‘Storybook trail’ nearing completion; ambitious mountain biking runs planned

Rangers and volunteers at Edgar Evins State Park are working on two new trails that’ll likely boost the park’s appeal to visitors young and not-so-young alike.

Scheduled for completion by the end of May, the “Reading Ranger Story Trail” near the Interpretive Center will give kids and their parents an opportunity to stretch both their legs and imaginations.

A storybook trail, as it is also called, is a relatively short and easy path with blown-up pages from a children’s book posted along the way. You have to keep walking to get to the end of the story.

Tennessee’s first state park storybook trail opened a year and a half ago at Long Hunter State Park on Percy Priest Lake.

Childhood Development, Early & Often

That trail was the brainchild of Ranger Leslie Anne Rawlings, who built on a concept called “StoryWalks” that originated in Vermont a few years ago. There, the idea was to separate the pages from actual books and affix them along trails for kids to discover.

Rawlings has taken the idea a few steps further — and made it bigger and more weather-resistant. She has secured permission from children’s book publishers to enlarge and outdoor-proof the pages so they will last a long time.

Inspiring early appreciation for the outdoors and amplifying a child’s desire to read for pleasure are ideally where the storybook trails ultimately lead, said Rawlings. She also hopes they will encourage more communication and cooperation between state parks and public libraries.

Trail-building starts with “flagging” a path.

Other parks besides Edgar Evins are planning to build new storybook trails or repurpose existing ones.

“Eventually, we hope to get to the point where we can trade our stories around among a lot of different parks,” said Rawlings.

The Edgar Evins storybook trail, which is a pretty easy quarter or so mile loop, is located across the street from the Interpretive Center. A trail ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for June 2 in conjunction with the park’s celebration of the American Hiking Society’s National Trails Day.

Who Wants Mountain Biking Trails?

Turning Edgar Evins State Park into an inviting mountain biking destination is something Kenny Gragg has been saying is high on his to-do list since he took over as park manager last winter.

He reports that about six new miles of multi-use backcountry trail is now in the course-plotting phase, and it’ll be designed principally with mountain biking in mind.

Volunteers are necessary to make good, sustainable trails as inexpensively as possible. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)

Justin Vaughn, a native of Putnam County who’s worked at the park six years, admits he’s no expert on mountain biking. However, he knows where to go for advice and assistance from mountain biking mentors. The crew at Outdoor Experience’s Caney Fork Cycles in Cookeville, as well as Middle Tennessee’s SORBA chapter, a network of bike trail enthusiasts, are lending energy and know-how to help ensure the project’s success.

“What I am hoping to do is keep costs as low as possible while providing the best trail possible to park visitors,” he said. He’s hoping all or parts of the trail could be open for riding by end of this fall or early next spring.

Vaughn predicts the chances for timely completion and epic results will no doubt be enhanced if calls for volunteers are heeded among interested communities when the word goes out.

“That is something that is part of the planning process — figuring out where I am going to get volunteers,” Vaughn said. “But part of the reason we’re building it is that interest in biking trails is growing. A lot of people come to us and say they’d like to see a trail here. We’ve listened to those visitors and we’re working on it.”

(Feature image: Ranger Leslie Anne Rawlings with local children at Long Hunter State Park. Photo by Jason Allen)

Prospects brighter for giant provider of wood, food and forest shade

As it often turns out, for better or worse, the future just ain’t what it used to be.

But in the realm of hardwood forest health, that actually ought to be a big win for the tall, dark and handsome black walnut, which is certainly no stranger to the wooded hillsides, valleys and ridges of Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region.

Not so long ago, though, it looked like dismal days indeed lay ahead for the opulent heartwood of the eastern U.S. heartland. A tiny twig beetle was casting a long and ominous shadow out over the horizon, potentially menacing the survival of many millions of black walnut trees across their native range.

Given the appalling pandemic that befell and felled the American chestnut, and the ongoing disaster unfolding as a result of the emerald ash borer’s baleful spread, anxiety among forest health experts soared back in the early years of this decade when a malevolent blight called thousand cankers disease, or TCD, was discovered in the Knoxville area.

Thousand cankers disease is described by scientists as a “disease complex” that is native to the western United States. It is an arboreal ailment that scientists say results from  “the combined activity” of a fungus (Geosmithia morbida) spread by the walnut twig beetle (Pityophthorus juglandis).

Walnut twig beetle

A disease that primarily affects black walnut trees, TCD gets its name from a pernicious propensity to inflict numerous small ulcers or “cankers” on trees. If proliferation of the cankers brought on by the beetle’s “overwhelming attacks” goes unchecked, it will kill the tree.

Of particularly worrying concern when the twig beetle and TCD was detected in Tennessee was not only that the pestilence had not yet been observed east of the Mississippi, but that the Volunteer State essentially constitutes the very core of black walnut country.

