For Immediate Release January 18, 2001
Rick Parrish, SELC, (804) 977-4090
Marty Marina or Mike Butler, Tennessee Conservation League, (615) 353-1133
Dev Joslin, Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation (865) 482-7591
Conservationists Seek Long-Term Protection for Oak Ridge Lands
SELC Joins Effort to Protect Natural Treasure
Oak Ridge ¾ Conservation groups have called on the federal government to stop leasing and selling pieces of the vast, publicly owned Oak Ridge Reservation ¾ the former top-secret site in East Tennessee where the atomic bomb was developed ¾ before conducting a full environmental impact statement that considers the combined, long-range impacts of land-use decisions on the Reservation as a whole. The Tennessee Conservation League (TCL) and Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation (AFORR) say the 34,000-acre tract is one of the largest undisturbed natural areas in the region and holds tremendous environmental value that is being threatened by piecemeal development.
The groups' immediate concern involves two separate development proposals totaling about 630 acres currently under review by the Department of Energy, which owns the Reservation. In previous comments filed with the agency, AFORR and TCL said the proposals jeopardize an undisturbed forest ecosystem, wildlife habitat, hunting opportunities for local sportsmen, vital wetlands and several state-listed threatened and endangered plant species.
The groups have joined with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a regional non-profit organization based in Virginia with a history of legal successes in protecting the South's public lands. SELC attorney Rick Parrish faxed a letter late Wednesday to DOE's Leah Dever, Manager of Oak Ridge Operations, asking the agency to "refrain from making individual land use decisions that would effectively dispose of separate, discrete parcels of the Oak Ridge Reservation prior to completing a comprehensive environmental impact statement."
"DOE is skirting the law by looking at each project individually while ignoring the long-range, cumulative impact of development," says Parrish, who wrote the letter on behalf of AFORR and TCL. The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to conduct an environmental impact study on any major federal action significantly affecting the environment. Parrish says both of the current development proposals merit such a study; the agency has done only "environmental assessments" which are far less extensive. Further, Parrish says, "The overall land use plan for the Reservation prepared a few years ago was done without an environmental impact study or meaningful public participation as required by law."
"Our greatest concern is the current process by which DOE is making decisions on these public lands," says Marty Marina, TCL's Executive Director. "To ensure a balance between growth and conservation, DOE needs to involve the public in a land use planning process that includes an environmental impact statement. This will ensure the protection of the Reservation's tremendous natural resources while addressing the needs of the Oak Ridge community."
"We have a truly rare asset here that should not be squandered piece by piece for uncertain short-term economic gain," says Dev Joslin, AFORR president. "We have repeatedly asked DOE to prepare a long-range land use plan for the Oak Ridge Reservation that takes all potential uses into account, including conservation, environmental research and education, recreation and appropriate economic development. DOE has promised to pursue such planning in the near future. That promise has been made before, however, and the approach they have taken to these two proposed projects flies in the face of the spirit of such planning."
A few years ago, the agency leased a 1,000-acre parcel on the Reservation for an industrial park that destroyed vital wetlands, and still has only one tenant. Last year, DOE headquarters announced it was speeding up efforts to dispose of unneeded lands at its facilities nationwide. Oak Ridge Reservation officials are now considering a long-term lease of an additional 450 acres for private industrial and commercial development through the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee, a public/private economic development organization. Much of this area is currently open to hunting as part of the Oak Ridge Wildlife Management Area, but hunting would likely cease once the land is developed, says Mike Butler with TCL.
"Oak Ridge's economy has benefited from sportsmen's dollars for a very long time, and many communities are learning that open space and outdoor recreation areas enhance quality of life and help boost the area's overall economic health," says Butler. "Dividing up public lands within the Reservation piece by piece has real potential to negatively impact Oak Ridge."
A second proposal is for the sale of about 180 acres in the floodplain of the Clinch River as part of a major riverfront development of residential, commercial and light industry. The potential buyer, Oak Ridge Land Co., plans to buy an adjacent 1,200-acre tract from Boeing Co., but the deal hinges on whether the company can gain access to the river. The floodplain tract includes 70 acres of wetlands and hosts several state-listed threatened and endangered plant species. DOE issued a draft environmental assessment in November that underestimates the consequences of development on the wetlands and fails to protect important plant and animal habitat, the conservation groups say.
"Wetlands protect water quality for drinking and industrial purposes, and provide wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities. Tennessee has lost so much of its high quality wetlands that accurately assessing the consequences of human disturbances is a necessity, not a luxury, especially in the case of a publicly owned resource," says Marina.
DOE has said the Tennessee Valley Authority will be able to regulate development and management of the wetlands in the Boeing strip. In fact, the conservation groups say, TVA policy includes authority over only a 50-foot area shoreline strip, docks and other structures directly along the shore.
"We are not trying to obstruct the sale or the development of Boeing's land," says Joslin. "We are simply trying to assure that environmentally sensitive areas on this public land be protected in accordance with the law. The currently proposed plan of action does not do that."
AFORR and TCL have pressed DOE for two years to manage
the publicly owned tract with conservation in mind. In response to recent
requests from the groups, DOE has scheduled a public meeting in Oak Ridge
for January 30 for citizens to offer comments on their views concerning
future land use for the Reservation.
For more information please visit websites for:
Tennessee Conservation League at www.conservtn.com
Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation at www.aforr.org
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