy and members of his family were attempting to exit the gorge Sunday afternoon as waters in the river were rising to dangerous levels. They were separated and the boy subsequently drowned.

The boy’s body was located Monday around 7am “a couple hundred yards” downstream from the falls, “not very far” from where he was pulled apart from his family the day before, Tinch said.

The boy was identified as 2-year-old Steven Pierce of Eddyville, Ky.

Tinch described the event as a “very tragic” situation. “It has been a tough a day for everyone involved,” he said.

More than 60 people on Sunday had to be aided by regional rescue personnel after they were 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.

Unanticipated flash floods have resulted in prior deaths at Cummins Falls, a popular state-managed day-use recreation area near Cookeville in Jackson County. In July 2017 two women died — one of whom was trying to help with rescue efforts to find the other — when stream levels elevated quickly and gained strength after torrential storms dumped heavy rain in a short period of time.

Tinch said officials will conduct a “comprehensive review” of Sunday’s fatal misfortune to determine what exactly happen and if additional safety regulations or protocols are needed in the area.

“It is not necessarily the rain that fell in the park, but the rain that fell in the watershed,” said Tinch. “As all that rain collects in the watershed, it gathers quickly and rapidly, and when it all joins, the more force that comes down, and the larger the water rises.”

Park staff reported that it took just two minutes for the river to rise from safe to hazardous levels.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture has announced that updated rules and modified permitting requirements are being applied to the state’s budding hemp-growing industry.

In a department press release issued Monday, state ag commissioner Charlie Hatch said hemp regulations have been changing at the federal level, and as a result Tennessee is “updating our program rules to be more consistent with how other crop programs are managed.”

The 2018 Farm Bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump removed hemp from the federal controlled-substances list. Nevertheless, it’s still against federal and state law to grow even nonpsychoactive cannabis without a state-issued license.

In wake of the federal government’s loosening of hemp-growing restrictions, there’s been a massive expansion of interest in growing hemp just over the last year.

This year, the department has licensed more than 2,900 hemp growers  — whereas in 2018 TDA issued just 226 licenses.

Last season, Tennessee growers produced a state total of 1,034 acres of planted legal cannabis strains. Tennessee’s largest field was a 250-plot grown for fiber in Macon County, according to the department.

Tennessee hemp farmers last year spent on average about $2,301 per acre cultivating their crops, a 2018 TDA survey reported.

“The three top expenses were land, equipment and labor,” the survey found. “Growers spent the least on acreage fees, inspections, and interest. The largest market appears to be in hemp oil high in cannabinoids.”

Department of agriculture officials say the new changes to the hemp program will “better serve hemp producers.”

Among the regulatory shifts is an elimination of application-period deadlines for obtaining a license to grow hemp. That process is now open year-round.

In addition, the state will no longer issue certifications for seed breeders. However, anyone marketing seed should seek licensing through TDA’s Ag Inputs section.

Also, hemp processors — unlike growers — won’t in the future be required to register through the state. Growers, on the other hand, will not only need to acquire “movement permits” when transporting rooted live plants, they’ll also be required to obtain official government permission and paperwork for transporting harvested hemp from a grow site.

Tennessee lawmakers in 2014 authorized the state Department of Agriculture to develop a licensing and inspection program for the production of hemp in Tennessee.

“Hemp has been an important crop throughout the history of the U.S., and to a certain extent in Tennessee,” according to TDA’s website.

In the 1800s, hemp fields were a common sight in Middle Tennessee.

“Although industrial hemp contains very little of the hallucinogenic properties of marijuana, production and processing declined after World War II with the passage of state and federal laws aimed at regulating the narcotic varieties of Cannabis,” says TDA’s hemp history info page. “Its decline was further accelerated with the development and availability of cheap synthetic fibers. Also, the resurgence of cotton production in the deep South was likely a contributing factor to hemp’s decline.”

Following a no-confidence delivered by the Republican caucus of the Tennessee House of Representatives yesterday, Speaker Glen Casada has announced he will no longer serve as the the lower-chamber’s top legislative officer.

Casada, R-Franklin, issued a statement Tuesday saying he wants to “facilitate a smooth transition” to a new speaker.

Gov. Bill Lee, who said Monday night he’d be willing to call a special session of the House in order to remove the scandal-beset speaker, lauded Casada’s announcement.

“Speaker Casada has made the right decision, and I look forward to working with the legislature to get back to conducting the people’s business and focusing on the issues that matter most to our state,” the Republican governor tweeted.

The Tennessee Senate’s speaker, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, also applauded Casada’s move. McNally had been among those suggesting Casada should step aside in wake of a scandal involving the House speaker’s former chief of staff.

McNally, a Republican from Oak Ridge, wrote on Twitter: “Speaker Casada announcing his intent to resign is the right decision for the legislature, the @TNGOP and the state. I commend him for it. Now we move forward. I am committed to working with leadership in the House to help restore the trust that has been lost in any way I can.”

