After controversy, shakeup at Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

0
553
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency marked acres of trees Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area in Sparta for clearcutting despite local opposition. (Photo: John Partipilo)

This article was written by Anita Wadhwani of Tennessee Lookout

A shakeup inside the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has led to the abrupt terminations of key leadership staff after a months-long stretch in which the agency drew the ire of of both Republican and Democrat lawmakers over plans to clearcut forests — and lost a major legal fight.

No longer with TWRA as of Monday are Deputy Director Chris Richardson, once considered a candidate to take over the top spot at the agency, Tracey Boyers, who served as general counsel and Thomas Moncrief, associate counsel. Richardson had been with the agency since 2013,  Boyers since 2007 and Moncrief since 2018, according to TWRA publications.

Their departures follow the retirement announcement last month by Bobby Wilson, the executive director, who will step down from the agency in September.

The trio’s appointments were “expired” by the agency on Monday, a statement emailed by TWRA spokesperson Emily Buck said. The statement did not give a reason for the departures.

Under Tennessee law, “Tennessee State Government Executive Service employees serve at the pleasure of the Appointing Authority and can be suspended, demoted, or dismissed at any time their service is no longer required,” the statement said. “In respect of their privacy, and in accordance with the Tennessee State Department of Human Resources guidance, we will not discuss the details or nature of the expiration of their appointments.

The TWRA serves as the state’s fishing and hunting licensure body and manages 1.6 million acres of public lands across Tennessee. Last fall, a leaked TWRA map revealed agency plans to clearcut 2,000 forested acres in the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area to create grassland habitat for bobwhite quail, whose populations have plummeted in the past half century.

The Tennessee Lookout reported the previously unannounced plans for the popular hunting, hiking and recreation area in White County in October. The plans drew angry pushback — first from residents in the community whose economy relies, in part, on visitors attracted by the area’s natural beauty, and then from lawmakers who criticized the agency’s lack of communication.

Richardson, who was the legislative liaison before being promoted to Deputy Director last year, served as the key point of contact with lawmakers.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, 34 Republican and Democrat lawmakers urged wildlife officials to immediately halt all clearcutting plans and accused agency leaders of a “shameful lack of communication and transparency with this plan” and of “breaching its duty to protect natural wildlife in Tennessee.”

“You have successfully united Tennesseans from all walks of life against the plan. Republicans, Democrats, hunters, environmentalists, business people and public servants all disagree with TWRA’s plan for public land,” the letter from last January said.

TWRA officials later agreed to put a halt – at least temporarily – to the Bridgestone clearcutting plan, but lawmakers during the legislative session introduced a series of bills to limit the agency’s authority.

One of those measures succeeded: Requiring the agency to follow the same rules as the state’s Departments of Agriculture and Forestry in selling timber harvested on public lands. TWRA, which has long kept the profits from timber sales on pubic lands in its own agency budget, had been criticized for a lack of transparency and accountability in its timber sales.

In March, TWRA lost a court battle over its right to conduct warrantless searches on private property in order to enforce the state’s hunting, fishing and wildlife laws. Boyers, the recently departed TWRA general counsel, served as the attorney in the case, which the state Attorney General’s office is now appealing.

“We are aware that stakeholders are invested in the future of agency programs and activities,” the statement from TWRA on Wednesday said. “The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has worked to preserve, conserve, manage, protect, and enhance the fish and wildlife of the state and their habitats for the use, benefit, and enjoyment of Tennessee and its visitors since 1949. TWRA will continue this important work uninterrupted in the coming days.”

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

Published on May 27, 2022.