TVA and University of Tennessee Work Together to Plant Trees for the Valley’s Future

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” ― Anonymous Greek proverb

In the Tennessee Valley, it’s difficult to travel even a short distance without seeing trees that range from the size of a seven-year-old child to the height of a seven-story building. Away from urban areas, wooded expanses often fill the landscape, creating millions of forested acres across the Tennessee Valley in a mix of private, public and commercial lands.

Day by day, the ecosystems created and sustained by these marvels of nature quietly impact our lives. With an impressive capacity to multitask, they store carbon, filter water, produce oxygen and even physically calm those who stand in their presence - and that’s just for starters.

TVA’s history includes a commitment to trees

Man planting seeds in 1960s


Since its inception in 1933, TVA’s mission to “make life better for the people of the Tennessee Valley” has included a commitment to reforestation and the proper use of marginal lands, spawning healthy forests and ecosystems along with economic development.

Early in its history, TVA focused on a tree crop program to develop a fruit and nut tree industry. “The Norris Dam Reservation in East Tennessee was chosen as the home of this research project that TVA hoped would eventually yield cash crops for Valley residents who planted orchards. The program ended in the 1950s, but new research soon began,” says TVA Forester Randy Short.

Genetic improvement of yellow pine, like loblolly, as well as red and white oaks for both timber and wildlife, was the focus of TVA’s next program, which began in the 1960s. This time, the Norris Dam Reservation became home to seed orchards that were used for breeding and genetic testing to improve these high-value, hardwood species. In essence, these orchards became clone banks for the future.

A cooperative spirit

Woman planting Hemlocks


Meanwhile, 30 miles down the road in Knoxville, the University of Tennessee had begun its own Tree Improvement Program (UT-TIP).  With a mission “to faithfully improve and protect the forest,” this endeavor encouraged a cooperative spirit that brought TVA and UT’s Tree Improvement Programs together to test plant materials, and more, according to Dr. Scott E. Schlarbaum, Professor and Director UT Tree Improvement Program. The UT-TIP, TVA and the Valley’s trees have been intertwined ever since.

By the early ‘80s, TVA had determined that establishing hardwood seedlings in forest situations was not feasible, and the program was suspended. However, the Norris Reservation seed orchard continued to be available to UT-TIP for seed collection and genetic materials. In an effort to continue documenting the historical work at Norris, Schlarbaum transferred the TVA-TIP records to UT. 

Although TVA’s earlier programs at Norris were terminated, the trees remained and did what trees do best – they grew. In the process they became an integral part of the dam reservation landscape.

2015 realized yet another occasion for UT-TIP and TVA to cooperate on a project. This three-fold endeavor connected them to the past while creating opportunities for the present that would positively affect the Valley’s future:

  • Cuttings and/or seeds are obtained from trees (white oak, northern red oak, black cherry, sugar maple and chinkapin oak) that display desired characteristics in future trees. “Fruit production or tree form are two common traits,” says Short.
  • Genetic resources of northeastern Tennessee hemlocks are being protected. “These hemlocks will eventually produce seed for hemlocks restoration in our region when a solution is found to mitigate the wooly adelgids’ impact on this species,” says Schlarbaum.
  • Finally, establishing hardwood seedlings in forest situations is now a viable option. Nursery protocols have been developed which produce high-quality hardwood seedlings.

These projects have enabled a new cooperative opportunity between TVA and UT-TIP.

Everything old is new again

This effort established genetic tests, genetic resources conservation plantings, and clonal seed orchards on Norris Reservation, as well as additional plantings. One of these projects already shows the growth of high-quality northern red oak seedlings in a genetic test. Interestingly, this test was derived from materials originally developed by the TVA Tree Improvement Program.

Over time, this project will be converted into a seed orchard that will produce locally adapted, genetically improved acorns. But exactly how do “improved acorns” help TVA make life better for the people of the Tennessee Valley?

Eventually, the acorns’ resulting seedlings will be available from the East Tennessee State Nursery to landowners for planting in the eastern Tennessee River Valley region. “These seedlings not only ensure the region’s natural heritage but also enhance its long-term economic development as these oaks are eventually harvested for hardwood and other products,” says Schlarbaum.

Slowly but surely, as landowners plant these seedlings, ecosystems will be established that will outlive the individuals who have helped create them, according to Short. These trees will put down roots and aerate the soil, creating water filtration and healthier local waterways. Their mast will feed wildlife. Their leaves, trunks and branches will trap water to prevent runoff and erosion. As they grow, they will remove more CO2 and other pollutants from the atmosphere. And their shade will help cool the air and water, creating healthier and more diverse spaces for the plants and animals of the Valley’s Eastern Region.