On Monday, Republican lawmakers gathered in Nashville to vote on whether Glen Casada, the politically besieged GOP speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, retains enough support to continue on in his role as the the chamber’s presiding officer.

Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin

The results went markedly against the Williamson County Republican, who was elected to serve as speaker just this year.

On a 45-22 vote, the House Republican Caucus delivered a no-confidence motion, signaling that faith in Casada’s ability to effectively run the legislative body is critically in doubt.

The outcome of the vote was seen as something of a surprise, given that only a handful of the 73-member House Republican Caucus had previously given any public indication that they want to see Speaker Casada step down or be removed in wake of revelations that one of his former staffers sent racially disparaging and sexually explicit text messages in years past, in addition to boasting about using illegal drugs.

Some of the electronic private messages at issue were received by Casada himself, who apparently made no effort to reprimand or take disciplinary action against the employee — and later promoted him to chief of staff after Rep. Casada was elected speaker.

Monday’s vote appeared to mark a dramatic shift in Casada’s political fortunes — with some of the state’s most powerful and prominent GOP politicians and operatives now pushing for his removal as speaker.

“The vote of no confidence by the Republican caucus sends a clear message; it is time for the Speaker to heed the advice of the majority of his fellow legislators and step down from his position of leadership and allow someone else to begin the process of restoring the trust of all Tennesseans,” Republican Party state chairman Scott Golden said in a statement Monday.

Also on Monday, Governor Bill Lee said he’d be open to calling a special session of the House of Representatives to strip Casada of his leadership post if the embattled speaker refuses to go voluntarily.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, has joined calls for Casada to step aside as well.

“Regardless of how long ago, regardless of what the behavior is, we take this type of allegation very, very seriously,” Lamberth told reporters following the vote. “And I think that has been stated very clearly by this caucus today.

Republicans in both the Tennessee House and Senate enjoy supermajority control of their respective chambers, meaning their voting bloc is large enough to set agendas and conduct business irrespective of the wishes of Democrats, who enjoy little popularity and support outside the state’s major urban areas.

House Democrats have been calling for Casada’s removal since the scandal broke earlier this month.

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.

Yahweh non grata in Democrat-controlled U.S. House

Fresh off his widely-panned fried chicken-noshing schtick contrived to mock the U.S. attorney general for declining to attend a pre-prepped political searing in the House of Representatives, Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen has once again cooked up a recipe for national attention and controversy.

Recently, United States Rep. Steve Cohen labeled Attorney General William Barr a “chicken” for refusing to testify before House Democrats regarding the Mueller Report. Fearing the subtlety of his barb might be lost on the American body politic, the Democratic congressman from Memphis sought to further illustrate the point by using props.

This time, though, the seven-term Shelby County Democrat is in the news not for the powerful Trump administration names he’s hankering to grill in committee hearings, but for a higher-power name Cohen and fellow majority-party members want henceforth excluded from formal congressional proceedings.

Upon orders from House Democrat leaders, who seized gavel-handling dominion from Republicans in wake of the 2018 election, the words “So Help Me God” have been removed from the swearing-in oath administered to committee witnesses.

Cohen was quoted in a Saturday New York Times article indicating he’s apparently divined the Divine’s Will, and the Ruler of the Universe no longer wants His name invoked as an attestation of testimonial truth.

Here’s an excerpt from the story headlined, “‘So Help Me God’ No More: Democrats Give House Traditions a Makeover”:

In the House of Representatives, to the winner go the spoils, and Democrats, the new decision makers, control everything, including what legislation gets a vote and the minutiae of procedural choices, such as whether witnesses must utter the traditional plea for divine aid.

Democratic chairmen and chairwomen of several key committees have deemed no such entreaty is necessary.

“I think God belongs in religious institutions: in temple, in church, in cathedral, in mosque — but not in Congress,” said Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

What Republicans are doing, he continued, “is using God.”

“And God doesn’t want to be used,” he said.

 

Two of Tennessee’s foremost elected officeholders, Gov. Bill Lee and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, have made statements this week highlighting their disapproval with House Speaker Glen Casada, who is embroiled in scandal involving his former chief of staff.

In a meeting with the press Thursday, Gov. Lee was asked if he’d request that Casada resign, were Casada one of Lee’s employees.

Lee responded, “I would.”

Likewise, McNally declared that were Casada a member of the Senate, he’d ask him to resign — and that if he himself faced similar circumstances, he’d call it quits.

“If it were me, I think if I did some of those things, I’d probably be packing my bags for Oak Ridge,” McNally, referring to his hometown, told a reporter. McNally is Casada’s counterpart in the Senate.

(Update: Lt. Gov. McNally on Friday issued a statement saying he believes “it would be in the best interest of the legislature and the state of Tennessee for Speaker Casada to vacate his office at this time.”)

