Getting Back to Our Roots

TVA Natural Resources professionals are working together with the University of Tennessee on a partnership project that is reminiscent of a hallmark piece of TVA’s original stewardship mission: reforestation.

FEBRUARY 22, 2018—When you think about TVA, you think about a lot of things: electricity, economic development, flood control, hydropower, dams, navigation, water quality and much more. But did you know that planting trees to improve both the land and water resources in the Valley was a big part of TVA’s primary mission from the beginning? Listed as priority number two in the TVA Act of 1933, the agency was “to provide for the reforestation and proper use of marginal lands in the Tennessee Valley.

And so it did. TVA personnel went to work immediately planting trees throughout the erosion-riddled Valley. By 1949, they had sowed the 200 millionth tree in the region; by 1967, the millionth acre had been replanted.

Past Plantings

By the early 1960s, the forestry program began to emphasize quality over quantity. Tree geneticists started to focus on not only cultivating and planting trees, but cultivating and planting the hardiest, most disease resistant trees.

“They turned their attention to species with high ecological and economic value such as walnuts, sugar maples, chestnuts, hemlocks and oaks,” says Chris Cooper, manager of Natural Resources Management, East Operations for TVA. “They worked to create genetically superior trees that could better survive droughts, blight and pests that periodically challenge the health of the tree species in the southern Appalachian region.”

black and white shot of tva forestry work

The 1974 TVA Annual Report said: “TVA maintains one of the few research teams in the U.S. concentrating on the genetics and physiology of high-value hardwood species with emphasis on improving the trees’ genetic potential for growth rate, form and pest resistance. Seed orchards have been established containing selected species that will improve the forest resource base and foster better industrial and economic development.”

Work continued apace, with tree planting on dam reservoirs and other public lands throughout the Tennessee Valley, until 1982, when the program was suspended by TVA, and certain species picked up by the U.S. Forest Service, and—five years later—by the Tree Improvement Program at the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Division of Forestry.

New Trees at Norris

Now, through an initiative led by UT’s Scott Schlarbaum, professor of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, and TVA’s Chris Cooper and Tim Pruitt, watershed representative, 700 red oak seedlings will be planted in a decimated (by beetles) loblolly pine seed orchard on Norris Reservoir this week. And not just any red oaks. “These trees are a direct legacy from the TVA tree improvement program more than 50 years ago,” Schlarbaum says. “They are directly descended from TVA’s work at Wautaga Lake near the Cherokee National Forest.”

woman planting trees

The trees being planted at Norris are about two years old, and are grown from a collection of seeds from the best trees cultivated over many years of work. They were meticulously selected for growth, form and acorn yield, among other characteristics.

“We will bring these to the field, plant them, put up deer cages and other precautions, and study them,” Schlarbaum explains. “We’ll track them, grow them, select the genetically best and eventually collect seeds acorns for general reforestation in the eastern Tennessee River Valley. These are the prototypes for other trees in the future.”

That future will be filled with beautiful, strong hardwoods our children—and their children—can enjoy. “This is a sustainability project that will pay for hundreds of years,” says Cooper. “It’s not short term; it’s not really for us. It’s for a beautiful Valley ever after.”