Just over a month ago, I hiked into the woods east of Sparta with six undergraduates from the small Arkansas college where I teach. In order to practice the caving skills they’d need to catalog rare species in the region, we had secured a state permit to enter a massive wild cave. A group of local cavers came to help lead the all-day trip. It was the final weekend before the cave’s annual closure to protect bats that will return there to hibernate.
We moved single-file beneath a dark canopy of oak and hickory, the temperature falling 10 degrees cooler than it had been in the dirt parking lot at our trailhead. Skirting streambeds of rounded cobbles, we watched for stinging nettles among the native Turk’s cap and rhododendron. Soon we began to parallel a limestone bluff that rose to our right like a castle out of Medieval England, or perhaps Mordor. This was the base of the Cumberland Plateau.
On Oct. 4, Sparta residents pushed back at a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency plan to create new quail habitat by cutting down 2,000 acres of hardwoods on the plateau in the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness Wildlife Management Area. Only two weeks earlier, TWRA announced with great fanfare its preservation of more than 11,000 acres further north on the plateau, at Springer Mountain. The new preserve includes the state’s fifth-longest cave, a home to endangered bats. The planned deforestation, ostensibly designed to help area hunters, became public only from an internal leak of a secret map. But the largest group attending the meeting were in fact local hunters in favor of saving the forest.
“It makes zero sense to me,” hunter, hiker and kayaker Mike O’Neal told me the day before the meeting, adding that the agency could use nearby tracts of old farmland as well as recent, non-native pine forest within the WMA that would make better quail habitat. But the hardwood fetches a higher price. “It’s a case of the fox guarding the henhouse.”
Unique among Tennessee agencies, TWRA is allowed to keep the proceeds of timber sales, as opposed to passing those funds into the state’s general coffers. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation, charged with oversight of TWRA actions within the WMA, issued a statement after the protest meeting that they are speaking with TWRA “to fully understand their current plan so we can do that alongside legal counsel.”
Stretching 450 miles from Alabama to West Virginia, the plateau’s elevated layers of limestone and sandstone have eroded into spectacular green canyons that reach into its edges. In each of these, waterfalls cascade hundreds of feet. (There are six waterfalls in the area slated for cutting). Some rush into rivers like the Caney Fork, while others vanish into caves. Stone sentinels poke from fern-covered forest floors like Celtic ruins. Actual ruins hide nearby in pictograph-covered caves, used thousands of years ago by Native Americans.
Since first experiencing the caves and forests of the Cumberland as a college student 40 years ago, I have been inexorably drawn back, year after year. TWRA’s mission statement pledges to “preserve, conserve, manage, protect, and enhance the fish and wildlife of the state and their habitats for the use, benefit, and enjoyment of the citizens of Tennessee and its visitors." This means that they may create new habitats — in this case for quail — where none existed previously, even if such an act destroys the habitat of other species. Not to mention delivering cash to the agency. It’s a Faustian bargain.
The threatened land was donated to Tennessee in the late 1990s by Bridgestone Americas. The gift surrounded Virgin Falls, a 1,157-acre site later designated a state natural and scientific area. The namesake falls emerge from a cave entrance to drop off a 110-foot cliff into another cave entrance. The section to be logged adjoins this preserve and includes several current trails leading there.
Marvin Bullock, president of the Sparta Chamber of Commerce, has pointed out that removing the hardwoods would destroy habitat for turkey, deer and squirrel, not to mention dozens of other non-game species. “I can understand removal of the nonindigenous pine,” he wrote in a local hunters’ Facebook thread, “but I am not happy about the destruction of these hardwoods.”
Bullock said that Sparta’s main income these days is tourism, and the draw for tourists is wilderness. Other group members fear the new grassland would contribute to wildfires in the region, which has experienced increased droughts due to climate change.
Donna Knoke Cobb, an Alabama archeologist who volunteers with a local cave conservancy, is more direct in her opinion of the proposed quail habitat: “Follow the damn money,” she says. “Someone’s selling those trees. And someone else probably wants to build a hunting lodge in the middle of one of the most scenic spots in the state.”
The leaked digital map was created Aug. 24, according to the document’s metadata. At the Oct. 4 meeting, TWRA released a new map showing only 230 acres of hardwood to be cut in an “initial” phase, with only 1,000 acres of trees to be ultimately sold. “This new map shows them honoring Bridgestone’s restrictions, which reduces them to only 1,000 acres of trees to sell,” Bullock wrote in an email two days after the meeting. “The date on this map was mid-September. So they’ve been honoring those restrictions for at least three weeks now.” The TWF has not indicated when or how it will respond to the TWRA plan.
I was only a few miles east of Sparta when my students and I left our trail to ascend a steep slope, panting as we lugged cave gear over a summit and then down into a sinkhole at the base of the plateau. Water trickled and dripped from mosses hanging on the exposed rock before us. At the base of the sinkhole lay our objective.
“As we approached the cave entrance it became noticeably chilly,” Kaylie Wheeless, a senior biology student, wrote a week later. “The cavers we were with called it ‘cave conditioning.’ The entrance was a gaping hole in a massive wall of limestone surrounded by brilliant green ferns. I remember looking back at the ferns as we walked in, and how much I appreciated them when we came back out, seven hours later.”
We emerged to view the landscape with fresh eyes, as tourists in a lost world. Southern hardwood forests produce oxygen, resist wildfire, provide habitat, and in many ways can be thought of as a battleground against climate change — but for a college student entering them for the first time, the experience can be akin to magic, creating a lifelong kinship with the environment. That’s what it did for me four decades ago. That’s what I hope it will do for the students I brought there — and for countless others across the Cumberland Plateau.
But it can’t happen if the trees are gone.