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Big Wins for White County Wildlands Preservation, Recreation

Conservation carve-outs added to Upper Caney Watershed

The rural lands that make up White County have long been recognized and appreciated for their remarkable geological features and timeless sense of hardy frontier vitality.

Over the last several decades, more and more people from outside the area have come to love and admire White County’s abundance of beauty, wildlife and recreation potential, especially southeast of Sparta, where the Cumberland Plateau fuses with the Highland Rim in the cave-pocked boulder-strewn realm of Virgin Falls.

In his essential 1999 survey of scenic regional hikes and Tennessee cultural heritage, “The Historic Cumberland Plateau; An Explorer’s Guide,” outdoor writer Russ Manning observed, “The unique features of this area are the waterfalls that plunge from great heights and disappear into the ground.”

“Big Laurel Creek flows over Big Branch Falls and farther downstream washes over Big Laurel Falls before disappearing in an underground cave behind the falls. Farther in the wilderness a small creek running out of Sheep Cave cascades 50 or 60 feet until it disappears into a hole in the ground,” wrote Manning. “But the most spectacular is Virgin Falls, which emerges from a cave, runs about 50 feet, drops 110 feet, and disappears into the rocks at the bottom. The water from all these waterfalls apparently runs through the ground, finally draining into the Caney Fork River, which flows through Scott Gulf to the south.”

Courting Conservation-Friendly Commerce

Numerous groups and individuals have devoted time, energy and resources toward shielding the mostly untamed domain from large-scale commercial and residential development, or environmentally destructive industrial land uses.

Groups that have donated time, money, land, labor or expertise toward conserving the Caney Fork watershed include the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, the Open Space Institute, the Land Trust for Tennessee, the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund,  the J.M.Huber Corp., Bridgestone Americas, as well as state parks “friends” groups.

State government also has partnered with private-sector nonprofits and businesses to promote “stewardship of thousands of acres of ecologically significant areas in the Cumberland Plateau with the goals of protection, preservation and public recreation,” said Kim Schofinski, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Improving the public’s access to the many recreational opportunities the rugged lands and moving waters provide will hopefully open navigable pathways toward future economic growth in an area where nagging poverty has for generations presented a snag.

Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau is home to many struggling rural communities that “need sustaining and need to be resilient,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for TDEC’s Bureau of Parks & Conservation.

Inaugural Virgin Falls Thru-Hike Expedition. Pictured at left are those who participated on Sept. 15 in the first organized hike along the newly opened 9-mile Lost Creek to Virgin Falls thru-hike trail. Left to right: Bob Ragland, Michael Faehl, Lisa Faehl, Mark Engler, Ranger Stuart Carroll, Gretchen Weir, Phil Hodge, Greg Geer and TennGreen’s Steven Walsh, who organized the event.

Hill, who formerly served as mayor of neighboring Cumberland County, asserted that “place-based economic development” not only stimulates job creation and small-business growth by drawing in visitors, it “adds a tremendous level to the quality of life for the people who already live here in this area.”

Stuart Carroll, park manager at the Virgins Falls State Natural Area, figures there’s a pretty basic and reliable formula for upping tourist visitation to a place as unique and spectacular as White County’s section of the Cumberland Plateau.

“If you open up access to the public — and provide good parking lots, good trails and good maps — then it will pay dividends to the local economy,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to emulate Cummins Falls (near Cookeville in Jackson County), because that place gets hammered (from overuse), but who could have imagined the spike in sales tax collections they’ve seen in that area because of the added traffic since that park opened?”

Long an advocate for better utilizing the area’s natural potential to lure tourists and snare tourist dollars, Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce president Marvin Bullock noted that “Virgin Falls is already somewhat of a national draw.”

But opportunities for outdoor recreation are now “growing leaps and bounds”, said Bullock. And the area’s adventure-recreation profile will only increase as conservation, trail-building and public-access efforts continue, he predicts.

“It will make it even more of a national draw because there are a lot more beautiful waterfalls up through there,” said Bullock. “There are going to be miles and miles and miles more trails in the future.”

Among the most recent additions is a new section of trail from Lost Creek to Virgin Falls — thus creating a new nine-mile thru-hike and an additional trailhead and parking to access Virgin Falls. The Lost Creek State Natural Area, which was donated for public use by the James Rylander Family, was used as a backdrop in Disney’s 1994 “The Jungle Book.”

