Prior to the establishment of the refuge most of the forest lands had been used and altered by Euroamerican settlement for well over a hundred years. Forests were cleared for farming, resulting in thousands of acres of agricultural lands. Some of the cleared land was marginal but farmed for years and then grazed. Much of this agricultural land was eventually abandoned, producing various stages of poorly stocked timber stands throughout the refuge. Some of the abandoned fields were planted in pine by TVA in the 1940’s and the refuge in the 1970’s and a few were planted in oaks in the 1980's and 90's. Where the topography was not conducive to clearing for agriculture, forest stands were heavily cut for sawtimber and then burned to encourage browse growth for livestock. In the early 1900’s the iron ore industry clearcut forests in the region to produce charcoal. Much of the refuge’s forest stands were generally even-aged with closed canopies and a sparse midstory and understory as a result of these practices.
The 1962 Forest Management Plan for the Tennessee NWR had as its primary objective “to improve the forest condition so as to develop and maintain optimum game populations, primarily for wild turkey, white-tailed deer, and waterfowl, through sound forest management practices.” The secondary objective listed by this plan was “the application of good silvicultural practices aimed toward obtaining and maintaining optimum stocked timber stands of desired species, size classes and quality to best meet both wildlife requirements and commercial purposes.” In the time period since this plan was created, it seemed that only a few years consisted of any work in regards to forest habitat management.
A forest habitat management evaluation was conducted at Tennessee NWR on June 5-7, 1996. Since Tennessee NWR is located in the Lower Tennessee - Cumberland Ecosystem where neotropical migratory birds are a top priority management concern, four biologists with ornithological expertise were selected to serve on the 1996 evaluation team. Refuge personnel were also present during the evaluation.
The recommendations of the evaluating team in the 1996 review promoted a revision of the 1962 Forest Management Plan objectives. The revised objectives of forest habitat management on Tennessee NWR would be consistent with the broad objectives of the National Wildlife Refuge System, yet consist of a few refuge-specific objectives: (1) to protect and enhance critical forest habitats for threatened and endangered species of plants and animals indigenous to the refuge, including those species currently listed as well as any listed in the future; (2) to protect, restore, and enhance hardwood forest habitats using sound silvicultural practices to provide optimal forest structure that will produce nesting and foraging habitat for migratory birds, with an emphasis on the highest priority forest interior neotropical migratory species occurring on the refuge; (3) to promote a diverse forest habitat with adequate nest cavity densities and mast producing components for waterfowl, resident game animals, and other forest-dependent wildlife; and (4) to provide opportunities for compatible wildlife-dependent recreation, research, and environmental education.
In 1998, Refuge staff began preparing the new Forest Management Plan (FMP). This process was initiated, in part, by the refuge forest habitat and management evaluation. The evaluation recommended a refuge forest management program concentrating on the upland forested areas and their potential as habitat for a selected class of migratory land birds. The bird list of priority species was developed based on the Partners in Flight Bird Conservation Plan for the Interior Low Plateau. The refuge forest is similar to many of the forests in the region in that it is generally even-aged with near-completely closed canopies, small individual crowns and lacking midstory and understory vegetation/structure. The FMP will seek to create more openings in the canopy, increased groundcover, understory and midstory presence, and larger, more developed canopy crowns. In 1999, with the aid of the new Refuge Forester, the updated Forest Management Plan was completed to final draft form and approved at the Regional Office in January 2000.
The first forest inventory in nearly 40 years was conducted in the summer of 2000 as directed by the approved FMP. The cruise inventoried timber volumes and forest habitat conditions on 922 acres of the Big Sandy Peninsula identified as Compartment Four. The cruise data reinforced the conclusions of the 1996 forest habitat review. In nine of the ten delineated mature upland stands, the canopy closures were estimated to be ninety-three percent or more. These nine stands comprised over eighty percent of the mature forested area.
A forest prescription plan was written and approved in 2001 for Compartment 4 on the Big Sandy Unit. The prescribed actions included timber harvesting and controlled burning. Prescribed fire was suggested in order to enhance the habitat by promoting grasses and forbs that attract invertebrates, which are a critical component in the diet of many migratory landbirds. The primary target species of these management actions are the cerulean warbler, wood thrush, worm-eating warbler, Kentucky warbler and hooded warbler. In addition to migratory landbirds, game species such as wild turkey and white-tailed deer, which are valued by refuge hunters and visitors, will benefit from a more diverse forest structure. A study design in conjunction with Dr. David Buehler of the University of Tennessee was established to test the results of planned selective timber harvest and prescribed burn. The objectives of this research project were to evaluate the impacts of the refuge’s forest management activities on: 1) habitat structure and composition; 2) breeding bird use; and 3) avian breeding productivity.
The sites to be chosen for harvests and burns were selected based on the needs of the University of Tennessee study: four 50-acre replications of three treatments: control (no action), harvest, and harvest followed by a controlled burn. Harvesting of the compartment began in early November 2001. The harvesting was conducted with a coordinated system of a track mounted feller-buncher followed by a track mounted stroke de-limber followed by either a traditional skidder or clam bunk. These machines allow precision directional felling and bunching which reduces the damage to crowns and bark of remaining trees that is otherwise common in selective harvests.
A prescription for the controlled burn areas was developed and approved in 2002. Attempts were made on several occasions to conduct the burn. Due to weather conditions and problems associated with having a qualified burn crew available at the appropriate time when conditions were within prescription, we have been unsuccessful conducting any burning.
There have not been any large-scale forest habitat management activities since the harvest in 2001. A decision was made to suspend harvest activities until sufficient results of the research project were available. In 2006 the refuge lost its forester effectively suspending the forest manangement activities.