Workers plant young trees in a program reminiscent of TVA’s earlier involvement in reforestation. (Photo: Contributed)

When thinking of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a number of things may come to mind: electricity, economic development, flood control, hydropower dams, navigation, water quality and much more. But you may not realize that planting trees to improve both the land and water resources in the Tennessee Valley was a big part of TVA’s primary mission in the beginning.

“To provide for the restoration and proper use of marginal lands in the Tennessee Valley” was listed as priority number two in the TVA Act of 1933. And so TVA personnel immediately went to work planting trees throughout the erosion-riddled Valley, having planted 200 million by 1949, and a million acres by 1967.

Past plantings
By the early 1960s, the forestry program had begun to emphasize quality over quantity, with tree geneticists starting to focus not only on cultivating and planting trees but cultivating and planting the hardiest and 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,” said Chris Cooper, manager of TVA’s Natural Resources Management, East Operations. “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.”

From the 1974 TVA Annual Report:

“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 tree’s 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.”

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

New trees at Norris
Now, through an initiative led by UT’s Scott Schlarbaum, professor of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, Cooper and Tim Pruitt, watershed representative, 700 red oak seedlings are being planted in a beetle-decimated loblolly pine seed orchard on Norris Reservoir. And they’re not just any red oaks.

“These trees are a direct legacy from the TVA tree improvement program more than 50 years ago,” Schlarbaum said. “They are directly descended from TVA’s work at Wautaga Lake near the Cherokee National Forest.”

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

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

That future should 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,” Cooper said. “It’s not short term, it’s not really for us. It’s for a beautiful Valley ever after.”