After Reconstruction, the exploitation of Tennessee's natural wealth rose to a scale unknown before the Civil War. Northern and foreign investors bought and cut timberlands, set up land companies, financed railroads, and extracted the state's coal and iron. Logging in the Southern Appalachians reached its peak between 1880 and 1909, as lumber companies removed the finest wood and laid waste to less desirable timber. Through its Canadian manager Alexander A. Arthur, the Scottish Carolina Timber and Land Company bought up much of the Cocke County timberland and reshaped Newport. In 1886, after a disastrous flood wiped out the log booms and mill on the French Broad River, Arthur led a new group of foreign investors (the American Association) to lands at Cumberland Gap, where they made another effort to transform a frontier landmark into an industrial city.

Unlike the Unaka timber operations, small farmers harvested the Upper Cumberland forests and rafted the logs down the Cumberland River to Nashville. The logging boom which began in the 1870s had ended by the 1910s. During the same decades, loggers cut the West Tennessee bottomlands and shipped the timber to Memphis, which became the largest inland hardwood market in the world. The cutting of millions of board feet of timber changed the landscape, the function of watersheds and ecosystems, and led to the first major species extinctions in the region.

Perhaps the greatest environmental disaster occurred in the forty-square-mile Copper Basin of Polk County. Mining of the copper deposits near Ducktown began approximately 1850, but the worst environmental damage occurred between 1890 and 1907. The open-roasting process used to remove copper from the ore required acres of timber to fuel the smelters, clearing the forests for miles around the basin. The release of sulfuric dioxide created during the extraction process added greater insult to the environment, as the corrosive gas mixed with rain to settle sulfuric acid on the land, killing all remaining vegetation and the marine life of the Ocoee River. The red clay hills, barren as the moon, eroded further with each downpour. In 1908 a process to capture the sulfuric acid through closed smelting was put into place, but visible aspects of the damage remain after ninety years, despite past (and partially successful) conservation efforts by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

During the state's industrial boom, an intellectual revolution in regard to nature and wilderness also occurred, even as Tennesseans and other Americans exploited the earth's resources. The late eighteenth-century Romantic view that depicted the wilderness as a sublime place where humans could face the majesty of God began to supplant the view of nature as something to be conquered. The Romantic view merged with the late nineteenth-century fear that the American frontier, the crucible of democracy in the national mythology, had vanished. In 1888 Theodore Roosevelt and others established the Boone and Crockett Club (named for the two most famous early market hunters, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett) to embody the aims of a new movement to protect and conserve wild areas and wildlife for sportsmen.

In Tennessee, the earliest conservation protections had economic roots. In 1870 the state enacted legislation to protect the rivers' fisheries from overuse by commercial fishers. The exportation of game was prohibited in 1887, as was the market hunting of bob white quail in 1889–a law from which sixty-five counties promptly exempted themselves. In 1895 the state put a five-year moratorium on hunting deer in Cumberland, Claiborne, Scott, Morgan, and Anderson Counties to prevent their complete extinction there–Haywood County, with an 1896 deer population of twenty, might have benefited from similar legislation. Finally, in 1903, the general assembly declared that all game and fish were the property of the state and established the Game, Fish, and Forestry Department two years later. Hunting licenses were required for the first time in 1907.

In 1913 the first National Conservation Exposition, held in Knoxville, crowned the earliest efforts to conserve the state's wildlife. The National Conservation Commission, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, sponsored the exposition. The Knoxville event focused on the need to protect renewable natural resources such as forests, soil, water, and wildlife and also addressed the environment's role in public health.

In June 1920 the U.S. Forest Service acquired three units in East Tennessee–the Unaka, Pisgah, and Cherokee–as part of the national effort to protect the country's woodlands. In 1936 the three were combined into Cherokee National Forest, with a combined area of 625,350 acres. Large commitments of human resources to the conservation of natural resources were left to the New Deal era of the 1930s, however.

Within weeks of Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration as president in 1933, Congress created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Thirty-five work camps for young men were established in Tennessee, and seven thousand Tennesseans had enrolled by 1937. The CCC units planted millions of pine seedlings for forest reclamation, developed state parks, built fire observation towers, and began reforestation of the Copper Basin before the organization's work ended in 1942. Along with the Works Progress Administration, the CCC built six Game and Fish Commission-controlled lakes between 1938 and 1940.

New Deal legislation also created the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) to heal gullied, overworked farmland, plant trees on contoured hillsides, and add protection to watersheds. The SCS persuaded farmers to participate in small farm game management efforts to restore fishing and hunting opportunities. The combined efforts of federal and state government to acquire cut over and badly eroded land for state parks and state forests produced a splendid conservation legacy for the latter half of the twentieth century. Tennessee state parks now number fifty-one, with thirty-six satellite areas, totaling 131,000 acres. Tennessee has more state forests (thirteen) than any southern state, totaling 146,000 acres.

In 1933 Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The transformation of the free-running Tennessee River into a series of impounded lakes produced extensive environmental changes to the river and its tributaries and created new management problems. Dam construction immediately destroyed the habitats of dozens of shallow water mussels and fish, many of which became extinct or are now endangered species. The Forestry Relations Department of the TVA positively affected conservation as well, with fishery biology studies, waterfowl programs, and wildlife management. The Watershed Protection unit undertook reforestation and erosion control, and the Forestry Investigations unit became the research arm of the department.