“Tennessee is roughly in the middle of the native range for black walnut trees,” said Steve Powell, the state’s chief entomologist. “So when it was found in 2010, it was really unfortunate.”

Tennessee’s Division of Forestry estimates there are 26 million mature walnut trees growing throughout the state’s countrysides, and another 1.3 million in urban areas, representing a combined standing economic timber value of $2.84 billion.

Forest Fears Festering

The sinister dread primarily bugging scientists, conservationists, loggers and forestland owners after the discovery of thousand cankers disease in east Tennessee was that black walnut trees were facing a crisis similar to that currently witnessed with emerald ash borer, which is now in more than 60 Tennessee counties. EAB is a bonafide “catastrophe” for ash trees wherever it appears, according to Vanderbilt University biological sciences professor Steve Baskauf.

“The emerald ash borer has been expanding its range throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada at a steady pace and there is currently no way to stop it,” Baskauf wrote in 2015. “All attempts at quarantine or creating ‘firebreaks’ have failed. The only real question is when the EAB will arrive in an area. It’s like a giant steamroller slowly rolling down a hill towards your house. You can see that it’s coming and you know that when it gets there, it’s going to smash your house. But there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Fortunately for black walnut trees, though, TCD isn’t EAB.

While TCD has in fact ravaged black walnuts in the Western United States, those trees are not native to that environment. They were historically introduced from the Midwest and Eastern U.S.

“The pioneers took their black walnuts out west and planted them,” said Alan Windham, a plant pathologist with the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture. “They had black walnuts in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado — usually planted along streams and rivers.”

Windham said it appears now the black walnut’s devastating susceptibility to TCD in the West looks to be greatly exacerbated by natural environmental stresses as a result of the drier climate out there, which greatly inhibits a tree’s ability to fight off and survive the condition.

No Place Like Native Home

The wetter Eastern U.S. climate is, by contrast, more to the black walnut’s liking than the arid west.

Trees here appear much more capable of fending off the disease — and even recovering after a TCD infection sets in, which is uncommon in the West, said Windham.

“When TCD showed up here, there was an assumption that the same thing would happen here that happened there — that it would be very damaging to the species,” Windham said. “But here we are, more than seven years later, and it really hasn’t moved much from the initial location in Knox County. The good news is that we have had a totally different experience with thousand cankers disease in the Eastern United States than what the scientists who had followed it out West were perhaps anticipating.”

While black walnut trees are not as plentiful in Tennessee as in some states, especially further north, they nevertheless play a crucial role in forest ecosystems and wildlife habitats here. Demand for the delicious nuts, among both humans and fulltime forest-dwelling fauna — like squirrels, raccoons, turkeys and bears — is robust.

And like sapling shoots invigorated with the spring, walnut timber prices are reaching ever upward. Demand for the exquisite, richly-grained black walnut wood, especially for decorative veneer, is “extremely strong right now,” said University of Tennessee extension forester David Mercker, who tracks Tennessee timber prices as part of his job.

“It increases almost on a weekly basis,” he said.

And that has been the case for a while now. “The loggers and mills just can’t get enough of it,” Mercker said.

Jonathan Boggs, who manages a woodland resource consulting firm based in Dickson County, said that while it’s true walnut trees are currently fetching premium prices, don’t assume you’re in for a tidy and effortless payday just because you have one growing out on the lawn in the subdivision where you live.

“Believe me, I get two or three calls a week from somebody that’s got a walnut tree in their front yard and they’ve been hearing the same thing that everybody is hearing, that prices are real high,” said Boggs. “The reality is that it may be worth something if you’re willing to cut it down yourself and take it to a mill. But you’re probably not going to get a buyer to come and cut a single tree — or even a few trees — out of your yard. It just isn’t going to be feasible for them to do that.”

Boggs added, though, that if you’re a logger or a landowner contemplating a timber sale, a 25-foot walnut log that’s at least 24 inches on the small end might yield $10 a board foot. “There could be 500 board feet in that tree, so in all reality it could bring $5,000,” Boggs said. “But most yard trees aren’t going to have that quality or board feet in them.”

A forest-grown black walnut tree is “going to have better characteristics” than an urban tree — like “not having any low-hanging limbs,” he said. “They self-thin themselves in the woods.”

Going for Nuts

For some rural landowners and freelance foragers, the nuts are basically just another crop to harvest when they start dropping in the fall.

The two Upper Cumberland black-walnut buying-and-hulling stations in 2017 were Jackson County Farm and Garden in Gainsboro, and at local rancher Brent Hewitt’s place near Morrison in western Warren County. Both sell their walnuts to the Hammons Products Company in Stockton, Missouri.

“The flavor of black walnut is very rich and robust, very distinctive from English walnut,” said Brian Hammons, the company’s third-generation president. “Chefs are increasingly intrigued with what that flavor will do in their dishes. So they are using it more and more all the time.”

