Republican incumbent Sen. Mike Bell, who announced his intention to retire from the Legislative Assembly last year, will assume a leadership position with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency beginning Aug. 31, the official announced. agency on Wednesday.
Bell will act as the agency’s senior adviser on legislative affairs and policy, interacting with lawmakers to promote the agency’s wildlife and land management policy and budget priorities.
Bell’s appointment comes months after an internal agency shakeup led to the departure of three senior TWRA officials in May amid controversies gripping the agency. For a period of months in 2021 and 2022, the TWRA has angered Republican and Democratic lawmakers over plans to clear-cut forests – and lost a major legal battle over the extent of its enforcement power. . TWRA also has a new executive director, Jason Maxedon, whose predecessor, Bobby Wilson, retired this year.
It will be up to the McMinn County Commission to decide whether to temporarily fill its legislative seat in what would largely be a ceremonial gesture, Bell said. The legislature does not meet until January.
Republican Adam Lowe beat state Rep. Mark Hall for the seat in the August primary and is expected to claim victory over Democrat Patricia Waters in a district where former President Donald Trump got 81% of the vote he two years ago.
“I have mixed feelings about leaving the Legislative Assembly,” Bell said Wednesday. “I loved my 16 years in the Legislative Assembly. But I’m excited about the new opportunity to go to TWRA. This is an agency that I not only know a lot about from the legislative process by carrying a lot of bills that have affected them over the years and the rules that have been passed down through this committee (Government Operations Committee) which I served for 16 years. But I am an outdoor enthusiast. I hunt and fish just about every animal we have in the state of Tennessee that is legal to hunt and fish.
Bell said his position at TWRA had been in the works for a year, but he wasn’t sure if he would take the job until recently. He was concerned when Chris Richardson, who previously held the position, was let go in May, Bell said. For a while he wasn’t sure if he wanted to pursue the job, before finally deciding to take it, he said.
Richardson, along with TWRA general counsel Tracey Boyers and associate attorney Thomas Moncrief, were fired in May. No reason was given for their departures, but they came on the heels of a series of public controversies over the agency’s plans to clear-cut forest in the Bridgestone Firestone Wilderness Centennial Wilderness Area, a hunting destination and popular recreation area in White County.
The plans, first leaked to local hunters, caught the attention of the community and eventually pitted the agency against a bipartisan group of Tennessee lawmakers, who urged wildlife officials to immediately halt all plans to clear-cutting and accused agency leaders of a “disgraceful lack of communication and transparency with this plan” and “a failure to protect Tennessee’s natural wildlife.”
“You have succeeded in uniting Tennesseans from all walks of life against the plan. Republicans, Democrats, Hunters, environmentalists, businesspeople and public officials all disagree with TWRA’s plan for public lands,” a letter from lawmakers to TRWA said last January.
Bell was not among the 34 lawmakers to sign the letter.
The agency also suffered a legal defeat in a lawsuit that successfully challenged TWRA’s common practice of entering private property without a warrant to enforce state wildlife, hunting and fishing laws.
Bell said Wednesday he had “no idea” whether TWRA would go ahead with the controversial clearcut plans. They didn’t come into the conversations, he said. He also said he did not know why Richardson or other staff members were fired.
One of the reasons for his retirement from the Legislative Assembly, a part-time position paying a nominal salary, was that he could not earn enough money, Bell said. He operates a pressure washing business, a job he did himself. Bell said the job became more physically demanding for him as he got older.