Earlier this week, Casada’s 32-year-old chief of staff, Cade Cothren, stepped down after it was revealed that in year’s past he sent inappropriate and offensive text messages, some of which were directed to Casada himself.

Like Casada, both Lee and McNally are members of the Republican Party, which enjoys supermajority control over both floors of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Knoxville Republican state Rep. Bill Dunn, who serves as speaker pro tem of the House and is in line to replace Casada, is among those who say the Williamson County lawmaker is no longer fit for the job as the lower chamber’s presiding member.

Calls for Casada to hand over the speaker’s gavel to someone else have been mounting among both Republicans and Democrats in the legislature.

On Thursday, reporters for USA Today subsidiaries in Tennessee were invited “by multiple lawmakers” to eavesdrop on “a remarkable Wednesday afternoon conference phone call” among House GOP caucus members to discuss the scandal.

During the call, Casada was quoted as saying, “I want to take ownership of what I did, which was wrong. I sent a text to Cade and another individual with inappropriate comments. It was base at best.”

Speaker Casada also told lawmakers on the call, “Let me be very clear, there is nothing else to come out.”

 

A top aide to Glen Casada, Tennessee’s speaker of the House of Representatives, has resigned in wake of revelations that he sent sexually inappropriate and racially demeaning text messages while employed at the state legislature.

Nashville news outlets reported Monday that Cade Cothren, the House speaker’s 32-year-old chief of staff, announced he is leaving his position. He’d been promoted to the post following Casada’s election to serve as the chamber’s presiding lawmaker back in January.

Cothren said he was resigning so “House and Senate Republicans can continue focusing on those things that make Tennessee the best state in the entire nation.”

Speaker Casada, a Republican from Williamson County, issued a statement following Cothren’s announcement:

“Effective immediately, my Chief of Staff, Cade Cothren has resigned from his position. As this story continued to evolve in recent days, I had additional conversations with Mr. Cothren, and he made this decision to resign. I thank Mr. Cothren for his service to our General Assembly and to the state of Tennessee.”

Over the past several days news outlets have been publishing some of Cothren’s personal text messages from 2014-2016 that appear to indicate he engaged in ill-advised sexual and drug-using behaviors. Also in the electronic communications, he employed offensive slurs describing black people and certain women he associated with professionally, according to media outlets..

First-year House Majority Leader William Lamberth said he was “incredibly shocked and disappointed” by the contents of Cothren’s text messages that’ve thus far been made public.

Lambert said in a statement he “agreed with (Cothren’s) decision to resign immediately.”

“These allegations are grave and serious; I do not condone these actions, and they will not be tolerated,” said Lambert.

During a press conference at the Capitol Tuesday, Democrats called for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to probe the scandal for ethical and potential criminal violations. (See video below.)

During the closing days of the recently adjourned 2019 legislative session, Tennessee lawmakers approved a measure allowing online-gaming providers to begin legally offering internet-based sports betting in the state.

The bill initially passed the House on a vote of 58-37 and cleared the Senate 19-12. The Senate’s version was later adopted by the House, 51-40.

Sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville and Memphis Rep. Rick Staples, a Democrat, the online-only gaming legislation garnered support across party lines.

Proponents of the initiative project that legally-sanctioned internet-based sports betting in Tennessee could, as a result of taxes and licensing fees, increase state and local revenues by more than $50 million annually.

Staples said at least ten gaming companies have already committed to doing business in Tennessee should the measure become law.

Opposition in both chambers came mostly from majority-party Republicans, but didn’t rise to the level necessary to kill the legislation. They argued that the predicted financial windfalls to the state are exaggerated, and that the drawbacks — in particular, more Tennesseans becoming gambling addicts and squandering family resources — would prove significant.

House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, voted in favor of legalizing online sports-betting, while Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, voted against it.

Most state lawmakers whose districts encompass the Upper Cumberland region voted against the measure, including GOP Senators Mark Pody of Lebanon, Paul Bailey of Sparta and Janice Bolwing of Tullahoma.

House Republicans Ryan Williams of Cookeville and Cameron Sexton of Crossville voted in favor of the bill.

Gov. Bill Lee has expressed personal opposition to gambling and said he won’t sign the bill — but he doesn’t plan to veto it either.

“The governor has said he does not believe that the expansion of gambling is best, but he recognizes that many in the legislature found this to be an issue they want to explore further,” a spokeswoman for Lee said. “He plans to let this become law without signature.”

In Tennessee, the General Assembly can override a gubernatorial veto with simple majorities in both chambers.

Other states seriously considering legislation to legalize sports betting this year include Iowa, Montana, Louisiana, Illinois and Indiana. Sports betting is already allowed in Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

The Tennessee legislation prohibits online betting across state lines or by people under 21.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law strictly limiting state-level gambling, thus paving the way for legislatures to approve gaming.