Bullock is pleased there’s common agreement that “we are not looking to build a resort park,” or establish other high-impact developments.

“We want to maybe see some wilderness campsites and that type of thing, but nobody wants to see the area built up into something like Fairfield or Lake Tansi in Cumberland County,” Bullock said.

Of course, White County and Sparta businesses are always happy to accommodate daytrippers from those communities who want to come have a magnificent look-see at the dazzling western edge of the plateau, Bullock is quick to add.

Some counties are tempted to develop large wilderness tracts into upscale residential developments in order to increased property tax rolls, said Bullock. White County, by contrast, “gets to have its cake and eat it too — trail development attracts tourists and increases sales tax revenue,” he said.

“Rural, at-risk White County will see increase in revenue, yet the population will still have access to some of their favorite waterfalls and scenic overlooks,” said Bullock.

Communication and Collaboration

More than 100 people with ties or interest in White County conservation efforts gathered Aug. 25 on a fertile grassy plain known as “Big Bottom” along the upper Caney Fork to celebrate some notable recent victories in securing and adding new landscapes to the now nearly 60,000-acre “Mid-Cumberland Wilderness Conservation Corridor.”

Over the summer, properties of 582 acres and 76 acres were formally incorporated into the preservation zone as a result of donors, landowners and various conservation-focused intermediaries working together to acquire the properties.

And back in April, Bridgestone Americas donated all 5,763 acres of its richly forested and biologically diverse Chestnut Mountain property to the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. It contains the highest point of elevation in White County. The donation was part of an innovative and intriguing project to allow the Nature Conservancy to “manage a carbon sequestration project on the property that will offset the carbon emissions of the Bridgestone Tower, the company’s corporate headquarters in downtown Nashville.”

Leaders of conservation groups and state agencies delivered remarks emphasizing a consistent theme during the event — that a vast and ecologically indispensable playground for preservation-minded outdoor enthusiasts is emerging, and the cooperative efforts to bring it into being have been genuinely historic in significance.

Steve Law, director of the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, or TennGreen, said the latest 600-plus acres of land acquired represents “a significant conservation achievement” that will help enhance and protect Caney Fork water quality in perpetuity.

“Geographically, this property joins the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Wildlife Management Area to the west, it adjoins Lost Creek State Natural Area to the north, and is bounded on the south by the Caney Fork River,” said Law. “From the perspective of conservation value, this property increases available migratory habitat for rare species, including the federally endangered Indiana and gray bats.”

Law contends that effective future conservation success efforts will increasingly involve cultivating and maintaining networks of voluntary collaborations among an ever-growing array of interests, individuals and entities.

“Collaboration is a fundamental element to TennGreen’s core mission,” said Law.

TennGreen has for two decades been raising money and working with landowners to acquire and protect tracts that hold or are adjacent to “natural treasures” in Tennessee.

Joel Houser, Chattanooga-based Southeast field coordinator for the Open Space Institute, reiterated the point. “I don’t think we can stress enough the importance of partnerships,” he said.

Houser, whose New York-headquartered organization promotes the preservation of geologically and ecologically unique landscapes across North America, described the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee as “a globally significant place.”

“There are species here that live nowhere else in the world — and there are species that were forced here from the last ice age, and have persisted here ever since,” he said. “There are species here that are disjunct — the populations are disjunct from larger native ranges that may be along the coastal plain or the southern Blue Ridge or further northward at higher elevations.”

In addition to the environmental benefits, Houser said preserving Cumberland wildlands in the 21st Century “will provide recreationists a respite from the modern world, and also provides hunters and their families food.”

“It’s not just for the wildlife, the lichens, the mosses, the flowers and the birds, it is for people, too, and people are a part of the ecosystem — of this ecosystem and all ecosystems,” he said.

Tying It All Together

The growing system of trails in the area is envisioned to one day connect the Virgin Falls State Natural Area with the crown-jewel of Tennessee’s state parks system, Fall Creek Falls, and in the process tie in Scott’s Gulf, Lost Creek, Bledsoe State Forest, Bee Creek and the Boy Scout’s Latimer High Adventure Reservation.

“Linking Lost Creek and Virgin Falls has long been a goal for Tennessee State Parks to provide more recreational opportunities for visitors and protect more critical habitat,” said TDEC’s Hill.

