We want to preserve wild places, but what if you live there?
by Frank Cagle
OK. How many of you think TVA should allow lakefront property taken from Valley residents in past generations to be sold to developers? Show of hands. That’s what I thought.
The TVA board members and staff who presided over the marathon public hearing last week at the Knoxville Convention Center are to be commended for allowing interested parties to voice opinions on just what the agency should do with public lands in the future, though there is little suspense as to the public’s attitude on the subject. But, it was a useful process in framing the debate.
It is deeply satisfying for most of us to say there should be a ban on such sales. It is also easy for pro-growth advocates to argue that developing this lakefront property will increase the tax base and help the Tennessee Valley in economic development, a role TVA was chartered to accomplish.
Like most other people who live in towns and suburbs of metro areas like Knoxville I want to preserve the wild places. I want to be sure I can haul my horse to the Norris watershed and ride all day. Turkey hunters and fisherman want to be sure they can access the peninsulas and lakes without having to scale a gated community wall. It is a no-brainer for us. Keep all the land in the public domain and ensure we have access to it in perpetuity.
But if you look around East Tennessee we have counties—and the people who live in them—who have a different perspective. Take Meigs County. Last time I was there, there wasn’t a four-lane highway or a railroad in the county. The biggest employer is a carpet factory. The per-capita income for this county of 11,524 people is $19,711. This pre-industrial wilderness county is a magnet. The population has been growing at a rate of 35 to 38 percent, primarily retirees. This burgeoning population requires infrastructure. Imagine trying to fund a school system.
County Mayor Ken Jones came to the public hearing last week to plead his county’s case. He views a TVA moratorium on lakeside development for his economically distressed county as a disaster. In an interview he acknowledges city people’s desire to come to his county for a wilderness experience but he asks: “are you going to compensate us for it?”
It is a chronic problem in East Tennessee, little noticed in our cities and our big-town media. When you add up the land in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cherokee National Forest and the Big South Fork, it’s not just about TVA land. We have counties in which two-thirds of the land belongs to the government. It is bad enough when these wilderness counties have small populations and under-funded schools. But add a flock of newcomers escaping the cities and then demanding services and it creates an economic crunch.
In past years, forest lands have had timber sales and the revenue helped balance county budgets. But we city folk have gotten a federal ban on timber sales. Given the anguish we feel when that damn Bradford pear perishes in the front yard, we can’t conceive of 500,000 acres of forest land being cut for timber 40 acres at a time. The Bush administration has proposed selling some non-contiguous forest land to provide funds for local schools and all us townies have gone nuts about it.
When Knox County complains about the BEP formula not being fair and the county not getting back its fair share of state education funds we need to remember this. If we have precluded timber sales and we are going to stop lakeshore development, then just be ready to fund the schools in Unicoi and Meigs counties.
I believe that John “Thunder” Thornton used his political connections to get TVA to agree to his Marion County development on Nickajack Lake, which he is turning over to Mike Ross. Ross has had previous TVA land swaps.
If TVA is going to do shoreline development, the process has to be open. It has to be to the highest bidder. It should be transparent. If land swaps are involved let’s be sure the public doesn’t wind up with an inaccessible mountaintop while the developer gets a shoreline subdivision.
These deals should also be limited to economically depressed counties like Meigs. We don’t need to be doing it in Loudon County.
It is a fine balance on a case-by-case basis, but if the deals are limited to depressed areas and the process is open to more people than a few developers with political connections, TVA ought to take a serious look at it. We have over a million acres of federal land in East Tennessee, not to mention state parks and wildlife areas. As much as it hurts me to say it, and as much as we would like to have a one-size fits-all policy on TVA land, it isn’t fair, it isn’t justified and it isn’t smart.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .