On Patrol at Center Hill….


Today’s conservation project took us outside of Nashville and over to Center Hill Lake. Center Hill Lake runs through the Cumberland Mountains, and is nestled among hills and limestone rock bluffs; making the early morning two hour drove well worth it. Our plan was to spend the day learning what it would be like to be a ranger for the Corps of Engineers. Our hosts were rangers Matt and Josh.

Josh, a former marine and graduate of Tennessee Tech has been with the Corps of Engineers for three years. Like most rangers we have been meeting, he was recruited while a student at Tennessee Tech. Tennessee Tech and the Corps of Engineers have a coop program, where a student will be spend one summer and semester working for the Corps, often resulting with the student becoming a ranger after
graduation. Matt is also a Tennessee Tech graduate, and has been with the Corps for a few years. Both were great hosts, taking us around Center Hill Lake, answering an abundance of questions, and keeping us entertained with plenty of stories.

Our first stop with the rangers was Pates Ford Resort & Marina. The marina has a slew of boat slips and docks, filled with double decker pontoons with slides, as well as smaller pontoons, speed boats andhouse boats. It has a convenience store on the docks, as well as Fish Lipz Restaurant, which plays host to bands from Nashville during the weekend. We were there to attend a planning meeting with the rangers, the owner of the marina and Center Hill resource manager Kevin. The marina leases 80 acres from the Corps. Currently the marina owner is planning on adding campgrounds and cabins. The meeting was for the owner and the Corps to make an assessment of the environmental feasibility of the project. A primary concern was centered around the tree removal that would occur to make room for the campgrounds. In 2010 the white-nose syndrome spread to the bat population of Tennessee. The white-nose syndrome is a fungus that spreads through bat to bat contact, with a mortality rate of 95% among bats who catch it. To help protect the bat species, tree removal is severely restricted, mainly to the winter months. While this project could take months to get approved, it is far quicker than new projects which usually take 2-3 years to acquire approval.

The marina is just one of many businesses and residences which leases land from the Corps. Back in the 1940s when the dam was being planned, the federal government bought land from current landowners, mainly farmers, on space that would soon become Center Hill lake; as well as the surrounding flood plains, which includes land up to elevation 698 ft-the elevation at the top of the dam. The Corps manages the flood plains, ensuring there isn’t excessive building. The restriction of building ensures that minimum damage occurs in times of flood, and ensures the watershed area stays intact. In 2010 middle Tennessee experienced a 100 year flood, during which most of the land was flooded. Part of the rangers job is to hike the elevation line of the dam around the lake each winter and ensure no one is illegally building.

After having lunch at the marina, we travelled with the rangers to more sites on and around Center Hill Lake. We saw beautiful beaches, picnic areas and campgrounds; met site residents; and heard story after story. A major part of the ranger’s job is patrolling the sites, often spending a third of the day driving to each. In doing so the rangers are the primary public face of the Corps. A main project they are working on this summer is working with the community on water safety. Last year 10 people drowned on Center Hill Lake. The majority were men in their 20s, who were out on their boats inebriated. The Corps is focusing on teaching kids about water safety now, in hopes they’ll make better decisions later on.

Another project we learned about at Center Hill is a rattlesnake tracking project. In its approximately fifth year, a ranger has been placing chips in the rattlesnakes, tracking the movements around Center Hill. Although not a project, we also learned of some activities in the area, such as noodling (the act of fishing for catfish with your bare hands- we have yet to meet someone who has done it) and jugging(another form of catching catfish, by running lines between jugs). Along with learning about projects and activities, we got a few short histories lessons as well. For instance we learned of the attempted bombing of the dam at Percy Priest lake. Turns out in 1979 a 26 year old man placed a case of dynamite at the dam, thinking it would be enough to blast the dam open and flood the downtown. His plan was to loot the stores once the downtown was fully flooded. Fortunately the case of dynamite he used barely made a dent in the dam.

Josh and Matt were great hosts. We’re looking forward to continuing to work with the rangers on future projects over the next couple months.