Pinson Mounds State Park, near Jackson, Tenn., is home to about 35 ancient burial mounds surrounded by an earthen wall, the largest Indian burial ground in the Southeast and an important enough relic that there’s talk of adding it to the United Nation’s list of world heritage sites. If that happens, the site, already listed on the National Historic Registry, would be in league with the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China.
But while the significant ancient burial site fortunately has been untouched by developers, it’s nevertheless been disturbed. Starting in the early 1960s, state foresters began planting trees on the T-shaped parcel of flatland. The purpose of the “tree improvement” program was to engineer a straighter tree, one that would, among other things, produce fewer limbs and be more disease resistant. Hundreds of genetically selected mature pines and hardwoods grown at the site have generated millions of seedlings, which are planted yards away from their parents. The young trees are then sold to farmers for as little as 14 cents per seedling, helping to repopulate the state’s topography ravaged a century ago by poor farming techniques, not to mention servicing consumption of vast quantities of paper and wood products.
For the most part, forestry officials have existed in harmony for 40 years with the 1,000-acre state archeological park adjacent to the nursery. And the Forestry Division has been credited for preserving some of the site because an additional seven mounds are situated inside the nursery’s boundaries. The conventional wisdom has been that if forestry hadn’t purchased the property, a farmer or developer would have bulldozed the seven mounds, much the same way all five of Davidson County’s mounds disappeared years ago. But, now, these tree-hugging bureaucrats aren’t getting quite the same warm and fuzzy feeling from conservationists.
Critics say there’s no reason now for Forestry to stay at the ancient burial site anymore, seeing as how it moved its seedlings operation to its more modern East Tennessee nursery in 2004. Conservationists say jurisdiction for the land should be transferred to the Department of Environment and Conservation. “Forestry should have left when Pinson became a state park years ago,” says Mark Tolley of the Tennessee Ancient Sites Conservancy. “Certainly they should have left when it became a national historic landmark. I don’t want to say anything bad about the Forestry people. They’re nice people. They didn’t know years ago how valuable the land was. But dammit, today they know. They need to leave the site.”
Thus far, Forestry officials have balked at permanently leaving Pinson. For one thing, they say, they have millions of dollars invested in tree science at the site. A third generation of loblolly pine, considered one of the most important and widely cultivated timber species in the South, is already in the ground, and a fourth generation is planned to replace an aging loblolly orchard on the westernmost 45 acres of the nursery. “We’re going to make sure anything we do, we’ll be able to co-exist for the next 50 years,” says Steve Scott, a 53-year-old Kentuckian who worked in South Carolina for two decades before being named Tennessee’s forester in 2002.
Scott says Forestry is in no hurry to relocate because his division still requires unfettered access to the orchards. He has been negotiating with Nick Fielder, the state’s chief archaeologist, to find a resolution, but the two have made little headway. Even though Forestry’s nursery operation is in East Tennessee, the agency still trucks seedlings to Pinson to sell to West Tennessee farmers. The seedlings are housed in a 1,200-square-foot cooler, which Forestry says must be replaced because it’s small and outdated.
Scott says Forestry will construct the larger cooler so it won’t be an eyesore, and he’s agreed to demolish three of nine Forestry buildings in the middle of the orchard, two of which abut Ozier Mound, where Forestry recently removed a bathroom facility that had long been a source of tension between Indians and state officials.
Fielder, a former Boeing engineer who cross-trained in archaeology after being laid off by the airplane manufacturer in the late 1960s, argues that building a cooler will make it that much more difficult for visitors to imagine what Ozier Mound and two smaller monuments called Twin Mounds were like 2,000 years ago. The cooler “can be put anywhere,” he says. Indeed, Forestry owns 25,000 acres in Henderson and Chester counties, both of which are adjacent to Madison County, where Pinson is located. But Scott says they’re too remote to accommodate the seedling operation.
Another issue is Forestry’s desire to grow loblolly pines to maturity where the seedling operations once were. Plowing for the seedlings, which are plucked from the ground when they are about 2 feet tall, damaged about 14 inches of topsoil. Adult loblollies, on the other hand, grow a taproot about four feet downward, like a carrot, leaving potential artifacts exposed to damage.
Fielder, the archaeologist, has contracted with a group to excavate portions of the orchard later this spring to see what mature loblollies might damage. Scott says if evidence of ancient Indians is unearthed, Forestry will change its approach to the orchard. It wouldn’t be at all surprising for the archaeologists to uncover artifacts. In the late 1990s, a team of archaeologists led by MTSU professor Kevin Smith found that Forestry had planted its first generation of loblollies in 1970 on an Indian mound that was so wide and expansive it looked more like a slope than a mound.
Fielder has encouraged Scott to buy a 500-acre farm located near Pinson, appraised at $1.3 million, as a relocation site. Scott says the state doesn’t have the money to purchase the land; Fielder says Forestry has balked at moving because it wants the 500-acre farm and continued control over its Pinson complex. According to the state Finance Department, there is money in the state budget for a new seedling operation, but the Agriculture Department, which oversees Forestry, would have to make the request a priority.
Unfortunately, Scott doesn’t feel the same urgency Fielder does. Forestry officials are “primarily farmers,” Fielder says. “Their whole worldview is different from an archaeologist’s or park ranger’s.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to fully appreciate Scott’s reluctance to withdraw from Pinson. He cites Forestry personnel as one of the reasons his division needs to remain on site, despite the fact Forestry employs exactly one full-time forester to mange its tree-improvement program. The rest of the staff was transferred to the East Tennessee nursery in 2004.
Forestry’s stubbornness leaves the division open to attacks from groups as varied as the Daughters of the American Revolution, academics, Indian rights organizations and conservationists. They’re anticipating that Gov. Phil Bredesen will need to intervene before Pinson can be fully restored to a natural state.
For Mark Tolley, of the Ancient Sites Conservancy, Forestry’s position is one of countless slights Indians have endured since Europeans arrived on this continent. “It’s the continuation of ethnic cleansing of Native Americans we’ve seen for generations,” he says. “It’s a total disregard for a sacred place, and it’s totally wrong in every way.”