Hiking Trails

activists rally against White County clearcut plan | City limits


In the 19th century, a traveler across the Cumberland Plateau – his name lost in the haze of history – made his way through Scott’s Gulf, south of Sparta in White County. He looked from the sheer cliffs down to the Caney Fork River hundreds of feet below him and said it was the “Grand Canyon of the Cumberlands”.

Since the 1990s, 10,000 acres of the region, ceded to the state by tire giant Bridgestone-Firestone, have been public land. Officially, it is a wildlife management area, essentially a state-managed hunting reserve, accessible to hunters and athletes who do not have access to private land.

But it’s not just a sportsman’s paradise; it is an outdoor paradise in general, a place of exceptional natural beauty, a habitat for a variety of flora and fauna and a choice stopping place for migrating birds. Hiking trails weave through woods and high meadows, leading to nine stunning waterfalls.

The eastern end of the Centennial Wilderness of Bridgestone-Firestone abuts the Virgin Falls State Natural Area, with its own trails leading to Caney Fork and the eponymous waterfall, a popular hike for hikers and lovers alike. of nature. It is easy to switch from one to the other. Although it is managed by different state agencies – the WMA is managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, while Virgin Falls falls under the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation – in the middle of the woods, the jurisdictional boundaries are a bit fuzzy and more or less irrelevant. Technically, activities other than hunting are prohibited in the WMA during the state’s big game seasons (essentially late August to mid-January, with a few weeks for turkeys in March and April), but it is a hiker briefly crossing the line unlikely to encounter strict enforcement.

All of this to say that it’s not uncommon for people walking around to start their hike in the WMA and connect all the way to Virgin Falls. And it is certainly easy to see from one to the other.

As part of its statewide efforts to provide habitat for Bobwhite quail, TWRA plans to essentially clear over 2,000 acres of trees in the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area, leaving about two trees per acre, essentially creating a savannah on the Cumberland Plateau. It’s great for quail – and highland bird hunters – but opponents say it’s bad for other public land users, including deer and turkey hunters and hikers who profit from the wide canopy during the warmer months and enjoy their annual fall show.

The area that the TWRA plans to clear essentially occupies the entire ridge at the north end of the WMA, which directly borders the Virgin Falls SNA.

For four miles south of the main trailhead at Virgin Falls, hikers would hardly see any trees on the left side of the trail. At public meetings, agency officials say there are no plans to cut down trees next to the trail, but images abound on social media of these trees marked for harvest.

Save the Hardwoods – a local group of civic leaders, hikers and hunters – says there are nearly 3,000 acres of non-native pine forest within three miles of the WMA part in neighboring County of Van Buren. The group asked TWRA to consider this site instead, but the agency did not back down. In addition, there is already a 1,000 acre quail habitat in the WMA.

Opponents believe the proposed deforestation has nothing to do with habitat and everything to do with money. Under state law, the sale of TWRA’s assets is the responsibility of two funds administered by the agency. In almost every other state department, similar sales would go to the state general fund. Hardwood is more profitable than pine, so clearing hardwoods means more money for TWRA than the compromise solution.

Bridgestone-Firestone’s initial land transfer sets out a series of commitments and requirements that the state has agreed to follow. It’s an incredibly detailed document, but basically the state has agreed to keep the area pristine. The donation allows for the creation of wildlife habitat, but it rubs local opponents the wrong way that TWRA will benefit from clearcutting land given to it for free, especially where alternatives exist.

State Representative Paul Sherrell (R-Sparta) brought his constituents’ concerns to TWRA, although there was no change in the agency’s stance. A public meeting is scheduled for Oct. 4 at the Sparta Civic Center, and Save the Hardwoods – recognizing that the Wildlife Management Area and Virgin Falls draw visitors from across the state – is trying to generate opposition from Dyersburg to Ducktown.