Protecting and improving the Valley’s biological diversity is all part of the job for Natural Resources senior program manager.
If you’re looking for Damien Simbeck, a good place to start is outside.
On any given day, he’s working toward a goal that many people don’t even know exists - balancing the use of TVA public land with resource stewardship to achieve the greatest benefit for the public.
Whether he’s on the clock with TVA Natural Resources or in his own backyard, Simbeck is thinking about how to protect and improve the Valley’s biological diversity and wildlife habitat.
“I have a love for the outdoors, so I spend much of my time making sure there are a whole lot of different animals out there, and that the land they need is cared for in a way that they can thrive,” he said.
Managing public lands so hikers, mountain bikers, campers, photographers, hunters and others can enjoy them is at the core of Simbeck’s work in the Valley.
A senior program manager with Natural Resources Management - West Operations, he has been doing this and other duties for almost three and half decades, yet it never gets old.
“There is no such thing as an average day,” Simbeck said. “One week I’m sitting in front of a computer doing meetings, reports and data entry, but the next week I’m out in the field working with hazard trees and surveys of licensed properties on Kentucky Reservoir.”
In the field, much of his work deals with keeping access roads passable, marking boundaries, occasionally leading tours, and figuring out how to make good habitats better and more accessible to the public.
“After all, it’s theirs and they have the right to enjoy it,” he says.
Armed with a Bachelor of Science degree in professional biology and a master's in zoology, one of Simbeck’s primary jobs is Grasslands and Agricultural Lands Management. Focusing on enhancing biological diversity on TVA’s non-forested lands provides habitat diversity for a wide range of plant and animal communities, as well as other environmental benefits and public use opportunities.
For Simbeck, this work often involves procuring license agreements with farmers to manage TVA properties for habitat and public access. The various approaches include converting exotic turf grasses to native grasses, cutting fire breaks, bushhogging, or prescribed fires.
Simbeck considers prescribed fire to be one of the most effective and interesting methods used by his team.
“Part of managing public lands includes the reduction of underbrush so there’s not as much chance for wildfire,” he said. “This has been one of our major tools for the past eight to 10 years. These are usually conducted in the winter when fuel, soil and weather conditions are right.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but these fires also help maintain and establish wildlife habitats. The reduction of woody vegetation spurs wildflowers and native shrubs and grasses by burning out competitive invasive plants and replenishing nutrients in the soil.
If prescribed burns are among Simbeck’s favorite projects, cleaning up after bad actors on TVA public lands ranks at the bottom of his list.
“It’s difficult to manage public lands when some folks want them for their own, private use,” he explained.
“A good example is people who camp more than TVA’s allotted 14 days on dispersed campsites, also known as backcountry camping. They sometimes leave a big mess of old tents, food, clothing and trash, then move on to another site.”
Other times, they simply use public lands as dumping grounds.
“I recently finished coordinating a cleanup where folks dumped cinder blocks, a mattress, and lots of other items on TVA public lands instead of taking it to the landfill.”
Damien Simbeck and Stephanie Baugus on the boardwalk at Marbut Bend Trail.
Simbeck is proud of each of TVA’s 293,000 acres of TVA public land, but the spot that sparks the biggest smile is the Marbut Bend Trail on the Elk River in Limestone, Ala.
Unlike traditional trails, this flat, ADA-accessible area also includes lengthy boardwalks that take visitors into a wetland and a pond created by a beaver dam.
“RJ Moore and I submitted this plan to TVA as a stewardship project in 2014,” he said. “With TVA funding and partners including the Limestone County Commission and our (Grasslands and Agricultural Lands Management) licensee, we were able to make it work.”
Located 30 miles from Huntsville, Marbut Bend is on the Elk River, near where it flows into Wheeler Lake.
“It’s being used like crazy,” Simbeck said. “There are marshes with fish and beavers and otters and people fishing from the piers or walking the trails as they bird watch. It’s great.”
TVA manages habitats and does some prescribed burns there.
“We also installed six artificial bat roosts and they are definitely used,” he added. “If you don’t believe me, go stand under them at sunset.”
If Simbeck had one tip to pass on to his neighbors in the Valley, it would be for them to manage their yards like he manages TVA property.
“Every plant and tree in our yard is a native plant,” he said. “I don’t have Bradford pear and Leland cypress, it’s all native.”
An avid birder, he has a wildflower garden plus feeders. It’s not unusual for Simbeck to host 100 different varieties of birds throughout the year.
“If your plants are diverse, you’ll have diverse wildlife. And that’s better for all of us.”