outdoors

‘Complete rebuild’ of Fall Creek Falls State Park lodging approved

The Haslam administration has received approval from the State Building Commission for its plans to rebuild the guest lodging at Fall Creek Falls State Park, reports the Time Free Press.

The plan is to tear down two existing facilities and build a single inn with about 85 rooms along with a new restaurant and conference center at the 26,000-acre park, long considered the “crown jewel” of Tennessee’s state parks system, on the Upper Cumberland Plateau. The work is expected to take 1 1/2 to two years.

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Report: Without change, Smokies wildfire ‘will be repeated’

A U.S. National Park Service committee’s review of the November, 2016, Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildfire found no outright wrongdoing by park officials, but uncovered a culture of lax oversight, inexperienced management and tunnel vision that made its spread possible, reports the News Sentinel.

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Zero bids for Fall Creek Falls Park privatization

In a stinging setback to its privatization effort for Fall Creek Falls State Park, the Haslam administration’s proposed contract to outsource hospitality services has failed to draw a single bid from would-be operators, reports the Times Free Press.

Kim Schofinski, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, confirmed Wednesday there were no bidders for the request for proposals.

She said the department, meanwhile, is thankful the governor and state lawmakers “allocated funding to enhance the user experience at Fall Creek Falls, and we will evaluate how to best manage those resources as we move forward.”

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Thousands of Asian carp dying in TN lakes; TWRA investigating

News release from Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

NASHVILLE — Boaters may have noticed recently that there is a large number of fish dying along the shoreline throughout Kentucky and Barkley lakes, an occurrence that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is aware of and investigating.

The dead fish are silver carp, an invasive species that can negatively impact native fish and recreational boating. Because of these threats, the TWRA has been working to stem their expansion into new waters.

“While we are trying to learn how to slow or stop their expansion, the recent die-off of thousands of fish for whatever reason has occurred naturally,” noted Frank Fiss, Chief of TWRA’s Fish Division.

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Revised Haslam budget pays TVA $11.8M to keep Ocoee River rafting afloat

The state will provide $11.8 million to TVA to keep the Ocoee River rafting industry afloat for the next 20 years under the newly-revised version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s state budget for the coming fiscal year, reports the Times-Free Press.

The state money will reimburse TVA for the cost of power lost when the Polk County river flows freely during the spring, summer and early fall, allowing whitewater rafting operations. Otherwise, TVA diverts the river flow into a plume for electric power generation.

“It’s a huge win for Southeast Tennessee,” said Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who along with Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, have been working with the whitewater industry and their representatives, Haslam, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, TVA, the U.S. Forest Service and others to come to an agreement.

Bell and Howell have legislation (HB74) moving in the General Assembly to create a new type of water authority, the Ocoee River Recreation and Economic Development Fund, to support recreational water releases on the Ocoee.

The new entity would be overseen by an 11-member board and all fees currently paid by whitewater rafting customers to TVA would go into the fund.

Note: TVA now receives funds to repay for loss of power generation through a fee tacked onto each ticket sold by rafting operations, but an agreement on the matter expires in 2018. Under the new deal, TVA gets its money up front, the new development fund gets the fees (expected to be about $4 per ticket) and repays the state over a period of years.

TDEC adds 1,058 acres to South Cumberland State Park

News release from Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation

MARION COUNTY, Tenn. – The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), in partnership with The Conservation Fund, The Land Trust for Tennessee and the Open Space Institute (OSI), today announced the addition of 1,058 acres to South Cumberland State Park in Marion County. The acquisition connects more than 7,000 acres of protected public land, conserves forestland and cove habitat from future development, and protects scenic views on the Fiery Gizzard trail.  Continue reading

Judge voids TN billboard regulation law

U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla of Memphis has declared Tennessee’s Billboard Regulation and Control Act unconstitutional, invalidating a law that has governed outdoor advertising in the state since 1972, reports the Commercial Appeal.

The ruling Friday came down on the side of Memphis billboard operator William H. Thomas Jr., who had alleged in a lawsuit that Tennessee Department of Transportation officials violated his constitutional rights in their efforts to remove a sign he constructed at the Interstate 40-240 interchange in East Memphis despite being denied a permit for it.

Although local governments often regulate billboards through zoning ordinances, McCalla’s decision potentially opens up vast areas of the state to unfettered proliferation of outdoor signs along highways. It also could result in a 10 percent cut in federal highway funds to Tennessee because the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 requires states to regulate billboards to federal standards.

