A student-created petition asking for tubing in Townsend to be either banned or more regulated has received nearly 1,000 signatures in less than a week.
Titled “Protect the Little River in Townsend, TN,” a petition started by Lexi Emrey directed at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett and local government leaders asked them to curb tubing on Little River.
Emrey — who could not be reached via email or social media for comment — said in the petition she is a senior at UTK and is studying wildlife and fisheries management.
She also said her family has owned property on the river for more than 100 years.
At the end of the petition, Emrey called for either regulation or a ban on tubing, noting “local residents have tried to end tubing on the Little River for years.” But first she noted the effect of tubing traffic on wildlife and specifically Eastern Hellbender salamanders, which she said were “rapidly disappearing” because of human encroachment.
The petition has been shared repeatedly on social media and garnered about 980 responses by Monday.
One of the entities to share the post online was Tally Ho Inn, owned by Townsend Vice Mayor Michael Talley.
“PLEASE SIGN” Talley Ho’s repost of the petition read. “Tubing has gotten out of control on Little River. It is contributing to a decline in biodiversity and rise in pollution and damage in an area that has historically been a sanctuary for freshwater organisms.”
Experts who spoke with The Daily Times on Monday said tubing itself doesn’t necessarily have a negative effect on wildlife.
The problems come when people remove and shift rocks to make unnatural dams, a point also noted in the petition.
“There’s as much disruption to the stream bed that happens after (a flood) as probably from a decade of tubing,” Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Stream and Rivers Wildlife Manager Jim Habera said. “Just them floating through and walking around, wading, I don’t see that as a problem. It’s when they start pulling up the rocks. ... There you’re messing around with the substrate like a flood would do and disturbing aquatic organism habitats.”
Habera said TWRA teams were working at Townsend’s portion of Little River the second week of July and saw several places where people had moved rocks into large piles.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Chief of Resource Management and Science Matt Kulp confirmed this activity is what they try to keep visitors from doing when they’re inside the park boundaries.
“We’ve ... seen places like Little River and Abrams Creek where we have threatened and endangered fishes ... that live under those rocks and spawn on the rocks in June and July and into early August,” Kulp said. “If someone takes that rock and moves it or flips it, they’ll abandon that nest and those eggs will die.”
Kulp said the park has put out a big campaign to let visitors know the harm caused to wildlife by disturbing streams. Some of those promotional materials do mention Eastern Hellbenders by name, informing visitors that “many salamanders live under rocks. Don’t move their homes!”
While they do not regulate the portion of Little River used by tubing companies, GSMNP officials have given educational materials to Townsend businesses, Kulp said, but was unsure how often those have been used.
Owners of River Rat tubing said they had seen the petition, but declined to comment. Owners of Cowboy Tubin’ and River Rage Tubing did not respond to calls.
Talley said issues about the busy tubing industry on the “peaceful side of the Smokies” have come up several times in the past. But the petition takes a different perspective on the matter.
“A lot of folks in the community have gone quiet just out of a sense of futility,” he said. “We try to bring up these concerns and we haven’t found any regulatory authority that can help us.”
Talley said it’s not only environmental aspects citizens are worried about. It’s the noise, the property rights issues and often the trash that have many frustrated with tubing operations.
He agreed the companies bring economic activity to the city, but noted taxes for some tubing companies go to Blount County, not to the city of Townsend.
Some of those companies do regulate the amount of tubes they put on the river, Talley said. Others do not and he said that has led to widespread concern about the long-term detrimental effect of the industry.
“I hate to say it: They’re killing the goose that’s laying the golden egg,” Talley said. “If a little bit of compromise could voluntarily be made, I think it would mitigate a lot the concerns.”
A survey with nearly 400 respondents in the county shows more than half of businesses are requiring employees to wear masks.
Maryville city leaders requested the survey from the Blount Partnership to help the city and the county mayor determine new mask policies, officials said.
