It is no secret that Congress has recently approved dramatic increases in user fees on public lands in an effort to reduce the level of funding required for their operation. But how far can this trend be taken? How much will the public tolerate?

In what is being called a "test case" for the funding of all public lands, the relatively unknown (though locally much beloved) Land Between the Lakes (LBL) was the subject of a Congressional hearing June 21, 1997. The hearing was the result of the public outcry that arose following Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) proposal to run the LBL as a commercial operation, thus providing increased revenues.

This offer will be difficult for a cost-cutting Congress to turn down--especially when so many large development interests are becoming involved. In recent months TVA has established legal precedent by leasing, and even selling outright, land acquired by eminent domain in Tennessee. In spite of official claims of abandoning plans for commercial development, construction of commercial facilities within the LBL has dramatically increased. The possibility of our public lands being operated in exchange for whatever profits they can generate (from commercial logging, hotels, golf courses, theme parks, land sales, condos, etc.) is not a model many would like to see on a national scale.

As one LBL official put it, "This is about how much the public will accept."

The fate of the Land Between the Lakes, hidden away in far western Kentucky and Tennessee, will have strong implications for all Americans.

LBL Bellwether

IMPLICATIONS--What is happening at TVA's Land Between the Lakes in western Kentucky and Tennessee has ramifications and implications in which all U.S. citizens have a stake. To avoid "eating our seed corn", we need more thoughtful and informed leaders in our federal agencies.

BACKGROUND--Impoundments of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers resulted in what is now a unique 170,000 acre peninsula called Land Between the Lakes. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy authorized the Tennessee Valley Authority to block in the federal holdings already there (a large wildlife refuge and the two reservoirs) and establish a National Recreation Area. The mission statement emphasized outdoor recreation, environmental education, and stimulating development of the surrounding region. The local protests regarding the use of eminent domain were met with repeated assurances such as:

  1. unimpeded access, in perpetuity, to the numerous small cemeteries
  2. no commercial development within the LBL lands
  3. no occupied dwellings to remain or be built on LBL lands
  4. no private inholdings to be leased or sold on LBL lands

CURRENT EVENTS--The chief incidant to the current controversies concerning the future of LBL is a publication: What is the Shape of Our Future?--Preliminary Concepts for a Public Use Plan. You can see why we refer to this unusually attractive, large (11"X17") and expensive document as "the concepts" of which there are five. Despite recent commitments of an extensive area of LBL to the International Biosphere Reserve program, and the assurances mentioned above, it seems clear to us the intent of the five concepts is to set the stage for increased economic developments within LBL. The ostensible reason for this mission leap is "to operate with earned revenue supplying 80% of the budget by the year 2000." There is no mandate for such action; it is in direct conflict with the mission statement, and is yet another broken promise to the families forced to leave their homes when LBL began.

In a region known for somewhat strange coalitions (such as bootleggers and the Baptists), it was not surprising that people with quite different backgrounds and agendas have spontaneously coalesced to assure more responsible and enlightened management of their land. The chief (and sometimes overlapping) issues in the current controversy are:

  1. Breach of Faith--This term succinctly encapsulates the consistent responses of LBL which emphasize technicalities regarding the types and degrees of commitments, rather than taking the moral high ground and honoring those commitments whether or not they seem inconvenient. In this region, "Standing on the Promises" is much more than a hymn.

  2. Vacillating Commitments--For more than 30 years, LBL administrators have sought (or claimed) to be on the "leading edge". The result has been a track record of "new" long range plans every two years or so; and an attempt to use clever terminology as a substitute for significant, innovative, and necessary change--focused upon fulfilling the mission.

  3. Lack of Business Acumen--With a budget history markedly more generous than that of our National Parks, LBL has failed to fulfill its stated mission, failed to become a recognized leader in any (worthwhile) endeavor, and has failed to comply with even the most basic requirements of respectable citizenship such as full compliance (preferably beyond the mere legal requirements) with legislation aimed at environmental protection and at easing the lives of physically impaired members of our society. It seems fair to suggest that larger budgets would be more likely to accelerate mission leap than to insure solvency.

  4. Lack of Enlightened Stewardship--Alas, the lack of business sense and the prospect of decreased federal appropriations (exacerbated by their parent, TVA, having "managed" to build a debt which exceeds 26 billion dollars) have led to LBL's seeking the easiest solutions. There apparently has been no serious discussion of belt-tightening, no real attempt to return to their original mission; just movement toward exploiting the local resources and homogenizing the environment to resemble "everywhere" rather than becoming an increasingly unique and attractive natural area demonstrating what people of vision can do, on an extremely modest budget, for present and future generations.

  5. Sustainable Development--There is a rapidly growing and increasingly compelling mass of case studies and other research which illustrates the advantages of coordinated efforts which can synergistically improve both the economy and the environment. The heart of this approach is to preserve a "green magnet" such as a park, wildlife refuge, or barrier island which can then function as an increasingly powerful attractor for compatible and sustainable development in the surrounding region. Nature provides the infrastructure within the magnet and private capital provides it outside. Contrast this with LBL's vacillating and competitive policies which have dried up private capital.

CONCEPT ZERO--So, the strange bedfellows have formed a Concept Zero Task Force. The title suggests that LBL's five concepts go in the wrong direction, and indicates our dedication to insuring that TVA/LBL demonstrate more informed and insightful leadership by focusing on ways to fulfill their original, and vital, mission in an environmentally sensitive, and economically rational manner. As guideposts to assessing movement in this direction, the Task Force offers these goals: no leasing of public land to private individuals for their exclusive use and benefit; less not more commercailization within LBL; scaling down the number of administrators (and the remuneration of some) to be more nearly commensurate with the task at hand and the wage scale in the surrounding region; establishing a blue ribbon board to set policies; and a modest, but ample, budget to fulfill the original mission in a manner which is fiscally and environmentally responsible--and sustainable.

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