, , , , , , , , , ,

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

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Revenue from TN Tourism Continues to Grow

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE UPPER CUMBERLAND TOURISM ASSOCIATION, AUGUST 28, 2018:

Level of visitor spending in Upper Cumberland climbs to all-time high

Nashville – Gov. Bill Haslam and Department of Tourist Development Commissioner Kevin Triplett announced today Tennessee tourism’s direct domestic and international travel expenditures reached a new all-time record high of $20.7 billion in 2017, up 6.3 percent over the previous year, as reported by the U.S. Travel Association. The announcement was made at the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.

For the 12th consecutive year, tourism topped $1 billion in state and local sales tax revenue, reaching $1.8 billion. That marks a 7.6 percent increase over 2016, higher than the national growth of travel related state tax revenues of 4.6 percent. Tourism also generated 184,300 jobs for Tennesseans, a 3.1 percent growth year over year.

The 2017 direct domestic and international travel expenditure for the Upper Cumberland region reached an all time high of $420.9 Mil. Overall the 14 counties in the Upper Cumberland saw a 6.3% increase in their tourism spending. Two of our counties see more than $100 Million – Putnam – $132.03 Mil and Cumberland – $121.54 Mil.

Chambers of Commerce in the smaller UC counties operate on very limited budgets and they cooperate with all the 14 counties and the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association on joint promotions.

“It is important to understand that travel & tourism creates jobs, drives economic growth and helps build better societies. The Upper Cumberland of Tennessee is a prime example of this, as our region and its natural beauty is expected to attract more tourists in the coming years” said Ruth Dyal, director of the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association. It will be vital for Upper Cumberland communities and private sectors to work together with the public to ensure that tourism growth is sustainable, inclusive and benefits everyone.”

Commissioner Kevin Triplett said. “The authenticity and Southern hospitality from our communities and partners gives visitors an unbeatable experience and inspires them to return. The numbers show Tennessee is a destination of choice for visitors around the world. However, we would not have these numbers if not for the capital investments, renovations and dedication made by tourism partners across the state to deliver great experiences that create wonderful memories.”

To view the full report, click here. For more information, contact Ruth Dyal, executive director for the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association at 931-537-6347 or by email at uctourism@gmail.com.

, , , ,

Rolley Hole Marbles Championship Tourney Set for Sept. 15

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, August 28, 2018:

36th annual event draws country’s best players to Tennessee state park

HILHAM – Standing Stone State Park will host the National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship and Festival on Saturday, Sept. 15, drawing some of the country’s best players to Tennessee where they will match wit and skills in what is known as the ‘Super Bowl of marbles’. In its 36th year, the event will feature world-class marble competitions, live music, marble-making exhibits and demonstrations, food vendors and much more.

“Standing Stone is the only state park in the nation with a marble yard, mainly due to the fact that some of the best players hail from Tennessee’s Clay County,” said Park Ranger Shawn Hughes. “The Championship is the most challenging marble tournament, where only the finest players dare to compete. It’s been a great event for the park and the local community, as it’s the only one of its kind in the world.”

Co-hosted by the Friends of Standing Stone State Park, the free festival will kick off at 8 a.m. Registration is required to compete in the marble tournament and closes on Sept. 5.

The musical lineup includes bluegrass and old-time groups Bill and the Belles, Clearview Bluegrass, Kentucky Just Us, Leonard Anderson, Phillip Steinmetz & His Sunny Tennesseans, Uncle Shuffelo & His Haint Hollow Hootenanny, and the Volunteer Statesman. 2018 event sponsors include Honest Abe Log Homes, Tennessee Arts Commission, Union Bank & Trust Company, Charlie’s Woodshop, Woodmen of the World, The Building Center, Southern Landscape Supply, and Twin Lakes Petroleum.

Rolley Hole is a folk game similar to croquet. It will be played by the rules of the National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship, on a dirt yard which measures 40 x 25 feet. The strategy comes by determining the best way to keep opponents from making the hole, which often requires skillful hard shots against their marbles, sending them ricocheting across the yard.

Standing Stone State Park is located 10 miles north of Livingston, Tenn., just off of Highway 52 near Celina and covers nearly 1,000 acres on the Cumberland Plateau of north-central Tennessee. For more information about the festival and Standing Stone State Park, contact (931) 823-6347 or visit https://tnstateparks.com/parks/standing-stone.

,

TTU Slugger Bringing Home National Recognition

Press Release from Tennessee Tech Sports Information Service, May 21, 2018:

Strohschein tabbed semifinalist for Golden Spikes Awards

(Story by By Mike Lehman)

DURHAM, N.C. – Tennessee Tech junior designated hitter/outfielder Kevin Strohschein was named a semifinalist for the 2018 Golden Spikes Award, announced by USA Baseball Monday.