Of the 380 responses, 55% of businesses said they required employees to wear masks and about 45% did not, partnership’s Director of Communications Jeff Muir said.
About 68% “valued a statement from local governments regarding masks,” Muir emailed.
Since June 19, when the positive count was 119, COVID-19 cases have tripled in Blount County, to 348 as of Monday. The active cases in the county have gone from 23 to 170 over same time frame.
County Mayor Ed Mitchell said on July 8 he wasn’t going to mandate masks in public, at businesses or in government buildings though county mayors were given the power to do so in a July 3 Executive Order issued by Gov. Bill Lee.
The partnership’s survey ran for 24 hours on social media and email, Muir said, but it was also sent out only a few hours before Mitchell’s statement.
“We hope businesses and the community continue to adhere to the Tennessee Pledge and the mayor’s urging,” Muir said.
Only two counties in the region currently have mask mandates: Knox and Sevier. Others like Blount declared support for face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but have not created a mandate. Still others continue to deliberate over a policy.
Two Blount government buildings currently require masks and check temperatures at the door: the Blount County Justice Center and the Blount County Public Library.
Blount residents continue to use social media to report and discuss use of masks in restaurants, stores, government buildings and other areas as the number of positive coronavirus cases in the county continues to rise.
On June 29, Lee extended a state of emergency declaration for Tennessee to Aug. 29, pressing many areas operating under a phased reopening schedule to scale back. Many Blount businesses have started operating once again under provisional standards for social distancing and increased sanitization efforts.
The state’s health department continues to promote the use of masks via social media campaigns that encourage citizens to wear them in public if possible. “My face covering protects you,” some advertisements read. “Your face covering protects me. Let’s protect one another.”
Faced with funding and other uncertainties as classes are about to resume for the first time since the pandemic, the Maryville Board of Education voted Monday, July 13, to rescind a planned raise and spend about $128,000 to disinfect buildings.
In May, the school board approved a 0.5% raise on top of step increases for 2020-21, but then the state decreased its expected funding to Maryville City Schools by $278,000.
The new, unanimous vote retains only the step increase, which about two-thirds of employees are eligible to receive, MCS Director Mike Winstead said.
By fall break in October the district may be able to consider a bonus or other compensation, he said, depending on sales tax revenues and costs associated with new safety precautions as Maryville’s schools reopen July 30 for the first time since spring break.
So far Blount County sales tax revenues have not taken as much of a hit from COVID-19 closures as feared, but only the numbers from March and April sales are in.
“It pains us to have to revise that salary schedule,” board Chair Nick Black said. “I’d love to do a bonus or raise mid-year.”
The board added $30,000 to schools’ strategic compensation funds, raising to $148,800 the amount that can pay staff for additional duties, such as enrichment and remediation or leading professional learning communities. Winstead said that increase can be used to pay staff who take on duties such as morning temperature checks.
The board approved a new $127,748.92 contract with ABM for additional cleaning services this school year, in addition to its regular services under a five-year contract.
The money came through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief Fund for needs because of the pandemic.
Under the “EnhancedClean” program, the company will provide a porter each day at the two intermediate schools, junior high and high school. The company will disinfect high-touch areas during the day and between groups in the cafeterias.
A fifth worker will use an electrostatic cleaner to disinfect one of the district’s seven schools every business day. The schools also have additional sprayers and foggers for cleaning.
For example, if a school has a confirmed COVID-19 case, it will be able to clean specific rooms that evening.
Winstead confirmed in an interview after the meeting that an MCS employee’s spouse is critically ill with COVID-19 but said the employee completed a 14-day quarantine.
Maryville’s reopening plan designates all staff members “essential critical workers” and allows them to continue working following a potential COVID-19 exposure if they are asymptomatic and follow guidelines such as wearing a face covering for 14 days.
Winstead said that the provision is designed to allow schools to operate with enough staff if there is exposure to a child with the coronavirus.
“I hope it’s never needed,” he said. “We’re going to be very transparent if that would ever happen,” and would notify families of the exposure.
