In 1998 the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Act celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. The Tennessee program, a pioneering effort, was the second state river conservation program in the nation (Wisconsin was the first, but Tennessee’s program was the more comprehensive). The Scenic Rivers Act, based on an early draft of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, reflected long-standing conservation ideas from the conservation and progressive movements of the late 1880s through the early 1900s. The Tennessee Scenic Rivers Act owes its existence to the efforts of Liane and William Russell of Oak Ridge, Bob Miller of Nashville, former State Representative Bill Pope, and Governors Buford Ellington and Winfield Dunn. The Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning (TCWP) and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association (TSRA) also provided key support in the passage of the act. Enacted during a period of awakening awareness of environmental needs, the Scenic Rivers Program received much financial support through the federal Land and Water Conservation fund.
Through the years, the program has met local opposition, in part due to poor communication with local riparian landowners. A more fundamental conflict centers on the fact that the program’s support base is drawn from urban and suburban populations, while the areas of preservation interest are rural. As the state and federal programs developed, river protection planners “learned the hard way” the importance of building local constituencies and establishing effective communication with riparian landowners. Officials also have learned of the need to set project boundaries through a carefully planned process of public education and comment.
One recent trend in river protection has been the growth of local river protection projects, particularly land trusts or conservancies and greenway projects. The Wolf River Conservancy in Shelby and Fayette Counties, and the Tennessee River Gorge Natural Areas Trust and the North Chickamauga Creek Greenway in Hamilton County are outstanding examples of these efforts.
The most successful federal river preservation efforts in Tennessee grew out of the failure to place the Obed River in the state system. The Russells and TCWP played instrumental roles in designating the Obed as a National Wild and Scenic River and the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River as a National River Recreation Area.
At least three other areas deserve special notice. The Hatchie River, the largest river in the program at 185 miles, is the last major unchannelized tributary of the lower Mississippi River Basin. Surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest, the Hiwassee River in southeastern Polk County is the most heavily used recreational river in the program. The success of the 1996 Whitewater Olympic Venue on the Ocoee River in Polk County raised the visibility of whitewater recreation for local economic development and “eco-tourism.”
The Department of Environment and Conservation’s Natural Heritage Section recently completed a Statewide Rivers inventory. This inventory looked at most free-flowing (non-dam) rivers and streams in Tennessee and rated them based on a number of values (recreational boating, natural and scenic quality, recreational fishing, and water quality). This inventory, available to the public in a “Summary Report,” will facilitate public education and public discussion of water resource policy issues.
The State Rivers program now faces two conflicting realities. One is the likelihood of shrinking federal and state dollars that are necessary for the type of river protection efforts undertaken during the 1970s. Another “reality” is the effect of increasing growth and development pressures that accompany urbanization and suburbanization. The increase of development pressure on environmentally sensitive and historically open space and countryside necessitates enhanced support for land preservation and effective land planning.