WHITE COUNTY, Tenn. (WTVF) — When it comes to environmental conservation, you wouldn't think cutting down trees would be part of the strategy. But that's exactly what the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency wants to do in White County.
It's been controversial since the plan first surfaced last October. TWRA wants to cut down part of a dense forest in the Bridgestone Wildlife Management Area, near Virgin Falls, and turn it into a grassland habitat. The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative has been serving in an advisory role on the project.
TWRA will start with about 200 acres but they are considering expanding that acreage even more.
But Austin Peay State University Biology Professor Dwayne Estes, who leads the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, says despite the way it may sound, losing trees is just what the land needs. "Tennessee had about 7.5 million acres of naturally open landscapes or grasslands at the time Europeans first came here. Today we’ve lost over 90% of that habitat," said Estes.
Last November, we introduced you to Professor Estes. He says, by clearing parts of the Bridgestone WMA and regrowing the land into a grassland habitat with some trees remaining, it will save plants and animals on the brink of extinction.
"Species like Northern Bobwhite Quail... if they didn’t have this, they would have no where to go. They have to have this kind of habitat," said Estes.
But State Senator Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, isn't convinced. "It’s kind of ridiculous, surely we don’t need that many quail hunting refuges in the state of Tennessee," said Sen. Campbell
Campbell is among 34 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, urging the TWRA to abandon the plan and be more transparent about what they're trying to do. She tells NewsChannel 5, she's skeptical sacrificing that many trees will be worth what TWRA is trying to accomplish.
"Really, we’re cutting down all these old growth trees and I think the best environmental thing we can do is not influence the environment," said Campbell.
Estes says he wants to take lawmakers out to the Bridgestone land, and then out to other properties where they've been able to restore a grassland habitat. He hopes letting them see what they can do, instead of just hearing about it will make all the difference. "It is time, well past time that grasslands have an equal seat at the conservation table," said Estes.
NewsChannel 5 reached out to the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency for this story, but so far, we haven't heard back.