The Tennessee Wildlife Federation named a University of Tennessee professor Tennessee’s Conservationist of the Year.
William “Billy” Minser, lecturer in forestry, wildlife and fisheries, received the award in recognition of his work in saving 292,000 acres of public land from being sold by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The U.S. government created TVA in 1933, and one of its main purposes was flood control, Minser said. TVA needed to build dams to do this, and to build dams, the government had to condemn 1.3 million acres of land. Fifty thousand people with homes on the land were forced to move. After the dams were built, the resulting lakes and the lakefront property became public property, Minser said. The land was used as a recreation area.
Then, in the past 20 years, TVA began selling pieces of lakefront property to developers, Minser said. The public land bought with taxpayers’ money was being sold without their permission.
“Knowing how much land we’re losing to developers, wild land that wildlife dwells on, and how hard we work to protect wildlife sanctuaries and wildlife management areas, and then to see land that we already have in public ownership sold off for private use — that’s wrong,” Minser said.
Minser became involved in the campaign to stop TVA from selling the rest of the land. This past summer, TVA held meetings to gauge public opinion on the issue. Minser gave a presentation at the meeting against the selling of the land. Afterward, he and UT’s chapter of the Wildlife and Fishery Society spearheaded a drive to increase public awareness about the issue. He encouraged people to make phone calls and send letters to TVA expressing their opinion. Of the 5,000 responses TVA received, 92 percent were against selling the land, he said.
“We wanted to make sure the public knew the story. It wasn’t a hard sell,” Minser said. “I know wrong when I see it and that was wrong, to kick people off their land for a public purpose and then turn around and sell it for a private purpose.”
Because of this, the newly appointed TVA board of directors decided to change its land-use policy. They will no longer sell off the public land for private use.
Minser’s hard work and determination are the reasons he won the award, said Michael Butler, executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Foundation. “He was instrumental in protecting 293,000 acres of public land,” Butler said. “That was the defining reason why he won the award.”
Another attribute Butler commented on was Minser’s “tireless” efforts toward conservation. These thoughts were echoed by J. Larry Wilson, interim head of forestry, wildlife and fisheries. Wilson said he has worked with Minser for almost 40 years and that Minser has always been involved with conservation efforts. “During that time, he has always been an active participant in the management and protection of Tennessee’s wildlife and has worked tirelessly in the preservation of our natural resource heritage,” Wilson said.
Minser said the Conservationist of the Year award is one of the most prestigious conservationist awards available. He doesn’t take all the credit, though.
“Yeah, I got a state Conservationist of the Year award, and I might’ve kind of been in the forefront, but I credit the people — the students and the citizenry. . . I just represented their input, and I am glad to do that,” he said.
Minser is currently involved in another issue about state park land-use. He is fighting to protect state parks from private development. The state is developing golf courses and hotels at some of Tennessee’s state parks, he said.
“The state doesn’t need to be competing in private enterprise. They don’t need to be in the hotel business,” he said.
Minser has helped preserve more than 400,000 acres of land. He has also worked to create five wildlife management areas.
However, Minser said the project of which he is most proud is his students. He holds the recognition he gets from them in higher regard than the other awards he has won.
“When you get a plaque from your students at the end of the year, and they think a lot of you and you think a lot of them, there’s nothing more important,” he said.