It’s 1966, and a group of about 20 Oak Ridge scientists who hike and socialize together are planning their campaign against the latest threats to some of their favorite wild places. The federal government has proposed yet another road that would fragment the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and TVA wants to build a dam that would flood Obed River gorges in the Cumberland Mountains. Well-educated and informed, confident of the power of the political process, these friends decide to organize as Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, becoming the first and so far only environmental advocacy group focused on protection of the natural lands and waters of Tennessee.
The Smokies road was eventually defeated, and the Obed became the first National Wild and Scenic River in Tennessee, but there was hardly any time to celebrate before new destructive plans came to light. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was hot to build the highest dam east of the Mississippi River, which would have impounded the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, and TVA had proposed dams for the Little Tennessee and Duck Rivers. The Tellico Dam and one on the Duck River got built, but the Big South Fork was spared and permanently protected by federal designation as a National River and Recreation Area, one of TCWP’s greatest achievements to date.
Half a century later, a few of those charter members are still engaged in activism characterized by reliance on scientific data, rational analysis, and sophisticated political pressure. Making and keeping more public lands for recreation and conservation has been their main thrust, and sharing information has been their primary tool. Whenever possible, they have educated public officials face-to-face, operating on the premise that if you know better you do better. In the spirit of the times, when civil rights activists were taking to the streets, members of the infant TCWP chartered a bus to make the long trip to Washington DC to speak directly to members of Congress and the Secretary of the Interior. Later, they took Sen. Howard Baker and other key officials on rafting trips down the Obed River to show exactly what we had to lose.
But their most effective tool for informing and engaging the public to influence decision-makers has been their quarterly newsletter. Now available online, the TCWP newsletter is a model of efficiency in disseminating the facts on good and bad things that are afoot locally, regionally, and sometimes nationally regarding a host of environmental concerns. It further empowers readers by giving concrete suggestions on taking action and includes up-to-date contact information for key federal and state officials.
That newsletter is still edited, and much of it written, by Dr. Liane Russell who, with her late husband Bill Russell, was among that group of friends who started TCWP. If you think you are too busy with job and family to be an environmental advocate, consider that the Russells raised two children while working as mammalian geneticists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory where they discovered, among many other things, that the Y chromosome is what makes a male mammal a male. They are the only married couple who both individually won the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award for scientific advancements in energy-related research.
TCWP is emblematic of thinking globally and acting locally. A recent newsletter explains the link between global climate change and extreme weather, then goes on to introduce the new Climate Knoxville consortium of local groups seeking action to address climate change. Much of their energy has been focused on designation of wilderness areas in Cherokee National Forest and passage of state laws such as those establishing state scenic rivers, trails, and natural areas. But they also developed and maintain the 11-mile long North Ridge Trail as part of the Oak Ridge greenbelt system, and they worked to gain protected status for small, ecologically significant areas known as Cedar Barrens and Worthington Cemetery in Oak Ridge.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is an especially crucial national issue of their focus at this time. Created by Congress the year after TCWP incorporated, the fund was supposed to use money collected from offshore oil and gas drilling to support conservation of public lands and waters. Instead, Congress has diverted more than $17 billion to uses other than conservation over the years. Despite that, the program has permanently protected nearly five million acres of public lands in such iconic places as the Grand Canyon and the Appalachian Trail. Now the principle source of funding for federal acquisition of public lands for recreation and habitat preservation is set to expire on Sept. 30. Bipartisan polling has found strong public support for the fund, but unless Congress hears from a significant number of those who want it reauthorized, and kept from being continually raided for unrelated purposes, places as near and dear to us as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee National Forest, Big South Fork, and the Obed River will suffer.
If this has any meaning for you, please take action. The TCWP newsletter tells you exactly who to contact, how to contact them, and even how to frame you message. The newsletter and email alerts are available to members and non-members alike, but you might consider joining this highly respected organization that was started in our local atomic city by some of the most important scientists of our times. Next year is its 50th anniversary. There might be a party.
Patrice Cole's Small Planet educates readers on local issues pertaining to environmental quality and sustainability. Topics include particular threats to natural resources, public policy with local impacts, and advances in environmental science. She has 25 years of professional experience in environmental science and sustainability. She has also taught biology, ecology, environmental planning, and sustainability at the University of Tennessee and Pellissippi State Community College. Cole earned a master’s degree in planning and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at UT.
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