Aetna Mountain near Chattanooga may be the next setting for a Hatfield-McCoy type feud between Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) Officers and the locals who live on or near the federally funded public land in question over a recent closure of their traditional riding area. There has been a lot of heated words,actions and posturing by all sides involved and let me tell you, it could get real ugly, real fast, unless some workable solutions are presented.
Apparently, the Aetna Mountain area has been used by the locals for off-roading since the beginning of time. It is what they do, it is their hobby, their family pastime, it is apart of their culture probably since the time the motor was invented. Then you add insult to injury by involving federal money to buy land in their backyard for "public use" to save land from development and then they are told they aren't "the public"...really? And then you get into the politics of the situation. Who was involved and why? Was the public funding really for the purpose it was intended? Why are the locals kicked to the curb in this whole "public" process? Why is one of our state agencies allowing the locals to be kicked to the curb, in fact, doing the kicking when they are in charge of the state's offroad program to begin with?
According to excerpts from a Chattanooga Times Free Press article on the issue, things started heating up for the rural community when a chunk of Aetna Mountain went up for sale in 2001. "Banks were pressuring Gordon Street, head of Wheland Foundry holding company North American Royalties, to sell the land and other nonproductive assets to pay off debt. At $1 million for about 3,600 acres -- $277 per acre -- Street was pricing the land to sell...."I was racing against [developer] Jimmy Chapin," remembers Bobby Davenport, who was then the head of the Trust for Public Land. "The bankruptcy trustee wanted to liquidate it, right now." "Jimmy said, 'If you can get a federal grant, we'll sell you 1,200 acres and we'll donate another 1,200,'" Davenport said. "It was basically a way for him to get his land at no cost." Chapin had found a loophole -- he could sell one-third of the land to taxpayers for $1 million, the same $1 million he had paid for the entire tract. To sweeten the deal, Chapin promised to donate another 1,200 acres to conservation by 2010, which would still leave room for up to 2,000 homes on top of the mountain. That donation has now been pushed back to 2018. "It was a bargain sale," said Jim Brown, executive director for the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. The federal government soon completed the purchase of 1,200 acres of Chapin's newly acquired land through the Forest Legacy program at about $830 an acre -- a hefty premium over the $277 per acre Chapin had paid. The deal, set up with help from then-U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, allowed Chapin to pay off the entire purchase while retaining a chunk of prime land to develop.
The CTFP article continues..."Calling the transaction a "Forest Legacy" purchase is somewhat of a misnomer, nearby landowners say. Chunks of the Forest Legacy land are located under high-tension power lines and on mountain slopes, which makes it worthless, they say. "The people got ripped off," said Jeff Perlaky, who runs nearby Raccoon Mountain Caverns and Campground. "The developers got the deal of a lifetime." U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steven Bekkerus confirmed that about half of the Forest Legacy tract is made up of steep slopes and undesirable land, including about 80 acres located on power line rights-of-way. Forester Roger Larson, who patrolled the land from 1966 until 1980, examined the 1,200-acre sale and found it to be "a very unusual transaction."
So the locals were riding on "undesirable land" for all this time and now because it fits into someone's agenda, the general "public use" is now unacceptable?
Of course, the Aetna Mountain issue goes even deeper into Tennessee politics, doesn't it always? One of the Democratic holdovers on the TWRA governing board, TFWC, is William "Chink" Brown, a partner in the law firm that represents Black Creek Development, the development group that has evolved from the land deal discussed above in the CTFP article, and the very same Chink Brown who is partially responsible for the demonizing of the off-roading community at TWRA. Why was he demonizing the off-road community in the first place? Perhaps a conflict of interest issue is part of the bigger picture of the "deal of the lifetime"?
So while everybody plays God in the rural mountains of Tennessee, as usual, the locals of the area are the ones to suffer. So why is everyone surprised when they decide to fight back? Time will tell how this Aetna Mountain issue will be resolved, let us pray we can find some workable solutions. Outdoor recreation in our neck of the woods is very serious business.