Presented in partnership with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation, the 41st Golden Spikes Award, which honors the top amateur baseball player in the country, will be presented on June 28 in Los Angeles.

Strohschein becomes the first ever Golden Eagle named as a Golden Spikes Award semifinalist and is one of just 25 players in the nation to make the list. He also was named a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy.

Both Strohschein and Chambers represent the first Golden Eagle players named as Dick Howser Trophy semifinalists. The junior slugger has helped lead Tech to a consensus Top-25 national ranking, – currently as high as No. 18 by Perfect Game – a program-record 46 victories, an Ohio Valley Conference-record 27 league wins and the OVC regular season title. Winners of 37 of their past 39 games, the Golden Eagles also set the OVC record with a 28-game winning streak from Mar. 13 to Apr. 28

The first player in OVC history to win both Rookie and Player of the Year in the same season back in 2016, Strohschein leads the Golden Eagles with 93 hits, 16 home runs and a .694 slugging percentage. He is batting .396 in 53 games on the year, totaling 62 runs, 16 doubles, three triples, 60 RBI and a .453 on base percentage.

Beginning with the announcement of semifinalists, a ballot will be sent to the Golden Spikes Award voting body consisting of national baseball media, select professional baseball personnel, previous Golden Spikes Award winners and select USA Baseball staff, totaling a group of over 200 voters. From Monday, May 21 through Sunday, June 3, the voting body will select three semifinalists from the ballot to be named as Golden Spikes Award finalists and fan voting will simultaneously be open on GoldenSpikesAward.com. Selections made by the voting body will carry a 95 percent weight of each athlete’s total, while fan votes will account for the remaining 5 percent.

The finalists will then be announced on Wednesday, June 6. Beginning that same day through Friday, June 22, the voting body and fans will be able to cast their final vote for the Golden Spikes Award winner.

Brendan McKay took home the prestigious award last year, joining a group of recent winners that include Kyle Lewis (2016), Andrew Benintendi (2015), A.J. Reed (2014), Kris Bryant (2013), Mike Zunino (2012), Trevor Bauer (2011), Bryce Harper (2010), Stephen Strasburg (2009), Buster Posey (2008), and David Price (2007).

The winner of the 41st Golden Spikes Award will be named on Thursday, June 28, at a presentation in Los Angeles. The finalists and their families will be honored at the Rod Dedeaux Foundation Award Dinner that evening at Jonathan Club in downtown Los Angeles.

USA Baseball has partnered with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation to host the Golden Spikes Award since 2013. The Foundation was formed to honor legendary USC and USA Baseball Olympic team coach, Rod Dedeaux, and supports youth baseball and softball programs in underserved communities throughout Southern California.

,

Putnam County Gov’t Gets Good Comptroller Report

Putnam County has secured a place among just over a dozen Tennessee counties to earn a “clean” audit report from the state agency charged with examining local-government fiscal affairs.

Ninety of Tennessee’s 95 counties have been audited since the last fiscal year ended on June 30. Only 13 have been declared free of accounting discrepancies and defects in spending oversight.

Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson’s office issued a news release last week declaring that Putnam County’s financial management — as well as that of Lincoln and Louden — has recently been reviewed without identifying any “weaknesses or deficiencies in government operations.”

Elected officials from Putnam and other counties that earn clean audits deserve appreciation for making a serious commitment to “accurate financial reporting and clear checks and balances that help protect taxpayer money,” according to the comptroller’s office statement.

“A clean audit is a positive sign that a county government in on track,” Wilson said. “I commend all of the elected officials, leaders, and county staff who have committed to a well-run government. This is an accomplishment worth celebrating.”

Putnam County Executive Randy Porter indicated he was obviously quite pleased with the audit results, saying that one of his “primary goals” upon taking office in 2014 was to work toward a clean audit.

“This is really significant for Putnam County, as we know this has not happened in the past 25 years and possibly never,” Porter said in an emailed statement. Making Putnam County government more fiscally responsible “has truly been a team effort” among all the county’s elected leaders and department employees, he said.

On average, Tennessee counties examined this year by state auditors received 3.76 “findings” of fiscal failing or budget-management blundering of one sort or another. That number is an improvement from the previous fiscal year, when the state average per county was 4.26.

The other counties besides Putnam, Lincoln and Louden awarded recognition for state auditors finding no fault in their administrative financial affairs this year are Bedford, Blount, Franklin, Gibson, Giles, Marshall, Rutherford, Tipton, Unicoi and Williamson.

, , , , ,

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.”

,

Comptroller’s Office Reviews TBI’s Fiscal Operations and Makes Recommendations

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Comptroller Justin P. Wilson, January 16, 2018:

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office has released a special report examining several aspects of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s fiscal operations, including an analysis of TBI’s budget, the procurement of its Pilatus airplane, staffing, and grants and contracts.

The special report was initiated after Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) called for an examination of TBI’s budgeting and accounting practices.

The General Assembly included language within the 2017 Appropriations Act requiring the review to be complete by January 31, 2018.

The Comptroller’s Office found TBI’s expenditures have exceeded its budgeted estimates since 2014, and TBI has relied on its various reserve funds for its continued operations. These accounts have been greatly diminished as TBI has used these funds. The Comptroller’s Office concluded that TBI and the Department of Finance and Administration should commit to improve communication during the budget process.

The review also includes an examination of the procurement of TBI’s Pilatus Airplane. The Comptroller’s Office found that, although policies were followed, the procurement could have been more cost-effective.

Additionally, the Comptroller’s Office researched the history of TBI and performed an analysis of TBI’s independence. TBI is an operationally independent cabinet-level agency that does not clearly belong to a single branch of government. TBI’s unique role in state government requires a balance between independence and accountability.

Comptroller Justin P. Wilson will present the results of the TBI Special Report to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee on January 16, 2018 at 11:00 a.m.

The Comptroller’s Office has also released TBI’s performance audit report which found TBI’s policies surrounding the use of its aircraft were not sufficient, a failure to collect all sex offender registration fees, and the Drug Offender Registry was not always accurate or up to date.

The Comptroller’s Office will present the TBI performance audit to the Judiciary and Government Joint Subcommittee of Government Operations on January 25, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.

To view the TBI Special Report online, click here.

To view the TBI Performance Audit Report online, click here.

,

Bredesen-Chaired Solar Firm Lands Multinational Oil Company Investment

Press Release from the Silicon Ranch Corp., Jan. 15, 2018:

Shell Acquires Interest in Silicon Ranch Corporation Platform

Investment aligns Shell with best-in-class U.S. developer, owner, and operator of solar facilities

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Jan. 15, 2018 /PRNewswire/ — Silicon Ranch Corporation, a leading U.S. developer, owner, and operator of solar energy plants, announced today that it has signed an agreement to make Shell its largest shareholder. As part of the agreement, Shell will acquire a 43.83% interest in Silicon Ranch from Partners Group, the global private markets investment manager, for up to $217 million in cash based on Silicon Ranch performance, with the possibility to increase its position after 2021. Partners Group will continue to support Silicon Ranch through a newly issued junior debt financing simultaneous with the closing of the sale. Subject to regulatory approvals, the transaction is expected to close in Q1 2018.

Standing left to right: Silicon Ranch board member Byron Smith; Shell GM Solar Projects, Shell New Energies, Boris Schubert; Silicon Ranch Co-Founder and CFO Reagan Farr; Silicon Ranch Chief Corporate Development Officer David Vickerman; Sitting left to right: Silicon Ranch Chairman Phil Bredesen; Shell VP of Solar Marc van Gerven; Silicon Ranch Co-Founder and CEO Matt Kisber (PRNewsfoto/Silicon Ranch Corporation)

Nashville-based Silicon Ranch will continue to operate under its existing management and the Silicon Ranch brand. The fast-growing business has doubled its operating portfolio for three consecutive years, with approximately 880 megawatts of PV systems that are contracted, under construction, or operating in 14 states from New York to California, and close to 1 gigawatt more in its development pipeline. The innovative company has been a first-mover in a number of U.S. states and has deployed a differentiated, demand-driven approach to business development across a diverse customer set, with particular emphasis on building long-term relationships with electric cooperatives, military partners, and corporate customers across the country.

The transaction will enable Silicon Ranch to accelerate its growth strategy by developing new projects, entering new markets, and expanding product offerings across its portfolio. The strategic partnership provides Shell a platform to establish a successful global solar business by aligning with a proven team in the second largest solar market in the world.

“We were impressed by Silicon Ranch’s proven track record, its market-led development strategy, and its long-term ownership model and commitment to the communities it serves,” said Marc van Gerven, Shell Vice President of Solar. “Partnering with Silicon Ranch progresses our New Energies strategy and provides our U.S. customers with additional solar renewable options. With this entry into the fast-growing solar sector, Shell is able to leverage its expertise as one of the top three wholesale power sellers in the U.S., while expanding its global New Energies footprint.”

Matt Kisber, Silicon Ranch Co-Founder and CEO, said: “Our goal at Silicon Ranch has always been to ensure that Americans have access to a reliable, affordable, and clean energy supply, and we are honored to welcome Shell as our newest business partner. By pairing our solar expertise and trusted brand with the scale, resources, and brand equity of Shell, we are well-equipped to collaborate with our utility partners to provide comprehensive, win-win energy solutions for them and their customers. As we welcome Shell to our team, Silicon Ranch also wants to thank Partners Group for the financial and commercial support that enabled us to surpass our ambitious growth targets over the last two years.”

