Tennessee bills to limit wildlife agency’s authority to earn money from timber, seize property advance

A pair of bills that seek to place checks on the authority of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency advanced in the legislature, with bipartisan support from the same slate of lawmakers who publicly expressed anger over the agency’s plans to clearcut public lands earlier this year.

One measure by Republicans Rep. Paul Sherrell and Sen. Paul Bailey would require the state wildlife agency to deposit all proceeds from the sale of timber into the state’s general fund, instead of remaining within the agency’s budget. The agency earns about $900,000 annually from the sales of timber on public lands.

Sherrell and Bailey both represent Sparta, Tennessee, where the wildlife agency’s plans to raze 2,000 acres of forest in the nearby Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area sparked outrage from hunters, hikers, tourism officials and environmental groups.

A second bill, by Sherrell and Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, would prohibit the agency — whose law enforcement arm enforces hunting, fishing and wildlife laws — from seizing boats, trucks, planes, campers, cars or other motorized vehicles from suspects without a court order.

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While it’s unclear how many of these assets are seized by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency with or without a court order, the agency earns approximately $163,000 in auctioning seized items annually, a fiscal note accompanying the bill said.

Both measures easily passed in the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday.

Jenifer Wisniewski, a spokesperson for the agency, said agency officials continued to work with the bills’ sponsors but otherwise did not comment on whether the agency supports them.

The bills are among a handful of proposed policy changes that would impose restrictions on the agency’s authority, filed by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers since conflict first arose over the agency’s clearcutting plans in the fall.

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, filed similar bills requiring timber sales to be deposited in the general fund and to place restrictions on Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency auctions of property seized from suspects. Those bills did not advance. Campbell has since signed on to support Republican legislators’ measures.

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The wildlife agency has been the subject of other scrutiny, and censure, by lawmakers this year.

In January, a letter to the agency from a bipartisan group of 34 lawmakers accused the agency of “breaching its duty to protect natural wildlife in Tennessee,” “a shameful lack of communication and transparency” and said lawmakers’ concerns had been “met with deaf ears.”

The letter was criticizing agency officials’ failure to respond to lawmaker concerns and questions over its clearcutting plans.

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Then last month, Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown — in a public hearing — directed agency leaders to discuss any clearcutting plans on the Bridgestone lands with lawmakers before proceeding. Southerland is the chairman of the Tennessee Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

The Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area, near Sparta and adjacent to Virgin Falls Natural Area, contains about 16,000 acres, much of it forested.

The state’s wildlife agency made no formal public announcements of its plans to clearcut in the area. Local hunters first spied spray painted cut marks on trees in August, then obtained a previously unreleased agency map that illustrated the location of 2,000 acres to be razed in the popular recreation area that local tourism officials say is critical to the local economy.

The plans called for creating savannas on the property, with few trees, in order to create habitat for the northern bobwhite quail, a gamebird whose populations have fallen in Tennessee — along with other species of animal and plant life that thrive in grassy habitats.

After public pushback, agency officials have announced a pause on those plans.

The agency oversees hunting and fishing licenses, habitat and habitat management, and more than 100 wildlife management areas and refuges across Tennessee that vary in size from about 50 acres to more than 625,000 acres.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

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