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Conservation Planning and Local Governments

Daryl Durham
Lucius E. Burch Center for Conservation Planning, Memphis, Tennessee

In 1991, the Tennessee Biodiversity Program (TBP) was established by the Tennessee Conservation League (TCL), the state affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), to provide decision makers with user-friendly information on the biological diversity of Tennessee. The premise of the TBP is that economic development and natural resource conservation are compatible goals. Furthermore, development decisions should be made with the benefit of accurate, accessible information on Tennessee’s natural resources, including habitats of neotropical migrant songbirds, rare plants and animals, wetlands, and other ecologically sensitive areas.

Generally speaking, the information is already available. The TBP coordinates the use of information from the Gap Analysis Program and Partners in Flight. These databases are constantly being updated and reside on the state’s GIS located at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA).

The TBP targets four key groups to work with: planners and community leaders, landowners, natural resource professionals, and educators. This article focuses on the TBP interface with county governments, primarily through the Committee of Planners and Community Leaders, formed to achieve the following objectives:

  1. Provide leadership and direction for the development of new state and county maps identifying local areas significant to Tennessee’s biodiversity.
  2. Assist in the development of conservation strategies for these areas.
  3. Assist in the implementation of these strategies by using existing mechanisms available for industrial, community, and county planning.

After considerable study and debate, the committee made the following recommendations to TCL:

  1. Encourage state agencies to foster a customer-oriented culture that helps local governments, educators, landowners, and natural resource professionals acquire high-quality map-based natural resource information in a timely manner.
  2. Promote natural resource conservation at the community level by advocating the use of map-based natural resource information.
  3. Work with local citizens’ groups to encourage their involvement with TCL and the TBP.

With the support of TCL, GAP, and others, we have begun testing an approach for achieving these objectives. Three pilot counties with varied demographic and socioeconomic characteristics were selected, and we examined the application of planning methodologies at different spatial units (e.g., county and watershed). Using these results for a planning framework, we have begun working with local officials and landowners to determine how GAP data can best be used in a balanced way for economic development and natural resource conservation in Tennessee. Following is an overview of two of the three pilot projects.

Pilot Project # 1 Franklin County

Franklin County, located on gently sloping terrain in south-central Tennessee, is a predominantly rural county with a population of 35,000. Since it was first settled in the early 1800s, Franklin County has capitalized on its rich soils and readily available sources of water to become one of the most agriculturally diverse counties in the state. However, during the past two decades, the county’s economy has diversified. Winchester, the county seat, has historically been the principal agriculture market and trading center of the county. Today, it is a thriving town of 13,000 and the focal point of a regional economy that is based more on manufacturing (textiles, leather, and wood products) and less on agriculture.

Conservation planning in Franklin County is influenced by the following groups: Folks for Positive Growth (FOLKS), the Franklin County Regional Planning Commission (FCRPC), the Board of Zoning Appeals, the County Commission, and faculty and students from the nearby University of the South.

The University of the South has created an interdisciplinary team to study economics, political sociology, tax incentives, and geology. The economics study will identify the relationship between increased tax revenues generated by population growth and increased demands for county services. Using the TN-GAP land cover data as a base map, the team will analyze growth scenarios, impacts, and cost benefit ratios for each.

The study of political sociology will examine changing attitudes, values, and concerns as the county changes from agrarian to industrial. The tax incentives study will evaluate the impact of the Forest Greenbelt Law (a conservation tax incentive) on the county’s tax base and on its biodiversity. The study of geology will compare the use of septic tanks versus sewage systems in the county, and the implications for environmental impacts.

One of the most dynamic citizens groups in the county is FOLKS. Their mission is to continuously define, maintain, and improve the quality of life in Franklin County. Their charter is to:

  • Define the quality of life in Franklin County.
  • Identify the primary determinants of that quality of life.
  • Provide an all-inclusive forum for the education of, and discussion among, Franklin County citizens concerning that quality of life.
  • Develop guidelines for the maintenance and improvement of the quality of life in Franklin County.
  • Provide a "voice" for Franklin County citizens to make known the results and findings of all the above.
  • Facilitate interaction and cooperation between this group and political, commercial, and other organizations to continuously define, maintain, and improve the quality of life in Franklin County.
  • Evaluate annually the accomplishments of the organization and issue a report to members, media, and elected officials.
  • Guard against becoming anything less than all-inclusive.

The work of FOLKS, The University of the South, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and TCL brings together a unique set of forces to shape the way Franklin County addresses issues related to conserving its quality of life. Two immediate products from this collaboration will be a GIS-based interactive planning tool and a symposium to address coordination of objectives among land management agencies.

In the final analysis, one of the most important factors of the Franklin County pilot project is the active leadership provided by the County Executive. On March 4, 1996, The Winchester Herald Chronicle published an op-ed article by the County Executive, Clint Williams, entitled "My View: Franklin County Future Seen as Still Undefined." In this article, the County Executive voiced his concern over the cumulative impacts of several major projects—the widening of Highway 41-A, construction of a new Wal-Mart Super Center, construction of the new Nissan facility—and how these projects would create a strain on schools and local services. He made a strong and compelling case for continued emphasis on long-range planning in Franklin County, and called for more citizen involvement in the process. In essence, this pilot demonstrates the importance of executive support for effective conservation planning and implementation.

Pilot Project # 2 Fayette County

Fayette County, located in southwestern Tennessee, is in the immediate path of residential and commercial expansion from Memphis and Shelby County. The county, with eight incorporated towns and a total population of 33,000, is typical of many "outer tier" predominantly rural counties that are facing development pressures from nearby urban centers. As new residents move in, new demands are placed on the schools and county infrastructure. New residents often arrive with value systems that conflict with third- and fourth-generation county residents (conservation versus pro-growth and development). Issues related to conservation of biodiversity can become entangled in the politics and dynamics of conflicting value systems. The Wolf River Conservancy, a nongovernment organization (NGO) devoted to conserving the Wolf River (which runs through Shelby and Fayette counties), has become a focal point in the debate over development and biodiversity-related issues in the region.

Against this backdrop, the local leadership in this pilot project has come from the Fayette County Consolidated Office of Planning and Development. The county is experiencing relatively rapid growth and officials have two tools to direct and manage growth and development: 1) a Land Use Plan and county-wide zoning (Fayette is one of 30 counties in Tennessee with county-wide zoning); and 2) extension of water and sewer service, which enables the planning staff to manage direction and density of growth. Only 15% of the county population is on sewer, and zoning regulations require a one-acre minimum lot size if a septic tank must be used. While the Plan enumerates land use goals in only the broadest terms (e.g., "protection of agricultural land"), it serves as the logical vehicle for integrating future policies and initiatives related to conservation of biodiversity in Fayette County. To date, the strategy of the Tennessee Conservation League has been to encourage the formation of a citizens group in Fayette County that can work with TCL and the Wolf River Conservancy to educate and otherwise influence Fayette County government on issues related to conservation, quality of life values, and the availability of map-based information that can be used in goal setting and strategy formulation. The goal is to develop a county-wide conservation plan that complements the community’s comprehensive plan.

To support this effort, the Tennessee GAP data are being provided to the Fayette County Office of Planning and Development by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for planning purposes. Assistance from the National GAP Program is being provided to the county in the appropriate use of the data and in facilitating citizen input in the conservation planning process. Central to the success of this pilot is the demonstrated enthusiasm of the county government and the cooperation of NGOs. In the meantime, the immediate challenge is to educate residents and generate support for conservation planning in this county, which is undergoing a significant transition.

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