A pair of bills aimed at controlling the authority of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency advanced through the Legislature on Wednesday, with bipartisan support from the same slate of lawmakers who have publicly expressed anger over the agency’s plans to cut cleared public lands earlier this year.
A measure by Republican Rep. Paul Sherrell and Sen. Paul Bailey would require the National Wildlife Agency to deposit all proceeds from the sale of timber into the state’s general fund, instead of remaining in the agency’s budget . TWRA earns about $900,000 a year from the sale of timber on public land.
Both Sherrell and Bailey represent Sparta, Tennessee, where TWRA plans to raze 2,000 acres of forest in the nearby Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area, which has sparked outrage from hunters, hikers, tourism officials and environmental groups.
A second bill, by Sherrell and Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, would bar the agency – whose law enforcement arm enforces hunting, fishing and wildlife laws – from seizing boats, trucks, planes, motor homes, cars or other motorized vehicles of suspects without a court order.
While it’s unclear how many of those assets are seized by TWRA with or without a court order, the agency earns about $163,000 auctioning seized items each year, according to a tax memo accompanying the bill. .
Both measures were easily passed by the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday.
TWRA spokeswoman Jenifer Wisniewski said agency officials continue to work with the bills’ sponsors, but did not say whether TWRA supports or opposes them.
The bills are among a handful of proposed policy changes that would impose restrictions on the agency’s authority, tabled by Democratic and Republican lawmakers since the row first arose over plans to the agency’s clear cut in the fall.
Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, has introduced similar bills requiring lumber sales to be deposited into the general fund and imposing restrictions on TWRA auctions of seized assets from such suspects. These invoices have not advanced. Campbell has since signed on to support the Republican lawmakers’ measures.
TWRA has faced further scrutiny and censure from lawmakers this year.
In January, a letter to TWRA from a bipartisan group of 34 lawmakers accused the agency of “failing to protect Tennessee’s natural wildlife,” “a shameful lack of communication and transparency,” and said the lawmakers’ concerns had been “answered to the deaf”. ears.”
The letter criticized the failure of agency officials to respond to lawmakers’ concerns and questions about its clear-cutting plans.
Then last month, R-Morristown Republican Sen. Steve Southerland – in a public hearing – asked agency officials to discuss any plans to clear-cut Bridgestone land with lawmakers before proceeding. proceed. Southerland is the chairman of the Tennessee Senate Committee on Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources.
The Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area, located near Sparta, Tennessee and adjacent to the Virgin Falls Wilderness Area, comprises approximately 16,000 acres, much of which is forested.
A series of bills would both require the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to deposit proceeds from timber sales into the state’s general fund and restrict the agency’s ability to seize private property without a court order.
TWRA has made no official public announcement of its clearcutting plans in the area. Local hunters first spotted spray-painted slash marks on trees in August, then obtained a never-before-seen TWRA map that illustrated the location of 2,000 acres to be razed in the popular recreation area which, according to the local tourism officials, is essential to the local economy.
Plans called for the creation of savannahs on the property, with few trees, to create habitat for bobwhite quail, a game bird whose populations have plummeted in Tennessee, as well as other animal and plant species. that thrive in grassy habitats.
After a public denial, TWRA officials announced a pause on those plans.
The agency oversees hunting and fishing licenses, wildlife and habitat management, and more than 100 wildlife management areas and refuges across Tennessee ranging in size from about 50 acres to over of 625,000 acres.