By Monday’s meeting, about 60% of families had responded with their plans for the coming school year, with just more than 80% choosing traditional classroom learning.
Two percent have chosen a hybrid option available at the junior high and high school, while 18% are opting for digital learning.
Winstead said MCS is offering more flexibility than many other systems, allowing families to switch their decision within the first month and then at fall, winter or spring break. Maryville will allow students in grades 8-12 to participate in sports or other extracurriculars if they choose virtual instruction.
Before the meeting ended, board members voiced support for the community to come together united for both learning this school year and as a task force considers petitions from people divided over whether Maryville should retain the Rebels team name.
Board member Chad Hampton spoke of the importance of children returning to school for multiple reasons — academic, nutritional, social, emotional and economic — and commended the staff on its plans to mitigate the risks.
He noted the three main recommendations in health guidelines are face coverings, distancing and hand hygiene.
“I think we’ve gone as far as you could possibly go to requiring face coverings without requiring face coverings,” he said. “I might go that next step.”
He urged administrators to continue discussing that and look at evolving circumstances, while he acknowledged that a kindergartener might touch his or her face more often with a face covering on.
“None of this is political to these board members,” he said. “We’re trying to do what’s in the best interest, and there might be differing views about that.”
With both resuming classes and the task force considering the Rebels name, Black said, “I’m looking forward to moving forward.”
None of it will be easy, he said. “We’ve got people that are passionate on both sides in both of these issues.”
“I can assure you that myself and the board, we just want the best for everybody,” Black said. “That’s not going to be an easy task, but we’re committed.”
Citing “polarizing opinions,” Maryville City Schools will convene a task force to consider replacing the nickname Rebels.
In a “position statement” released shortly before a school board meeting Monday, July 13, the district describes broader work over the past two years to address diversity not only in race and ethnicity but also areas including social, economic, behavioral, religious and special needs areas.
It also warns that it won’t tolerate racist expressions in the coming school year.
“The board fully supports rigidity and disciplinary actions regarding racist expressions of the Confederate flag, the Confederate soldier, racist slurs, offending and intolerant communication or actions,” it states. “Increased monitoring of all sporting events and school related events will occur to ensure the name ‘Rebels’ for the 2020-2021 school year will only reflect the highest caliber of citizenship, void of any hint or gesture of racism.”
The Maryville High School “Rebels” nickname dates to 1936, but decades later the Confederate battle flag became associated with it, according to The Daily Times archives. The school board moved to remove the flag from school items in 1999 and banned all flags at school-sponsored activities in 2005, although the administration may grant exceptions for some flags.
A group of students, teachers, alumni and other community members launched a petition to remove the Rebels name last month, collecting more than 2,700 signatures to date.
Two counter-petitions to keep the name have more than 2,200 and 690 online signatures.
During the school board meeting, MCS Director Mike Winstead said the task force is not only to respond to the petitions but have a broader community conversation about culture, climate and diversity.
Winstead said the task force will include students, community members and school personnel, including himself, Maryville High School’s new principal, Heather Hilton, and Athletic Director Larry Headrick. Members will be announced in early August.
The task force is expected to gather information through focus groups, surveys and interviews throughout the fall and report to the school board in January.
“We heard from passionate folks on both sides of the issue,” Winstead said of comments received since last month.
“There are thousands of people that are very passionate about Maryville, Maryville city and Maryville City Schools that we haven’t heard from, and we won’t hear from them unless we ask.”
In its Diversity Planning position statement, MCS says, “We know that as an educational body, we have a heightened responsibility to teach our students to show respect and dignity to others while working to eliminate social and racial disparity. We are passionate about cultivating and celebrating diversity within the school system and stand united against the negative impact of racism upon communities.”
The statement concludes, “We understand we are a small piece of a large puzzle, but working together we can make a difference.”
Read the full statement and goals online at www.maryville-schools.org/about-us/diversity.