, April 14, 2008 (ENS) - One of the largest coalitions to form around an environmental issue in Tennessee in recent years filed legal papers today with the Tennessee Court of Appeals challenging an on-going rock-extraction operation in Cumberland Trail State Park near Chattanooga.
The coalition of public interest groups aims to help the state of Tennessee stop the potential destruction of state parks and private lands throughout the Cumberland Plateau from the removal of sandstone rock, used increasingly for decorative landscaping.
Last year, the state Department of Environment and Conservation lost its lawsuit in Hamilton County Chancery Court to stop the rock-digging operations. Seeking to defend the park it recently acquired, the state is appealing the decision.
The 14 conservation groups, represented by Sarah Francisco, Southern Environmental Law Center staff attorney and Gregory Buppert of Dodson, Parker, Behm & Capparella, filed an amicus or "friend of the court" brief in support of the state agency.
"The public's interest in preserving and protecting the Cumberland Trail State Park and other parks is substantial," said Buppert. "Our brief presents important information on the public interests at stake in this case so that the Court of Appeals has the opportunity to make a fully informed decision."
"We view this case as pivotal to securing the ecological integrity of thousands of acres on the Cumberland Plateau. That's why the environmental community is getting involved," said Francisco.
Upwards of 450,000 acres of public and private lands in 11 counties on the plateau - regarded as one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in the world - could be at risk of rock removal if the chancery court decision stands.
Roughly 28,000 acres are in state parks and natural areas, and the groups believe other public lands, such as some wildlife management areas, are at risk as well.
At issue is the separation, or severance, of ownership of surface land from mineral rights, which is common throughout the plateau.
In many instances, coal companies that originally owned the land sold just the surface rights to timber companies, and retained the mining and mineral rights in what is called a "mineral reservation."
The environmental groups argue that, unless included in the deed reservation, rock should not be considered a "mineral," because the only way to obtain rock is by excavation, which destroys the surface and deprives the surface owners of their property.
From 2001 to 2004, Tennessee acquired over 5,000 acres in Hamilton County from Bowater for the Cumberland Trail State Park.
Last year, the Lahiere-Hill company, which owns the mineral rights in the park, allowed contractors to come in with bulldozers and front-end loaders and begin removing sandstone rock.
The operation buried 50-100 yards of the Cumberland Trail in rubble and dirt, and left exposed soil, broken rock and uprooted trees, ruining the scenic beauty of the trail and destroying or severely damaging the natural resources that the state sought to protect in creating the park, including habitat for state and federally listed plants and animals, the environmental coalition says.
The trail has national significance as a critical section of the Great Eastern Trail, America's newest long-distance hiking trail, reaching from the Alabama line to the Finger Lakes of New York.
In addition to the potential vulnerability of public lands, many private lands subject to these "mineral reservations" could be subject to rock removal against the wishes of the surface owner.
For example, The Land Trust for Tennessee routinely encounters severed mineral estates on private lands on the plateau that landowners want to dedicate to conservation. Bledsoe, Cumberland, Fentress, Hamilton, Marion, Morgan, Rhea, Roane, Scott, Sequatchie, and White counties all have land with severed property rights.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.
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