Hammons’ grandfather, Ralph, launched the operation in 1946 after he tracked down a used nut-cracking machine for sale in Tennessee and hauled it back to his hometown in the Ozarks, whereupon he started buying walnuts from whoever wanted collect them and bring them in to him.

Today, the Hammons company buys 20-30 million pounds annually. Last year they bought black walnuts from more than 235 hulling stations across 15 states.

Jacob Basecke, vice president of marketing and sales at Hammons, said 2017 was “a really, really strong year in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio.” Hammons purchased about 731,465 pounds out of Tennessee.

“The 10 year average is about 475,000 pounds, so it was up last year,” Basecke said.

Hewitt, whose hulling station is located about 10 miles west of McMinnville, said he’s been rolling in black walnuts ever since he got into the business five years ago. Like all Hammons-backed stations, Hewitt paid his clients $15 dollars per hundred pounds in 2017, post hulling. Five years ago the price was $13, he said.

“This was a good year,” Hewitt said. Although it could have been even better were it not for some frost-loss, he said. “I done almost 200,000 pounds. That’s about the same as the year before,” he said.

In fact, he actually took in a few hundred more pounds in 2017 than 2016. “I lacked just 306 pounds from having 200,000 pounds this year,” Hewitt said. “Last year I think I lacked thirteen-hundred.”

For Jackson County Farm and Garden, this year in fact wasn’t as good as last, said store manager Alana Pippin. They hulled 95,000 or 96,000 pounds, she said. In 2016 they did 103,000.

“The always say you’ll have a good year, then one bad, then a good one and then a bad one again,” she said. “Some years it’s good, some years it’s not. This was kind of an off year, so hopefully next year will be better.”

Black walnuts are actually alternate bearing, Call it “alternutting,” if you like. They tend to produce noticeably larger average crops every other year.

A lot of people bring in harvest hauls from neighboring counties,  and often those taking particular advantage of the black walnut buy-up are families and individuals of modest means, Pippen said.

“People will drive pretty far to come down here,” she said. “And a lot of times you can tell that they really need the extra money.”

Multitude of things to do at premier Middle TN recreation spots

OK, so it’s obviously premature to be proclaiming “Spring is in the Air”  at this point.

But before winter even starts to wane it isn’t too early to start marking your calendar to visit state parks around the Highland Rim and Cumberland Plateau region. As usual, they’re offering an abundance of organized outings and seasonal event celebrations in March and April, all of which are aimed especially at helping visitors shed melancholy and embrace the rebirth of warmth and color.

There’s no better way to put the bloom on your appreciation of nature’s wondrous mannerisms than wandering the springtime woods or taking placid walks along waters both peaceful and roiling with end-of-winter runoff.

Below is a partial list of scheduled park happenings that are certain to help lighten grey moods, get the blood pumping and invite new life and vibrancy back into your view of the world.

Edgar Evins State Park
1630 Edgar Evins State Park Road
Silver Point, TN
931-858-2115

March 3: Weed Wrangle. Join rangers and othe park volunteers as they hunt down and remove invasive plants. Meet at the Millennium Trail parking area at 9:00 AM and work till around noon. Bring gloves, wear appropriate clothes and shoes, and be prepared to get dirty and have fun!

March 10: Come out and watch WILDFLOWERS OF THE HIGHLAND RIM emerging from winter’s icy grip! Meet at the Park Office, 2pm.

Brad Halfacre, a ranger at Edgar Evins State Park, shows off a chunk of chestnut wood that’s on display at the interpretive center.

March 17: Join Friends of Edgar Evins State Park for the Annual Waterfall Tour Fundraiser.

March 17: Take a ranger-led walk on the Highland Rim Nature Trail in search of Wildflower Blooms. Hike starts at 10am — meet at park office.

Mar. 24: Friends of Edgar Evins State Park Spring Hike

March 31: Birds, Blooms & Butterflies Hike, 2pm. Meet at Millennium Trailhead parking area for two-and-a-half mile guided loop trek. Don’t forget your camera!

March. 31: Third Annual Easter Eggstravaganza Easter Egg Hunt 2pm at the main campground.

March 8: More Birds, Blooms and Butterflies! Guided two-mile hike departs from park office at 9am.

April 14: Annual Celebration of Spring – All day fun for the whole family.

Fall Creek Falls
2009 Village Camp Road
Spencer, TN
423-881-5298

March 3: Weed Wrangle, starts at 9 am and lasts until 1pm. Join staff and volunteers at the Nature Center to work on eradicating pesky weeds from the lovely landscape of Tennessee’s premier state park.

March 3: FCF Thaw 15k Run & Weekend Excursion. Email Roger Gall (rsgl@cafes.net) for details.