Reagan Farr, Silicon Ranch Co-Founder and CFO, said: “Shell shares our steadfast commitment to long-term partnership, and together we will unlock tremendous value in the U.S. solar market. This significant and strategic investment by Shell is in the best interest not only of our company and our employees, but also of our customers and the communities we serve, because it will allow us to capture synergies with Shell’s businesses and benefit from its long heritage in providing energy services around the world.”

About Silicon Ranch Corporation
Silicon Ranch, based in Nashville, Tenn., is a leading U.S. developer, owner, and operator of solar energy plants. Silicon Ranch develops to own all of its projects for the long-term and brings the economic, environmental, and community benefits of commercial and utility-scale solar energy together in a full-service model that requires no capital investment from its stakeholders. The company’s operating portfolio includes more than 100 facilities across 14 states from New York to California, including the first large-scale solar projects in Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, and Mississippi. To learn more, please visit www.siliconranchcorp.com and follow on Twitter @SiliconRanchCo.

, , , ,

When Land Became Lake

“Under the Lake” is a book published in 2016 about life in the Caney Fork River Valley prior to construction of Center Hill Dam. Pictured above are the book’s authors (from left to right): Judy Taylor Fuson, Carol Denson Williams and Ria Baker.

Seven decades have passed since Center Hill Dam construction

This coming year will mark the 70th anniversary of Center Hill Dam’s completion and subsequent submersion of the Caney Fork River Valley above it.

Undeniably, many modern benefits accompanied the lake impoundment, from hydroelectric power production to flood control to numerous forms of recreation.

So it’s easy — perhaps too easy — to overlook the heart-rending historical reality that for hundreds of families living in the area, the coming of the federal government’s new dam meant doom for their old ways of living. Along with displacement, the rising of Center Hill Lake’s waters came at the price of washing away all but the memories of the only life many former inhabitants had ever known.

When the dam closed off in the fall of 1948, once rich farmland and forests were inundated, thus “completely changing the face of the northern and eastern sections of DeKalb County,” local historian Thomas G. Webb wrote in a “Tennessee County History Series” book published by Memphis State University Press.

Fortunately, three DeKalb County women — Judy Taylor Fuson, Ria Baker and Carol Denson Williams — have endeavored, with assistance from Mr. Webb, to record for posterity the remembrances and manners of life that existed in the valley before it was deluged.

Their 2016 coffee table-style book, “Under the Lake,” is a painstakingly assembled compendium of history, anecdotes, images, maps and family genealogies. It preserves and pays homage to a bygone epoch that gave begrudgingly away to the 20th Century surge of modern resource development.

Construction on Center Hill Dam, 1946

Williams, a retired school teacher of 30 years, said she, Baker and Fuson pored over property maps of the entire lake in an attempt to catalog all the families that owned land and were forced to move. Thousands were dislodged from throughout the region, particularly in the fertile farming areas areas close to the dam, she said.

“DeKalb County population in 1940 was 14,588 yet the following census, in 1950, recorded the county population at 11,680 showing a 2,908 population drop after the dam project was completed,” the authors write in “Under the Lake.”

It’s hard for people today to grasp the scope and process of removing all the people who used to reside amidst the fingers, branches, ravines and coves of what is now a lake in excess of 60 miles long covering nearly 19,000 acres, with more than 400 miles of crooked shoreline.

“That is a massive amount of land,” said Baker, formerly the town mayor of Alexandria. “We’re not talking about just taking a 500 foot strip for an interstate or whatever. And it wasn’t like they were saying, ‘We’re gonna to cut your farm in half and take just so many acres.’ No, it was, ‘We’re going take your whole farm and you’re going to move — we’re going to cover your house up or tear it down, and we don’t care if your grandmother lived there forever’.”

The process of picking up and clearing out was exceptionally difficult for the elderly, who were “really hurt” by the prospect of leaving forever behind family hearth and heritage, she said. Often they never recovered.

“So many people, the older people especially, were just broken,” said Baker. “This was their home, it was their lives. It would probably have happened to anybody in those circumstances, but it was just such a mass of people here. Of course, it also happened everywhere a dam went in.”

Williams said many were in denial about the inevitability of what was happening.

One man reportedly didn’t believe the water was going to submerge all his property, so he “neatly stacked all his belongings up under a bluff overhang.” Baker said. “They finally had to go get him and pull him out — he wasn’t going to leave.”

“A lot of people knew it was coming even before the Second World War, when (government agents) came and started surveying,” said Williams. “But when the war came they had to stop. After the war was over they started full-force. Some people kept saying, ‘Oh no, this is not going to happen.’ In the end, though, it did.”

If you’d like to inquire about ordering a copy of “Under the Lake,” visit the Facebook page maintained by the authors: DeKalb County, TN, Caney Fork River (@nowunderwater).