Private citizens also contributed to the conservation efforts. Z. Cartter Patten Sr. and his friends established the McRae Club of Chattanooga, a hunting club that owned land for private use. Such clubs had existed in the state since at least 1865. In 1934 several local hunting clubs met in Murfreesboro and created the Tennessee Federation of Sportsmen (later the Tennessee Wildlife Federation). The Federation published a conservation newsletter, which the Tennessee Department of Conservation took over along with other public education work, when it was created in 1937. The Federation disbanded in 1940. After World War II, erstwhile Federation leaders formed the Tennessee Conservation League (TCL) during a meeting at the Read House in Chattanooga. The TCL advocated wildlife and conservation throughout the remainder of the century and continued to be involved in hunting and fishing issues.

As early as 1927 Governor Austin Peay targeted pollution from sawmills, textile mills, and acid plants as the cause of fish kills and suggested that added appropriations to fund game wardens were useless unless the state stopped the poisoning of streams. Despite this early warning, meaningful protective legislation against pollution was not enacted until the 1950s. In 1954 the Stream Pollution Control Board tackled the need for sewerage treatment plants. Strip mining proliferated in the Tennessee coal fields in the 1950s, as giant diesel-engine shovels ripping up soil, rock, and coal replaced the labor-intensive deep mining of the past. The first attempt to pass legislation to regulate strip mining came in 1959, but all efforts failed until 1967, when Oak Ridge-area legislators succeeded in getting the state's first land reclamation act passed.

The current environmental movement began to take form in the 1960s and 1970s. In the view of many environmentalists, man and nature were at odds–wilderness became a place of refuge where nature's resources were defended against man's use. Advocacy groups such as the national Environmental Defense Fund (1967) emerged to lobby for environmental protection laws and bring court action against violators. Between 1965 and 1972, the U.S. Congress enacted more than a dozen major environmental laws including the Clean Water Acts of 1966 and 1972 and the Clean Air Acts of 1963 and 1970. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 established the Environmental Protection Agency and required environmental impact statements on all projects involving federal funds and permits.

Tennessee followed the national lead and enacted companion laws, including the Tennessee Air Pollution Control Act in 1967 and the Tennessee Solid Waste Control Act in 1969. Environmental protection became so popular that Republican gubernatorial candidate Winfield Dunn ran on a strong environmental platform in 1970. Elected as the first Republican governor since 1920, Dunn oversaw the passage of the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act of 1971 and the Tennessee Surface Mining Act of 1972. In 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, the TCL, League of Women Voters, American Lung Association, and the Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs united with other groups to form the Tennessee Environmental Council, an environmental advocacy group to provide research and policy suggestions.

By the end of the 1970s print and broadcast media reported environmental news daily. Tennessee received national attention in 1977 and 1978 as opposition developed against the TVA's proposed Tellico Dam and Lake on a thirty-three-mile stretch of the Little Tennessee River, the last major free-flowing river in the state. The inundation of the “Little T” threatened to flood the richest archaeological district in Tennessee and destroy the only known home of the snail darter fish. Discovered by University of Tennessee ichthyologist David Etnier in 1973, the snail darter was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976.

Although a coalition of farmers, Cherokees, archaeologists, trout fishermen, and even the Boeing Corporation opposed the dam, the TVA charged forward with the project, which would bring little in additional electrical generating capacity to the agency. In 1977 a lawsuit (Hill v. Tennessee Valley Authority) was brought against the TVA for violating the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, and the Sixth District Court of Appeals upheld the charge, forbidding construction of the dam. In 1978 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision by ruling in favor of the endangered species act. Congress circumvented the court's decision, though, when it created the Endangered Species Committee to review projects halted by the act. In 1979 the “God Squad” ruled against a future for the snail darter, and the dam's floodgates were closed in 1980. Later that year, other small snail darter populations were found in Tennessee River tributaries.

Although the environmentalists ultimately lost the battle for the Little Tennessee, activism continued in Tennessee. Groups of citizens and government agencies addressed the channelization of West Tennessee rivers and the resulting loss of wetlands; the need for a TVA dam on the Duck River near Columbia; designation of new federal wilderness areas for the Cherokee National Forest; habitat and steam destruction by the Tennessee Department of Transportation's massive road-building program; solid waste landfills; recycling; the effects of Champion Paper Mill's ninety-year pollution of the Pigeon River; and the introduction of chip mills. Environmental organizations, politicians, government agencies, and business interests struggled with the best way to accommodate the needs of Tennesseans while preserving natural resources.

Despite the enormous changes wrought by over two hundred years of human interaction with the environment of Tennessee, at the end of the twentieth century some activities hearken back to a time when only Native Americans roamed the land. Corn is planted each spring in creek-side fields. Herb gatherers take advantage of the region's more than two hundred botanical species of medicinal herbs. Ginseng hunters collect “sang” for shipment to world markets, but carefully sow the plant's red berries to ensure future harvests. In the fall, bow hunters and black powder musket enthusiasts stalk the white tail deer.

As literary critic Raymond Williams wrote in Problems in Materialism and Culture (1980), “[T]he idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history.” We cannot avoid shaping the world around us. But we can strive to create a balanced relationship with wilderness rather than to exercise dominion over it.

Suggested Reading

Richard A. Bartlett, Troubled Waters: Champion International and the Pigeon River Controversy (1995); Alfred Cowdrey, This Land, This South (1996); Marge Davis, Sportsmen United: The Story of the Tennessee Conservation League (1997); Carroll Van West, Tennessees New Deal Landscape (2001)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Conservation
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 14, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018