March 26, 2008
The Rock-Harvesting Travesty
An editorial appears today's Chattanooga Times entitled "The Rock-Harvesting Travesty." As many of you are probably aware, the Cumberland Trail has been threatened by rock harvesting. American Hiking Society applauds this editorial, and encourages Tennesseans to contact your elected officials regarding this serious conservation issue.
The Rock-Harvesting Travesty
A Chattanooga Times Editorial
Anyone who has traveled around the Sequatchie Valley or the Cumberland Plateau the past few years has seen ample evidence of the soaring regional and national demand for Tennessee's mountain stone. Hundreds of sites offer stack after stack of mountain stone, often along with small boulders weighing a ton or more that are used for landscaping. What motorists and buyers don't see is the despoliation of huge chunks of East Tennessee land cleared of trees and churned by bulldozers to get the stones. But that's just half the problem.
The other half is this: So-called rock miners take much of their mountain stone from property considered in all other ways to be the private property of East Tennessee's homeowners, farmers, foresters and commercial enterprises. If property owners do not own the mineral rights to their land and many don't, owing to this region's earlier history of poor rural landowners selling their mineral rights to dealers for coal companies their very land may be vulnerable, under a quirk in Tennessee law, to rock harvesting and rock mining operations.
In that event, rock harvesters with mineral rights claims often just drive onto the otherwise private property, set up an operating shed, and start systematically destroying the stunned property owner's yards, fields and forests to get at the fieldstone, mountain stone, limestone and slate.
Even the state of was unable to protect a portion of the Cumberland Trail, painstakingly built to serve the public, from a destructive rock-harvesting operation that laid waste to the trail.
This is a travesty that should not be allowed. The law should be fixed to disallow dimension stone, the trade name for mountain stone, field stone, slate and sandstone from inclusion under mineral rights.
The dispute over rock harvesting, and whether field rocks and mountain stone legally qualify under mineral rights claims, is a growing problem.
In Sequatchie County, a third of property owners do not own their mineral rights. On Fredonia Mountain, on the Cumberland Plateau above Dunlap, 90 percent of land owners do not own the mineral rights to their land. In Hamilton County, about 10 percent donšt own those rights. Most of the these landowners, however, are understandably surprised that a glitch in the law allows rock-robbers to legitimate their work under mineral rights.
The results are disastrous.
The statešs mining law excludes "dimension stone" from the definition of mineral rights. Tennessee's Department of Revenue, however, directs the state to collect a $15-a ton severance tax on extractions of stone. That revenue-grabbing clause is arguably used to qualify dimension stone as a mineral or ore subject to traditional mineral rights and extraction fees.
That rightly makes landowners wonder precisely what they do own when rock harvesters show up. It's also led to a slew of lawsuits and appeals to the Legislature to clarify the conflicting laws defining mineral rights and the absence of regulatory processes on stone harvesting. That conflict should be resolved in favor of stricter regulation that clearly removes dimension stone from mineral rights.
A bill scheduled for a hearing today in the House Committee on Conservation and the Environment, the Tennessee Non-Coal Surface Mining Law
(HB4198 and SB4198), does not go far enough. Lobbyists for the stone industry apparently helped shape it. It should be rewritten to protect ordinary citizens from faulty interpretation of mineral rights.
All this bill does is make harvesting stone subject to registration and permitting fees, and to water quality, reclamation, surety bond and penalty fee requirements. That's not good enough. If lawmakers doubt that, they should visit the wrecked property of private landowners after a rock-robbing operation.
The bill's supposed protections precluding harvesting operations that would pose a hazard to homes, public buildings, schools, churches, cemeteries, designated scenic areas, public roads, streams, lakes, reservoirs, water wells, or other private or public property are more cosmetic than remedial. Tennesseans deserve better.
Conservation | By Jeffrey Hunter | 4:03 PM