Michael Griffith grew up in McMinnville, TN where his family has been rooted for generations. I met Michael last month in McMinnville and we had a great conversation about the future of the Cumberland Plateau region. As a banker and hunter, Michael offers us an interesting perspective on our conservation efforts.
How did you meet Daniel Carter?
I first met Daniel through the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, an organization dedicated to land conservation for the sportsman, after reading his very insightful report on land usage on the South Cumberland Plateau. It was this report that finally used quantitative data to report what I had seen occurring as a banker in this area for sometime. Daniel is a true conservationist and has helped many of us understand the changing use of land and land ownership patterns.
How long have you lived in McMinnville/ Warren County?
I was born and raised here in The Nursery Capital of World and my family has been here for many generations.
What are the traditional roles past generations of your family have filled in your community?
My family owned and operated a hardware store on the court house square for many years and then moved to a new location in McMinnville as the downtown business environment changed. My grandfather started the store with a partner in the 1920s and my father and uncle operated it for many years. The hardware store is a thing of the past throughout the country (including our family’s) but many fond memories still exist.
What was your connection to the outdoors growing up in McMinnville?
My first connection of the outdoors grew out of Griffith Hardware as members of the farming and nursery community as well as the elected officials, bankers, and lawyers would come in to trade bird dogs and talk about hunting. I was fortunate enough to be raised in a community where my father would send me home for the afternoon or even weekend to participate in farming with many of these individuals and they along with my uncles and cousins allowed me the opportunity to hunt. Of course, as I became older, I enjoyed the typical activities of a youth in the area… riding four-wheelers and horses in our beautiful county.
How have recent changes in land use affected traditional hunting practices in your lifetime?
Frankly speaking, farming and development have been very detrimental to my hunting sport of choice - upland game hunting - specifically quail hunting. With the movement towards “clean” farming and high production agricultural, the majority of land in farming is nearly 100% utilized. In other words, farmers are pushed both by economic demands and industry trends to farm “fence row to fence row.” This means that few fields are allowed to sit idle and meaning that they don’t become an ideal habitat for quail and other small game species. Development has been detrimental but not on the same scale locally; however, in areas surrounding larger towns like Cookeville, the loss of habitat due to development is more common. Many studies by leading biologist from Tennessee and other southeastern states have demonstrated that habitat loss is a leading factor to the bobwhite quail's decline. The bright side is that the Cumberland Plateau is such a vast area and many hundreds of thousands of acres are still relatively untouched by development and/or high productions forestry and farming; therefore, we have a chance to help restore habitat to support upland game hunting. As demand increases for restoring existing properties such as main street revitalization, hopefully we can balance development with conservation .These restoration efforts will help conserve the natural beauty which is the Cumberland Plateau. Furthermore, there are many economic benefits to maintaining parts of the area as a sportsman destination. In fact, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Federation the current economic impact of hunting and fishing in Tennessee is at $2.4 billion.
As a leader within your community and region, how are you participating to ensure that future Warren County residents can continue to experience the outdoors that you have come to love and use?
I work very closely with leading conservation organizations both as a sportsman and outdoorsman. I am active and a member of the Southern Middle TN Quail Association-Quail Forever, Quail Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, Tennessee Wildlife Federation, Savage Gulf Preservation League, Kids in the Outdoors Association, and Bridgestone/Firestone BEECH program. The latter two are programs specifically designed to educate area youth on environmental and conservation issues while educating them about being responsible and ethical members of the hunting and fishing community. I enjoy working with the kids and help bring up the next generation of outdoorsman. I also work to bring in speakers such as Daniel Carter and others with the Natural Resource Conservation Service at our Rotary Club meetings to keep the dialogue going in our community about the importance of conserving the outdoors.
Working at the Security Federal Bank in McMinnville you have a front row seat to the growth and development of your region. Describe your job: its history, responsibilities and the role local banks can play in the conservation of the region’s open lands and wildlife?
As Vice President of Business Banking and Development, I work with contractors, realtors, developers, and business owners in our area and this gives me a seat at the table in the conversation about land usage in our community. It is honor and privilege to have such a job. I will say that land usage patterns have historical been very important to banks in the Upper Cumberland in that a substantial portion of the deposit base of Upper Cumberland banks are derived from Natural Resource and Agricultural entities. In our own local case, the nursery industry has provided much of the deposit growth throughout the years, although the current economic downtown has been difficult for that industry. Therefore, as more and more individuals move to the area, banks will need to work diligently to capture much of that deposit and lending business from these new comers. The business associated with natural resources will remain, but as residential communities arise there will be more constituents reliant on the abundant beauty and natural resources of the Cumberland Plateau. This region has benefited from the wealth created by the Cumberland Plateau and will continue to do so as long as the communities work together to conserve and promote diversity among the economies.
As a person that is personally involved with business development and wealth creation, and embraces the outdoorsman lifestyle, where is the common ground between conservation and growth? At what point will we achieve equitable growth and resource conservation?
The common ground is difficult to achieve as we have extremist views on both sides and currently not a common set of rules associated with the debate. The balance will be achieved when we all at least define what should be associated within the debate. Equitable growth can occur hand in hand with conservation as movement is occurring with reclaiming and renovating historical places and reusing certain materials for projects. Likewise, there is a return to some individuality in that not everyone wants to live in a “cookie cutter” subdivision. This will require more developers to think outside of current trends and explore a new way of development. The players will certainly be the developers and those within local planning commissions.
As conservationists, should our focus be more on acquisition of public lands or on improving the capacity of our private landowners to retain and manage their open lands?
There are some lands surrounding current public lands that need to be acquired for the benefit of the public and in terms of protecting the existing parcels. In other words, it would be a disappointment to see protected lands having adjacent properties developed without appropriate management. The model going forward will require more reliance on private landowners to lead the land conservation effort in order to avoid complete reliance on the public coffers. The advent of the Conservation Easement for tax advantages have significant appeal to many individuals who could benefit from tax liability management and certainly many parcels of land could be conserved or protected by placing development restrictions or implementing land management plans that run in perpetuity with the deed of the property. In exchange, the land owner could receive some positive tax advantages.
The Cumberland Plateau would be well suited for this model as in some cases it is hard for us to attract the political attention needed for State and Federal purchases. In addition, it is much more in the spirit of private property rights. With appropriate education and dialogue the Cumberland Plateau could reach closer to becoming a continuously connected and conserved land mass.
Who is the next person I should interview that plays an important role in the sustainability of the Cumberland Plateau region?
Dan Watch is an architect from Atlanta who has built one of the most environmentally responsible homes in the area at a planned community known as Savage Bluffs. This community joins Savage Gulf State Natural area and is protected. Dan represents a new trend of people coming to the Cumberland Plateau and certainly wants to protect and conserve this area. Further, he works very hard to promote the local economy by utilizing local labor and materials.
Michael, thanks for all the care that you have put into answering my questions. It’s great to meet you and hear your thoughts about our region’s future.