State wildlife resources agency director Ed Carter observed that the area has “one of the highest concentrations of greatest-conservation-need species of anywhere in Tennessee.”

For Stuart Carroll, the Virgin Falls park manager, progress made over the past few years represent a gratifying culmination to his 30-plus year career.

Land-protection endeavors along the Cumberland Plateau date back to the early 1900s, but in the past 20 years the acreage acquired from willing sellers or set voluntarily aside for conservation and recreation has more than doubled, he said.

Efforts by nonprofits and landholding private corporations to preserve properties and open them for public recreation are especially important in the Southeastern United States, where “public land has not historically been a really large part of the landscape,” Carroll said.

“So it is very fulfilling to see the acreage added to the public land base so that people can get out and enjoy the recreation the lands provide — and at the same time we can take care of both the resources and the history for future generations,” he said.

Carroll has himself been instrumental in negotiating a number of key land acquisitions and conservation set-asides, not to mention providing the down-and-dirty hands-on labor required to blaze, build and maintain enjoyably traversable hiking trails. He’s also co-author of a book of trail and landscape reviews called “Hiking Tennessee: A Guide to the State’s Greatest Hiking Adventures.”

The most rewarding aspects of working around places like Fall Creek Falls and Virgin Falls is preserving not just the natural aspects, but also the historical and cultural artifacts that the land holds, said Carroll — and in turn teaching youngsters to appreciate the region’s extraordinary legacy.

“It is great to see so many people pulling together to make these type of projects happen,” he said.

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Seigenthaler-Founded Group Releases Annual ‘State of First Amendment’ Report

Press Release from the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, July 2018:

2018 STATE OF THE FIRST AMENDMENT SURVEY REVEALS AMERICANS CONSIDER FAKE NEWS MORE OBJECTIONABLE THAN HATE SPEECH

Every year the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute conducts the State of the First Amendment survey, which examines Americans’ views on freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, and samples their opinions on contemporary First Amendment issues. The survey, conducted in partnership with Fors Marsh Group, an applied research company, has been published annually since 1997, reflecting Americans’ changing attitudes toward their core freedoms.

This year’s survey revealed that Americans consider fake news more objectionable than hate speech on social media, though both are opposed by large majorities. The survey showed that 83 percent of respondents agreed that social media companies should remove false information, compared to 72 percent who agreed such companies should remove hate speech.

The good news for First Amendment advocates is that, even with those high levels of concern and desire for action, a majority of Americans do not support the government in having the power to require social media companies to remove objectionable content.

In other good news, three out of four Americans (77%) are supportive of the First Amendment and the freedoms it guarantees. Unfortunately, most Americans are generally unaware of what those freedoms are. More than one-third of the survey respondents (40%) could not name a single freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, and another third of the respondents (36%) were only able to name one. Only one respondent out of the 1,009 people surveyed was able to correctly name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Many more respondents (9%) thought that the First Amendment guaranteed the right to bear arms (a right that is actually guaranteed by the Second Amendment).

In the past year, President Trump has railed against many news media outlets for their critical coverage of his administration, but results show that an increasing number of Americans believe that the media should play such a role: 74 percent of Americans, compared to 68 percent last year, think that it is important for the media to serve as a watchdog on the government. A majority of Americans (70%) don’t think that the president should have the authority to deny press credentials to any news outlets he chooses. Americans also hold journalists to high ethical standards, with most (68%) agreeing that it is necessary for journalists to disclose conflicts of interest to be credible.

Issues involving the freedom of religion remain incredibly divisive. The Supreme Court’s recent decision on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case was limited in scope and did not settle the underlying conflict between religious beliefs and nondiscrimination laws. Survey results (gathered before the decision came out) indicated the American public is still very divided about this unresolved issue: 54.5 percent of Americans believed that the baker in the case should not be legally obligated to create a cake for a gay wedding, while 42 percent thought that the baker should be.

While last year’s survey found that 43 percent of Americans felt that colleges should have the right to ban controversial campus speakers, the 2018 survey delved deeper into this issue, asking respondents about different scenarios where it might or might not be appropriate for a public college to retract an invitation to a controversial speaker. A majority (70%) agreed that a college should be able to retract an invitation to a speaker whose remarks would incite violence or threaten public safety (70%). There was less consensus about what to do with a speaker whose remarks would provoke large-scale protests from students. A little more than half (51%) thought that a college should be able to retract an invitation to such a speaker. Females were more likely to think so than males (57%, compared to 45%), and people who identified as black were more likely to think so than people who identified as white (66%, compared to 46%). When presented with the example of a speaker who would be likely to offend groups or individuals, 42 percent thought that a college should be able to retract their invitation — and interestingly, Southerners were more likely to think so than people from the Northeast or Western United States.

Overall, the results of the 2018 survey showed that even though most Americans can’t name all the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, they have strong opinions about the specific First Amendment issues that pop up in their lives — in the news, on campus and online.

Survey conducted and supported by Fors Marsh Group

READ THE FULL REPORT: https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/2018_FFI_SOFA_Report.pdf

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TTU Grads Tops in Loan Repayment in TN

Press Release from Tennessee Tech University, March 13, 2018:

Tech is ranked first in Tennessee among public colleges and universities, and second in the state overall once private institutions are considered, by both groups.

Nationally, Tech is ranked #83 by Student Loan Report and #121 by LendEDU.

“College is a significant investment,” said Tech President Phil Oldham. “Students and their parents need to consider the return on that investment. These rankings, along with numerous others, show that Tennessee Tech provides a strong return on that investment by providing a high-quality education at an affordable price.”

The only other public university in the top five of Student Loan Report’s rankings for the state is the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (#5/#226 nationally). Vanderbilt University is the top-ranked school in Tennessee (#1/#78 nationally). More than 1,000 schools were ranked in the report.

The annual Student Debt Repayment Success Indicator report uses a formula to determine graduates’ chances of successfully repaying student debt. The indicator includes early career salary, student loan default rate, and average student loan debt per borrower. Several datasets – including federal repayment data from the Department of Education, data from Peterson’s Financial Aid dataset, and early career data from PayScale – are used.

The study showed Tech’s early career pay at $51,000 with the debt per borrower at $19,363 and the default rate at 5.31 percent for an indicator rating of 2.49.

A similar index from LendEdu, the College Risk-Reward Indicator, also ranked Tech as the top public university in the state, second overall and #121 nationally. Tech is the only public university in LendEDU’s top five rankings for the state. Nearly 1,000 schools were ranked by LendEDU.

LendEDU compared the average student loan debt per borrower with the average early career pay, or the median salary for alumni with zero to five years of experience.

The Student Loan Report rankings are at https://studentloans.net/student-debt-repayment-success-indicator/. The LendEDU rankings are at https://lendedu.com/blog/college-risk-reward-indicator-2018.

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Historian Visiting Cookeville to Discuss ‘Rowdy Origins’ of U.S. Constitution

PRESS RELEASE from Tennessee Tech University, Sept. 14, 2017:

The 13th Annual Nolan Fowler Constitution Day Celebration at Tennessee Tech presents “After Philadelphia: The Voice of the People and the Rowdy Origins of the Constitution” with Lorri Glover Tuesday, Sept. 19 at 6 p.m. in Derryberry Hall Auditorium.

Lorri Glover, author of “Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries”

Glover teaches at Saint Louis University, where she holds the John Francis Bannon endowed chair in history. She has written extensively about early America, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. Glover has published works concerning siblings and kinship in South Carolina, masculinity in the Early Republic, the seventeenth-century colonization of Virginia and its sister settlement Bermuda, the intersection of family and politics in the lives of leading American Revolutionaries, and, most recently, the contentious debates over ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787-1788.

Her latest works include “Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries;” with Craig Thompson Friend, “Death and the American South;” and “The Fate of the Revolution: Virginians Debate the Constitution.” Glover received her undergraduate degree from the University of North Alabama and her master’s degree from Clemson University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky.

The Nolan Fowler Constitution Day Celebration, now in its 13th year, commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. Named in honor of Nolan Fowler, a retired history professor at Tech who taught history and constitutional law at the university from 1962 to 1979, the annual event is made possible by his financial endowment to establish the Constitution Day Celebration at Tech.

The event is free and open to the public.

Derryberry Hall is located at 1 William L. Jones Drive, Cookeville.

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Comptroller Releases Info on Student Data Privacy Law

Press Release from the Office of the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, August 17, 2017:

The Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability (OREA) has released a report that answers some common questions about student data privacy in Tennessee. The Q & A provides information on state and federal laws that protect K-12 students’ privacy.