March 16-18: Get cosmic under the Cumberland Plateau’s night sky at the Spring Star Party. Email Lloyd Watkins (watkinslk@comcast.net) for meet-up time & place.

March 31: Easter Egg Hunt in the Village Area. 10:00 am.

April 7-8: 37th Annual Fall Creek Falls Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. Trees budding, flowers blooming, delightful hues and pastel colors bursting forth. Email Matt Brown (matthew.brown@tn.gov) for full schedule of guided hikes and wildflower related programs.

Standings Stone State Park
1674 Standing Stone Park Hwy.
Hilham, TN
931-823-6347

March 24: Spring Hike 2018: Pick up your daypack and lace up your boots, SSSP is thick with virgin woods, vivid wildflowers and fantastic waterside views. 10 a.m. Ranger Sarah Geeslin is organizing the event. Email her at sarah.geeslin@tn.gov.

March 31: Easter Egg Hunt, 2 pm. Hunt located below the dam, includes age appropriate sections: 4 and under, 5-8 & 9-12. The Bunny won’t wait, so don’t be late!

April 13-14: 15th Annual Nature Rally. Check park’s webpage or email sarah.geeslin@tn.gov as date approaches for detailed list of events.

Rock Island State Park:
82 Beach Road Rock Island, TN
931-686-2471

Twin Falls at Rock Island State Park

March 3: Weed Wrangle starts at 10 am. Come on out and help remove exotic invasive plants to create a better habitat for native Tennessee varieties!

March 24: Spring Hike 2018 begins at 10am. Walk along the Downstream Trail watching for waterfalls and wildflowers — no better way to celebrate the start of spring!

April 14: Rock and Row Triathlon, 8am. Five kilometers of paddling, five kilometers of running (both road and trail), five kilometers of biking on park roads. Contact RISP office to register.

Cumberland Mountain State Park
24 Office Drive
Crossville, TN
931-484-6138

March 3: Weed Wrangle, 9am-3pm. Come be part of the invasive-plant removal crew at the original Civilian Conservation Corps picnic area built at the park. Email monica.johnson@tn.gov for more info.

March 24: Spring Trek, 10am. Two-mile easy loop, guided by park staff who can speak to the natural, cultural and historical treasures you’ll encounter.

April 13-15: Waterfalls and Wildflowers Photography Workshop. Photographers of all experience levels welcome! You’ll learn all the necessary skills to to capture and create stunning waterfall and wildflower images. Email cassie.rapert@tn.gov to inquire about details, registration and fees.

April 27-29: April Waterfall Tour. Join State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath and Ranger Cara Alexander on a three-day excursion to some of the realm’s most beautiful cascades, cataracts and free-falling stream flows. Email cassie.rapert@tn.gov for more info or to register.

State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath

April 28: 8th Annual Wildflower Photography Workshop, 9am. Ranger Monica Johnson (monica.johnson@tn.gov) and photographer Anthony Ladd will lead a fantastical journey through the forest of Cumberland Mountain State Park in search of picturesque vistas and perfect wildflower photo ops. In addition to marvelous hiking, workshop includes photography tips, innovative ways of capturing dramatic natural images, wildflower identification.

April 28: Homestead Hammer Adventure Triathlon, 8am. 2-mile trail run, 1-mile mile kayak, 1.5 mile mountain bike course. Email Mark Houston (mark.houston@tn.gov) for more info.

Burgess Falls State Park
4000 Burgess Falls Drive
Sparta, TN
931-432-5312

March 3: Weed Wrangle, 9am. Staff and volunteers will join forces to remove non-native plants. The four-hour project will involve hiking to remote areas so bring lunch, water and sturdy shoes! Email Bill.Summers@tn.gov for more info.

South Cumberland State Park
11745 US 41
Monteagle, TN
931-924-2980

March 3: Backcountry Weed Wrangle, 9am. Help free native flora from the grip of privet and other invasive plant species deep in the Tennessee outback! Meet at Stone Door Ranger Station and travel by park vehicle to the project area. Register with james.holland@tn.gov.

Great Stone Door Overlook

March 28: Savage Gulf Marathon. Start & finish at Stone Door Ranger Station. Not for the faint of heart, lungs or legs! Race features 26.2 miles of brutal terrain. Participation limited to first 100 registrations. Email Ray.Cutcher@tn.gov.

March 31: Trailblazing, 9am. Come help create a brand new loop trail at Sherwood Forest, a brand new addition to South Cumberland State Park. Email Ranger Jason Reynolds (jason.reynolds@tn.gov) for exact meet-up location.

April 13-16: Trails and Trilliums. A three-day festival featuring guided hikes on the South Cumberland’s most scenic trails. Also, programs, workshops and art displays. Proceeds benefit Friends of the South Cumberland State Park. trailsandtrilliums.org