Knoxville News Sentinel: Editorial: Protecting the states' endangered mountains

Posted on January 30, 2011

A prominent conservation group has named the upper Cumberland Plateau to its list of 10 most endangered regions in the South, a designation that underscores the importance of one of former Gov. Phil Bredesen's final initiatives.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, based in Charlottesville, Va., cited mountaintop coal mining as a threat to the area's natural resources.

The organization specifically noted 170,606 acres in Scott, Morgan, Anderson and Campbell counties. The area is divided into wildlife management areas that together are known as the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area.

Last year, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen petitioned the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement to ban mining on ridgetops in the same area. If approved, the petition would prevent mining companies from blasting the tops of ridges to get to coal seams, though underground and surface mining would be allowed on the slopes of ridges.

"Tennessee's landmark petition is a wonderful model for states who want to grow in a healthy manner, thrive economically and still be good stewards of the landscape," said the SELC's Marie Hawthorne.

Acting on Bredesen's request, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has ordered a comprehensive environmental review of the area, which encompasses the headwaters of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. The petition enjoys the support of Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, and deserves the backing of every other member of the state's congressional delegation.

Thankfully, mountaintop mining hasn't scarred the Tennessee landscape as it has in Kentucky and West Virginia. In those states, the tops of mountains are removed to reach coal seams, with the resulting rubble, called spoil, deposited in valleys. The fill chokes streams and leaves the mountains looking like boxes. Mountaintop mining in Tennessee thus far has involved replacing the spoil and restoring the ridge to its "approximate original contours."

Though less devastating than mountaintop removal, cross-ridge mining is too destructive to continue unabated. Both methods re-arrange mountaintops, alter drainage patterns and threaten the ecological balance of the area mined.

The economic payoff isn't worth the wreckage. Coal mining has waned as an economic driver in Tennessee; tourism, on the other hand, has a $15 billion impact on the state, and the mountains play no small role in attracting visitors. The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area serves as the jewel of the upper Cumberland region. Hunters, hikers and horseback riders enjoy their pastimes in the ridges and valleys.

Other areas identified as endangered by the SELC include George Washington National Forest in Virginia, where hydraulic fracturing is used to extract natural gas; the cypress forests of Georgia, which are being reduced because of the demand for cypress mulch; and the Alabama coast, where there are concerns about another oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The upper Cumberland's designation as endangered by the SELC serves as a reminder that protecting the mountains for the enjoyment of Tennesseans and our visitors is ecologically sound and economically savvy.