, , , , , , , , , ,

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.

, , , , , ,

TN Land-Use Pattern Mapping Tool Available on Comptroller’s Website

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE OFFICE OF TENNESSEE COMPTROLLER JUSTIN P. WILSON, SEPTEMBER 6, 2018:

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office has launched a much-anticipated online tool that makes it easy to see how land is being used across the state of Tennessee.

The Comptroller’s Land Use Model (LUM) will be a valuable resource for people working in economic and community development, urban planning, transportation development, and more.

The online maps allow users to quickly see how each parcel of land within a city or county is currently being utilized.

Each property is color-coded and classified with categories such as single and multi-family dwellings, office spaces, general commercial uses, industrial sites, and agricultural timber lands.

The LUM originated in the former Local Planning Assistance Office of the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD). Since the closure of ECD’s planning division in 2011, the LUM has not been produced. The Comptroller’s Office has now redeveloped and improved this tool using data from the 84 counties on Tennessee’s IMPACT computer-assisted mass appraisal system.

“This data will be very useful for anyone who wants to analyze how land is being utilized across the state,” said Comptroller Justin P. Wilson. “We are pleased to offer this tool to each of the counties who use the IMPACT system. We believe the land use model will fill a gap in the planning and economic development community.”

The Comptroller’s Office will update the county land use maps semi-annually. Users can access maps in PDF form or with GIS software.

To access the Land Use Model, go to: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/lg/LandUseMain.asp

, , , , ,

Boom Times for Black Walnut

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.”