Branching Out

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.

APRIL 22, 2019—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 on 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  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, hundreds of seedlings have been planted near Norris Reservoir in the past year.

woman planting trees

“The red oaks in particular 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.”

The tree varieties at Norris were meticulously selected for growth, form and acorn yield, among other characteristics.

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.”