The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), after several months of soliciting public input and meeting with state and federal agencies, has reached a decision regarding future management plans for the Cummings Cove Wildlife Management Area. TWRA officials said off-road vehicles will no longer be allowed on its property on Aetna Mountain.
Four-wheelers long have gone up the old Aetna Mountain Road and utilized countless trails on state and private land on the undeveloped mountaintop. There has long been a battle between the four-wheelers and owners of the Cummings Cove development at the foot of the mountain in Lookout Valley.
The developers are planning a "small town" on the mountain and recently obtained approval for TIF financing to construct a new road and sewer up the mountain.
The 1,200-acre Cummings Cove WMA is on Aetna Mountain in Hamilton and Marion counties and was acquired by the state of Tennessee through federal funding from the Forest Legacy program administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Forest Legacy guidelines funding is made available to preserve specific tracts of environmentally sensitive forest land which are considered significant for forest and management purposes.
Land acquired under the Forest Legacy program must adhere to management guidelines and uses, compatible with national conservation standards.
“While several public comments supporting recreational use of off-road vehicles (ORVs), on Cummings Cove WMA, that activity is not allowed under Forest Legacy guidelines,” John Mayer, TWRA Region III manager said. “It is also not allowable under rules for state wildlife management areas unless designated trails have been established.”
Aetna Mountain has been heavily utilized by ORVs. Some of this use has been very destructive to the environment, particularly in locations utilized by the larger ORVs (4WD trucks, jeeps, and “rock-crawlers”).
This environmental issue came to a head in 2010 after a severe mudslide occurred from Aetna Mountain, across U.S. Highway 41, and eventually into the Tennessee River. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) personnel were able to trace the origin of the mudslide directly to a location heavily utilized by ORVs on Aetna Mountain.
“That landslide was one of those eye-opening events that highlighted just how severe the erosion problems were on Aetna Mountain,” Kirk Miles, TWRA Region III Wildlife Program manager said. “It quickly became obvious that the use of the WMA by ORVs was a core cause of the problem.”
During the last year, TWRA participated in a public meeting to answer the public’s questions on why Cummings Cove WMA has regulations that prohibit ORV use. TWRA also solicited public comments over a 76-day period, from March 1, 2012 to May 15, 2012, in an effort to determine what the public expected in the way of recreational opportunities on the WMA. In addition, TWRA conducted several site visits to Cummings Cove WMA with various state and federal agencies including TDEC and USDA Forest Legacy.
According to Mr. Mayer, a critical part of the final decision came from a determination by the USDA Forest Service that a trail system for ORV use on Forest Legacy lands is incompatible with the mission of the Forest Legacy Program.
“Because we received this land through the Forest Legacy Program, TWRA, as the managing state Agency, is accountable to manage Cummings Cove WMA in line with Forest Legacy policies,” said Mr. Mayer. “Further, as owner and manager of this property, the TWRA faces a legal mandate from other state and federal environmental agencies to curtail the erosion problem. That mandate coupled with the Forest Legacy management guidelines, ultimately led to the decision that the TWRA must increase law enforcement efforts to address the environmental damage caused by ORV use on Cummings Cove WMA.”
Mr. Mayer stated TWRA’s management goals for Cummings Cove WMA are simple. “Our first responsibility on Cummings Cove WMA, as it is on all our WMAs, is to conserve and protect the wildlife and land resources. Secondly, we have a goal of making Cummings Cove WMA more accessible for a wide range of user groups. That is our next challenge.”
Cummings Cove WMA is one of 125 TWRA managed WMAs. TWRA Region III consists of 25 counties located from the Cumberland Plateau southward to the borders of Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina.