With untouched pockets of wilderness for sale to developers all over Tennessee, conservationists are pressuring the legislature this session to stop emptying millions of dollars in tax money from the state’s funds to preserve natural land.
On the list of threatened properties are some of the sparkling gems of Tennessee’s natural treasures. Even the bluffs overlooking Fall Creek Falls — one of the state’s most photographed scenic vistas — aren’t safe from high-priced condominiums and mountain resort communities. The owner tells The City Paper a deal for that land is imminent, adding urgency to the conservation effort.
Environmentalists have formed a coalition of 28 civic organizations — including the Boy Scouts — to lobby lawmakers, and they have succeeded in recruiting strong allies. Republican Rep. Joe McCord, the influential chairman of the House Environment Committee, is on board, along with Sen. Douglas Henry, a key member of the Senate Finance Committee. Former Gov. Winfield Dunn also has joined the “Forever Green Tennessee” campaign.
“You can’t save it all, but you can save the best Tennessee has to offer in our Tennessee state parks, our wildlife areas and our local parks,” Dunn told a Capitol news conference last week.
Gov. Phil Bredesen, who counts conservation among his legacy achievements, has restored the land funds in his recommended state budget for the coming year.
But state government is reeling from nearly two years of falling tax collections, and unmet needs are mounting. Lawmakers are laying off state workers and eliminating services once considered essential to the sick and disabled, among other down-and-out citizens. Conservationists say they recognize it’ll be difficult to earmark scarce cash for saving land in these hard economic times, no matter how beautiful or ecologically important it may be.
The legislature established the funds in 1991 by raising fees on real estate transactions and dedicating the revenue largely to land preservation. The fees now generate $16 million annually — enough to wipe out proposed cuts in services to the state’s mentally disabled or to save the jobs of 171 prosecutors, public defenders and parole officers whose employment now is threatened. The dilemma for lawmakers is obvious.
“It’s so disheartening,” said Kathleen Williams, director of the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation. “You go to these places and you think, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got the chance to buy something spectacular.’ There’s no sign of human habitation at all. It feels primeval. The thought of houses sticking up everywhere on this land just kills me. But you have to have state dollars to protect these places.”
State preserves historical land
Money from the funds helped buy Nashville’s Beaman and Shelby Bottoms parks and saved ridgelines from development in the Radnor Lake State Natural Area, a popular spot for family outings just south of downtown.
Mostly in West Tennessee, some 200,000 acres of wetlands were acquired, protecting drinking water and providing habitat for
The state bought Savage Gulf, a 15,590-acre gorge carved into the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Tennessee. Among that property’s attractions: breathtaking waterfalls and the massive Stone Door with its 10-foot-wide crack in the escarpment that once served as an Indian passageway into the gorge below. The nearby Fiery Gizzard hiking trail, one of the most popular in the eastern United States, was another state purchase.
In one of its most important acquisitions, the state paid $2 million for the awe-inspiring Devilstep Hollow near Crossville. Sometime around 1300 A.D., people of the Mississippian Era crawled into a cave on this land and carved mysterious images into the walls, including an eagle-like being with human legs and a weeping eye. At the base of the cave rests a blue-green pool — the headwaters of the Sequatchie River.
“It was a holy place of worship,” Williams said. “It’s now protected, and it’s because we have these public dollars.”
But two years ago, in a dispute that demonstrated just how little clout environmentalists in Tennessee enjoy, the business-friendly legislature diverted land preservation money into the general fund to help balance the state budget. Lawmakers were filling a $16 million budget hole they created by refusing to close fat tax breaks for commercial real-estate tycoons. It just so happened the land funds held exactly the amount needed, so it was an easy solution for lawmakers to raid them.
The legislature closed the tax loophole for commercial developers last year but still didn’t restore the flow of fees into the land funds.
“It’s wrong to pass a fee increase for one program and then take them for a different purpose,” said Michelle Haynes, president of Tennessee Conservation Voters. “That’s not why the legislature established these funds, and they are needed now more than ever.”
Owners looking to sell tracts
Tennessee’s tallest privately held waterfall is one of the beautiful pieces of land for sale. The owner, a Florida developer named Jim Keaton, said he’s asking $2.7 million for 5,000 feet of waterfront property overlooking the gorgeous Cummins Falls near Cookeville.
“It’s for sale,” he said. “Times are tough, so I’m not going to stipulate that it can’t be touched. Anything privately owned is at risk of development. We have put in a lot of money into this, my partners and myself, and I’m not saying we’re going to recoup everything, but we cannot take a huge hit just to save Tennessee scenery. That’s just a fact of life.”
Bradley Varner said his 465 acres overlooking the cascades, gorges and virgin hardwood of Fall Creek Falls State Park is worth more than $2 million, too.
“We’re actually talking to two developers right now who are looking at it,” he said. Would he sell to the state if the land funds are restored? “That property might be gone by then,” he said. “I sure hope so. I’d like to recoup my investment and do something else with it.”
In Fall Creek Falls State Park, if you stand on a rocky outcrop named Buzzard’s Roost — one of Tennessee’s most popular beauty spots — you can gaze at the ridgelines Varner is selling and blue mountains stretching to the horizon.
“There’s an enormous number of tracts out there with ecological value that are for sale,” said Scott Davis of the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. “All these sellers are looking to liquefy or move their funds out of what they consider to be a non-performing asset. That always happens when there isn’t any money for the conservation community to take advantage of it. That’s the hard part.”
Davis was instrumental in persuading McCord to join conservationists in trying to restore the land funds. The lawmaker, who is from Maryville in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, has fought frequently with conservationists during his 12 years in office and as Environment Committee chairman pushing legislation favored by developers and industry.
That’s why McCord makes a strong ally for conservationists on this issue, according to Davis. “If you give Joe half a chance, he can help take us away from that false choice of the economy or the environment. He’s viewed as a thoughtful leader among the Republicans. If you can work with someone like Joe to drive to the middle where there are real solutions, some of the crazies on either side of the political spectrum fall off.”
State parks generate $700 million a year for the economy, according to officials, and Tennessee’s tourism depends heavily on scenery. In a Tennessean opinion column, McCord wrote that restoring the land funds “isn’t just good for conservation; it’s good for business.”
Still, even with McCord on their side, Davis conceded, “It’s going to be really, really hard to keep that money in the budget. Somebody asked me who are the opponents, and the response is, ‘Anybody who’s had their budget cut.’ ”
This year, that’s just about everybody. But McCord predicted “it’s more than likely” conservationists will win. He said he’s gaining support with this argument: The fees were dedicated to the land fund, and that’s where they should stay.
Nashville’s Henry said he’s optimistic, too. He sees the governor’s support as crucial to restoring the conservation money, and he has introduced legislation to make the funds untouchable in the future without a change in state statute.
“I think that money’s got a pretty good chance of staying in,” Henry said. “When push comes to shove, anything can go, as you know. But I’d say that among the different funds that have been designated for this, that and the other, this one has a better chance of survival than most. The main reason is the governor is the one doing the pushing and the shoving. He’s the guy who says he wants it to stay in. To me, that’s a pretty doggone good sign.”