In general, student data privacy refers to efforts to maintain the confidentiality of information that identifies individual students. The term “student data” is broad, encompassing almost anything that a student creates in school or that identifies an individual student.

Student data is not limited to social security numbers or test scores. Student data can encompass school work, class behavior, or even a student’s location. A key question to ask is whether a piece of information identifies an individual student or uses personal information about an individual student – if the answer is yes, then that information can be considered “student data”.

State and federal laws protect student data privacy by governing the actions of either a school employee, a member of the public, or a third-party vendor or technology operator. The new publication explains state laws in Tennessee that protect student data privacy. One of the laws – the Data Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability Act – gives the state more control and oversight regarding Tennessee public school employees’ collection of student data, and strengthens parental rights with respect to student data privacy. The Tennessee General Assembly passed this law in 2014.

Another law is the Student Online Personal Protection Act, passed in 2016, which primarily addresses the actions of third parties outside of Tennessee schools and districts. This law regulates vendors/contractors or other third parties operating online services used by students. The three primary federal laws related to student data privacy are also covered in the Comptroller’s publication.

School districts may take steps to protect student data privacy beyond what the laws require. However, those additional protections are likely to cost more in time or money.

OREA is a division within the Comptroller’s Office that is charged with providing accurate and objective policy research and analysis for the Tennessee General Assembly and the public. To view the full report online, go to: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/OREA/

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Putnam Co. Library Hosting Acclaimed Author of Historical Fiction in Sept.

PRESS RELEASE from the Putnam County Library, August 2, 2017:

The Putnam County Library Friends proudly presents the 10th Annual Dinner With An Author. This year’s dinner will be held on Friday, September 15th at 6:30 p.m. at the Leslie Town Centre, which is located at 111 West 1st Street in Cookeville, Tennessee.

The guest author this year is Ruta Sepetys, the 2017 winner of both the Carnegie Medal (the UK’s most prestigious award for children’s literature) and the Golden Kite Award for Young Adult Literature from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Ms. Sepetys is a New York Times bestselling author of Out of the Easy and Between Shades of Gray. Her most recent book is Salt to The Sea.

Sepetys’ writing can be described as deeply researched historical fiction that appeals to both adults and students.

A movie adaptation of Between Shades of Gray entitled “Ashes in the Snow” is in production.

Her books have been published in over fifty countries and thirty-six languages. Prior to becoming a novelist, Ms. Sepetys enjoyed a career in the music industry. She now proudly calls Tennessee home.

Tickets for this event are $35 and will be on sale from August 14th – September 12th at both the Putnam County Library and at CPAC. This year, tickets may be ordered online through CPAC at http://www.cookeville-tn.gov/ls/cpac/.

The Putnam County Library Friends is a non-profit organization that supports and promotes the use, services, and facilities of the Putnam County Library System. Proceeds raised by this event and other activities directly impact the Library. The PCL Friends is a proud and dedicated supporter of the Library’s Summer Reading Program.

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Cookeville Library Hosting Homeschool Planning Forum

The Putnam County Public Library in Cookeville is hosting a roundtable meet-up for regional homeschooling families on Tuesday, March 28 at 10 a.m.

The forum’s purpose is both to introduce homeschool families to one another as well as put them in contact with library staff. The intention is to “discuss ideas, challenges, and how the library can support home learning.”

The program isn’t limited to just Cookeville and Putnam County families. “It’s open to everybody — whoever wants to come,” said Chelsea Gifford, a children’s librarian who is organizing the event.

Parents who’re thinking about homeschooling but haven’t yet committed are invited to attend as well.

More and more homeschool families are using library resources, and they tend to possess “various levels of experience and expertise” with instruction and curriculum development, said Gifford.

The meet-up event is intended to “encourage idea-sharing to see how the library can improve to help them — and how they can better network with one another through their own homeschooling efforts,” she said.

The Putnam County Library hopes homeschool families utilize library resources in the most advantageous ways possible, and the staff are looking for input on how best they can help facilitate in that regard, she added.

“We feel like the library is a natural meeting place for homeschool families where they can get materials for their curriculum,” said Gifford. “We have the ability to offer them extra programs and other things for what they are already doing at home.”

You can contact Ms. Gifford at chelseagifford@pclibrary.org, or call the library at 931-526-2416 to let them know you’re interested in attending or want to know more about the event. The library is located at 50 East Broad Street.