Welch’s Point at Virgin Falls State Natural Area

Welch’s Point at Virgin Falls State Natural Area

In the 19th century, a traveler across the Cumberland Plateau — his name lost to the mists of history — was making his way through Scott’s Gulf, south of Sparta in White County. He gazed down from the steep bluffs to the churning Caney Fork River hundreds of feet below him and said it was the “Grand Canyon of the Cumberlands.”

Since the 1990s, 10,000 acres in the area, given to the state by tire giant Bridgestone-Firestone, has been public land. Officially it’s a wildlife management area, basically a state-run game preserve, accessible to hunters and sportsmen who don’t have access to private land.

But it’s not just a sportsman’s paradise; it’s an outdoor paradise in general, a place of outstanding natural beauty, a habitat for a variety of flora and fauna, and a prime stopover point for migratory birds. Hiking trails crisscross the woodlands and the high meadows, leading to nine stunning waterfalls.

The east end of the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness WMA abuts Virgin Falls State Natural Area, with trails of its own leading down to the Caney Fork and to the eponymous waterfall, a popular trek for hikers and nature lovers. It’s easy to cross from one to the other. Despite being managed by different state agencies — the WMA is run by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, while Virgin Falls is under the ambit of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation — in the middle of the woods, the jurisdictional boundaries are a bit fuzzy and more or less irrelevant. Technically, activities other than hunting are prohibited in the WMA during the state’s big-game seasons (basically late August to mid-January, with a few weeks for turkeys in March and April), but it’s doubtful a hiker crossing over the line briefly would encounter strict enforcement.

All that to say, it’s not unusual for folks out for a stroll to start their hike in the WMA and connect through to Virgin Falls. And it’s certainly easy to see from one to the other.

As part of its statewide effort to provide habitat for the eastern bobwhite quail, the TWRA plans to essentially clear more than 2,000 acres of the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness WMA of trees, leaving roughly two trees per acre, basically creating a savannah on the Cumberland Plateau. That’s great for quail — and upland bird hunters — but opponents say it’s bad for other users of the public land, including deer and turkey hunters and hikers who take advantage of the broad canopy in the warmer months and enjoy their annual autumn show.

The acreage TWRA plans to clear basically occupies the entire ridge in the northern end of the WMA, which directly borders Virgin Falls SNA.

For four miles, south from the main Virgin Falls trailhead, hikers would see essentially no trees on the left-hand side of the trail. During public meetings, agency representatives claim there are no plans to cut trees adjacent to the trail, but pictures abound on social media of those trees marked for harvesting.

Save the Hardwoods — a local group of civic leaders, hikers and hunters — says there’s nearly 3,000 acres of non-native pine forest less than three miles away in the portion of the WMA in nearby Van Buren County. The group has asked TWRA to consider this site instead, but the agency has not backed down. In addition, there’s a 1,000-acre quail habitat within the WMA already.

Opponents believe the proposed tree clearing has nothing to do with habitat and everything to do with money. Under state law, the sale of TWRA assets enures to two funds administered by the agency. In nearly every other state department, similar sales would go to the state general fund. Hardwood timber is more profitable than pine, thus clearing hardwoods means more money for the TWRA than the compromise solution.

The original land transfer from Bridgestone-Firestone establishes a host of covenants and requirements the state agreed to follow. It’s an incredibly detailed document, but the long and short of it is that the state agreed to keep the area pristine. The gift does allow for the creation of wildlife habitats, but it rubs local opponents the wrong way that the TWRA is going to profit by clear-cutting land it was given for free, particularly when alternatives exist.

State Rep. Paul Sherrell (R-Sparta) has presented his constituents’ concerns to the TWRA, though there’s been no change in the agency’s position. A public meeting is scheduled for Oct. 4 at the Sparta Civic Center, and Save the Hardwoods — recognizing that both the wildlife management area and Virgin Falls draw visitors from across the state — is trying to drum up opposition from Dyersburg to Ducktown.

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