The ruling follows a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down portions of an Arizona town’s sign ordinance on free-speech grounds, a case cited by McCalla. With the latest decision, similar litigation is likely to be lodged against other states’ billboard laws, say advocates of controls on outdoor advertising.

“It will also have an impact … far beyond Tennessee,” said William Brinton, an attorney who represented Scenic America, Scenic Tennessee and other groups seeking to preserve the billboard regulation law.

Thomas’ suit attracted allies among limited-government groups such as The Beacon Center of Tennessee, which say that billboard laws, by allowing regulatory exemptions for certain types of messages, impose undue “content-based” regulation of speech.

But advocates of billboard laws say the rules are needed as a means of protecting not just aesthetics but property values and possibly traffic safety.

Joe McCord to lobby for TN Wildlife Federation

News release from Tennessee Wildlife Federation

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Wildlife Federation, an independent nonprofit that is one of the largest and oldest dedicated to the conservation of Tennessee’s wildlife and natural resources, is enhancing its Conservation Policy program with the addition of Joe McCord.

McCord most recently served as chief clerk for Tennessee House of Representatives from 2011 to 2017. In collaboration with the Federation, he will provide significant state legislative support to the Federation’s Conservation Policy program, which has been a staple of the organization’s operations for more than 70 years.

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AG opinion sought on legality of Fall Creek Falls privatization

Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, whose district includes the 26,000-acre Fall Creek Falls State Park, has requested a legal opinion from Attorney General Herbert Slatery on whether proper procedures were followed in plans to privatize park operations, reports the Times-Free Press.

The Tennessee State Employees Association also is raising questions about Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s push to turn hospitality services over to a private operator at Fall Creek Falls, long considered the “crown jewel” of Tennessee’s park system.

Employees association Executive Director Randy Stamps, an attorney, told the Times Free Press he questions whether Haslam has the legal authority to go forward with the move.

“We believe they’re in such a big hurry to rush through this RFP [request for proposals] that maybe they overlooked some pertinent sections of state law,” said Stamps, a former Republican state representative.

Bowling said in an interview that employees asked her to seek the legal opinion.

“I’m glad to do that,” Bowling said. Park workers in her district have protested over fear for their jobs, and Van Buren County Mayor Greg Wilson worries about lost revenue for up to two years while a new lodge is built that a for-profit company would run.

“Confusion is always the enemy of good public policy,” Bowling said, “and so if we know in fact that’s following the code, that’s one set of information. If we know that it wasn’t, that opens up a different avenue. But we have to know. That’s foundational.”

Two Democratic lawmakers are convinced Haslam wants to privatize other state parks with similar amenities. Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, held a town hall meeting Friday in Spencer, the town closest to the park.

And Stamps said the statute dealing with state parks and contracting “appears to prohibit the outsourcing of state services without it being part of the master plan for parks.”

“At this time, we’re unaware that this is part of their master plan that’s been approved appropriately,” Stamps said.

“It could be that they overlooked the law,” he added. “It could be that they dealt with it in some way. But right now it appears they’re in violation of the statute.”

Eric Ward, spokeman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said officials are on sound legal ground.

“TDEC hasn’t seen Sen. Bowling’s request, but we’re confident our proposed effort to ensure the long-term viability of Fall Creek Falls is well within our legal authority and we’re happy to answer any questions from the attorney general or members of the General Assembly related to this matter,” Ward said.

Secretary of Interior nominee backs more money for Smokies

At a confirmation hearing Tuesday, Ryan Zinke, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to become U.S. secretary of the interior, committed to more funding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, reports WPLN.

While the Smokies attract twice as many visitors as Yellowstone, the Tennessee park gets only half of the federal money. It’s also prevented from charging an entrance fee due to the way it was acquired by the federal government.

Zinke acknowledged this disparity during his hearing and said he hopes to work toward solving it.

“The Smokies is different than other parks, it should be recognized,” he said. “Working forward with this committee on the infrastructure bill, we’re hoping we can take a big bite out of the deferred maintenance on infrastructure. There’s a number of roads and facilities in there.”

Zinke was also questioned about the deadly wildfires that started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and burned through Gatlinburg. He said he would work with Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander to learn from the tragedy and implement prevention strategies.

Note: Alexander’s news release on the hearing is below.

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