Environmental groups take legal aim at commercial rock digging in Tennessee state park
More than a dozen public interest groups have banded together in a legal move designed to stop the potential destruction of state parks and private lands throughout Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau from large-scale commercial rock removal. One of the largest coalitions to form around an environmental issue in Tennessee in recent years, the groups filed papers today with the Tennessee Court of Appeals challenging an on-going rock-extraction operation in Cumberland Trail State Park near Chattanooga.
Last year, the state Department of Environment and Conservation lost its lawsuit in Hamilton County Chancery Court to stop the rock-digging operations. Seeking to defend the park it recently acquired, the state is appealing the decision. The 14 conservation groups, represented by Gregory Buppert of Dodson, Parker, Behm & Capparella, and Sarah Francisco, SELC staff attorney, filed an amicus or “friend of the court” brief in support of the state agency.
“The public's interest in preserving and protecting the Cumberland Trail State Park and other parks is substantial. Our brief presents important information on the public interests at stake in this case so that the Court of Appeals has the opportunity to make a fully informed decision,” said Buppert.
“We view this case as pivotal to securing the ecological integrity of thousands of acres on the Cumberland Plateau. That's why the environmental community is getting involved,” said Francisco.
Upwards of 450,000 acres of public and private lands in 11 counties on the plateau – regarded as one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in the world – could be at risk of rock removal if the chancery court decision stands. Roughly 28,000 acres are in state parks and natural areas, and the groups believe other public lands, such as some wildlife management areas, are at risk as well.
At issue is the separation, or “severance,” of ownership of surface land from mineral rights, which is common throughout the plateau. In many instances, coal companies who originally owned the land sold just the surface rights to timber companies, and retained the mining and mineral rights in what is called a “mineral reservation.” The environmental groups argue that, unless included in the deed reservation, rock should not be considered a “mineral,” because the only way to obtain rock is by excavation, which destroys the surface and essentially deprives the surface owner of their property.
From 2001 to 2004, Tennessee acquired over 5,000 acres in Hamilton County, near the community of Soddy-Daisy, from Bowater for the Cumberland Trail State Park. Last year, the Lahiere-Hill company, which owns the mineral rights in the park, allowed contractors to come in with bulldozers and front-end loaders and begin gouging out sandstone rock, used increasingly for decorative landscaping. The operation buried 50-100 yards of the Cumberland Trail in rubble and dirt, and left exposed soil, broken rock and uprooted trees, ruining the scenic beauty of the trail and destroying or severely damaging the natural resources that the state sought to protect in creating the park, including habitat for state and federally listed plants and animals.
The trail also has national significance as a critical section of the Great Eastern Trail, America's newest long-distance hiking trail, reaching from the Alabama line to the Finger Lakes of New York, which was officially announced in Soddy-Daisy in 2006, just months before the rock harvesting destroyed a portion of the trail.
In addition to the potential vulnerability of public lands, many private lands subject to these “mineral reservations” could be subject to rock removal against the wishes of the surface owner. For example, The Land Trust for Tennessee routinely encounters severed mineral estates on private lands on the plateau that landowners want to dedicate to conservation. Bledsoe, Cumberland, Fentress, Hamilton, Marion, Morgan, Rhea, Roane, Scott, Sequatchie, and White counties all have land with severed property rights.
In addition to the amicus brief filed today, the groups also filed a procedural request that the Court of Appeals accept their brief. The groups on the motion include:
Cumberland Trail Conference, David Reister (865) 670-8991
Sierra Club, Axel C. Ringe (865) 397-1840
Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, Sandra Goss (865) 522-3809
Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Maureen O'Connell (865) 426-9455
American Hiking Society, Gregory Miller (301) 565-6704
Cherokee Forest Voices, Catherine Murray (423) 929-8163
The Land Trust For Tennessee, Jean C. Nelson (615) 244-5263
National Parks Conservation Association, Don Barger (865) 329-2424
The Nature Conservancy, Gina Hancock (615) 383-9909
Obed Watershed Community Association, Dennis Gregg (931) 484-9033
Tennessee Clean Water Network, Renee Hoyos (865) 522-7007
Tennessee Forests Council, Sandra Kurtz (423) 488-5668
Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation, Kathleen Williams (615) 386-3171
Tennessee River Gorge Trust, Jim Brown (423) 266-0314