A University of Tennessee Agricultural Institute forest management project that will cut down nearly 100 acres of woods is getting significant pushback from nearby property owners.
The institute’s dairy farm is cutting down 92 acres of trees as part of a forest management project officials say will focus on research and expanding grazing lands.
University and forestry officials said it is not their intent to disturb neighbors and that they recently communicated with residents about concerns. They also confirmed there were no plans to build structures or roads on the newly cleared property.
“I’m optimistic that any misunderstanding will be resolved,” UT East Tennessee AgResearch & Education Center Director Bobby Simpson said in an interview.
The neighborhood and its corresponding property owners association are called “County Lane Properties,” resident Donna Edwards said, adding that an association meeting Thursday with UT officials will address concerns.
Edwards and others said trees are being cleared within feet of their property lines. Several hillside homes butt up against the state-owned UT acreage and clearing is evident from neighboring properties.
Residents say, and Simpson confirmed, that no one with UT had reached out to residents before clearing started on Oct. 21, even though the project has been under consideration for more than two years.
Simpson said he expects the project to last around four months and that 40 acres of land ultimately will be used to replant trees — a process that may be used to conduct a genetics research initiative.
The university already has made $180,000 on timber sales from the project, Simpson said. UT advertised the timber sale as request for proposal and sent it out for bid. Duffield, Virginia-based Virginia Forest Products won that bid this summer and already has paid up.
This company is using Dale Seals Logging of Sneedville and eight of its employees to work the project daily.
Ecology and the view
UT Professor of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries Wayne K. Clatterbuck said the area mostly contains red and white oak and that maples, hickory, spruce and other species are also part of the harvest.
Clatterbuck explained that waiting much longer to harvest 92 of the area’s 117 wooded acres would make the trees virtually useless.
“I’ll use a reference to people,” he said. “We grow very fast when we’re teenagers, but at some point we get sort of set in our ways and we don’t grow very much. Trees are very much the same way.”
He said tree lifetimes vary, but maturity matters and at some point, trees begin to just maintain instead of strengthen. He said that was especially important when it came to diseases trees might contract: It’s easier to fight off an insect or disease attack in a tree’s youth rather than in old age.
Clatterbuck admitted the work has caused erosion in the area — another area of concern to residents — but that workers are following best practices recommended by the Tennessee Division of Forestry to ensure sediment stays out of creeks.
One creek — over which heavy machinery crosses to load timber — feeds into a tributary of Little River. Clatterbuck said crews avoid significant erosion by building what’s known as water bars in clearing areas.
“It’s our intent not to disturb neighbors,” Simpson said, responding to allegations from some residents that the clearing was not ecologically sustainable.
“Disturbance is part of what we do when we cut trees,” Clatterbuck acknowledged, but it’s the long-term vision that matters. “The idea is, we’re trying to protect the environment to provide a benefit for the objectives that we have for that land.”
Donald G. Hodges, head of UT Institute of Agriculture’s Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, argued that the project eventually would benefit the area.
“Most of the land is going to go back into forest,” he said.
Clatterbuck said he was not aware of a forest-management project as large as the one taking place at the dairy farm; officials from the Tennessee Division of Forestry did not return calls concerning other forest-management projects in Blount County. Officials from the Tennessee’s Natural Resources Conservation Service refused to comment.
Randy Temple is an agent with Executive Real Estate and currently is involved in the sale of property owned by Dr. Susan Souther, a cardiologist in the Blount Memorial Hospital network.
Temple said he has looked at a clearing almost directly on Souther’s driveway and said it’s hard to assess whether or not it has decreased land values, which currently as $975,000, he noted.
“It’s a desirability factor,” he said, noting 75% of people make up their mind about a house before they walk through the front door.
“Some of that’s got to apply in this case,” Temple said. “That’s not going to help her, but can I tell her that her house is no longer worth that much? I can’t do that.”
But Temple, who pointed out he’s sold several properties in the Country Lane area, said UT’s clearing certainly doesn’t help in the long run, from a property owner’s point of view.
The neighborhood has been around since the mid-1990s, before the dairy farm started operating in 2011.
Retired veterinarian Dr. Rhea Morgan, a Country Lane resident, said residents feel the project is impinging on the rights.
“We were very, very pleased when UT bought the farm and said they were moving ... there, because we thought they would be very good stewards of the land, that there was not going to be any developer buying it and putting 500 ‘McMansions’ up,” Morgan said.
But now they are concerned their overlook view will be permanently affected. “To hear that clear-cutting like this is OK was a shock to me,” she said.
Edwards she was concerned not only about erosion, but about displaced species. “I would ... hope that they hire an expert in ecological restoration to guide the re-vegetation of the property with appropriate native species,” she said.
Morgan said she already had seen wild pigs in places around the neighborhood where they had not been before.
UT officials said they are working with forest management consultants America Forest Management to help with oversight.
“Our overall mission is three pronged: teaching, research and outreach,” Simpson said. “We strive to be good neighbors and good stewards of the land and we take pride in that.”