SHERWOOD, TN (AP) Thieman Enterprises is ready to start mining limestone and hiring people in the Crow Creek Valley, but one tiny detail stands in the way: a snail.
To be precise, it’s the painted snake coiled forest snail, a threatened species that lives only in this rural river valley in southeast Tennessee.
Environmental officials have demanded a protection plan for the snails before anyone starts blasting and moving rocks, and approval of such plans can take up to two years.
That means a little mollusk that looks like a coiled snake is delaying the promise of approximately 30 jobs of the proposed quarry, the kind of business venture this mountain valley hasn’t had in more than 50 years.
“We don’t need the snails,” said Billy Lee Johnson, who has lived in the valley for 61 years. “The snails don’t feed nobody.”
Almost everyone in Sherwood has to commute to work, unless they have jobs at the post office or one of the small groceries on state Highway 56. The closest major employer is a mining operation approximately 5 mi. away.
When the Gager company quarried this limestone mine decades ago, Sherwood had approximately 1,700 residents, according to the 1930 census. But the mine closed in 1949, leaving behind castle-like ruins.
Johnson, who is disabled with cancer, said his father and grandfather worked at the Gager mine.
Like most of Sherwood’s 400 or so residents, the Johnsons got excited when Dayton, Ohio-based Thieman Enterprises owner Ted Thieman last year paid $3.75 million for the 3,200 acres where the Gager limestone mines were operated.
Franklin County commissioners approved a zoning change to accommodate Thieman’s plans for a mining operation up the mountainside from the vine-covered ruins of the Gager company.
But the snail lives in crevices and under ledges of limestone and has been on the threatened species list since 1978. The species was discovered in 1906 and has never been found elsewhere.
Thieman referred questions to Tommy Craig, a Covington, GA, attorney who has started talks with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a plan to protect the snail. Craig described the officials as “receptive and cooperative.” He does not expect the snail protection plan to take two years, but he declined to say how long the jobs might be delayed.
Craig said 300 to 600 acres would be involved in the quarry.
Thieman, an industrialist from Marco Island, FL, is “interested in conducting his business operation but he is not interested in scorching the earth,” Craig said.
Thieman received support for his venture when he met with Sherwood residents and told them he wanted to start a business that would provide jobs. He has proposed selling the limestone to coal-fired power plants.
Vernie Jones opposes the new mining operation and has worked for years to get the concrete ruins of the Gager mine business preserved. She said Thieman has “really won over” the community with his proposal.
“We didn’t even know that snail existed,” said Jones, whose grandfather was a Gager supervisor in the 1930s.
John Lynch, a former Sherwood resident who has researched his ancestors in the community’s mountainside cemeteries, said an open pit mining operation would destroy the natural beauty.
Lynch who now lives approximately an hour away in Manchester, said he “grew up in Sherwood. I love the place. I understand the continuing need for jobs and economic relief. I just want the people to recognize what they are asking future generations to give up, the natural beauty of the area.”
But he stopped actively fighting the project after the commission’s vote to allow it.
“I am mainly interested in preserving the [Gager] buildings because they are an architectural treasure,” Lynch said. “These can be preserved as ruins. Castles in Europe, that’s all I could compare it to.”
The Tennessee Preservation Trust included the ruins on its “Ten in Tennessee” list of threatened sites in 2002-2003.
Reggie Reeves, director of natural heritage at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said the existence of the snail on the property should not have been a surprise.
“It is a critter that is known only for the immediate vicinity of Sherwood and nowhere else in the world,” Reeves said. “I can understand Mr. Thieman’s sense of frustration. He will ultimately be able to do what he wants to do with that property.
“There is a species on his property that is known nowhere else in the world and he will lose a little time but to the benefit of the long-term conservation of this species and its place in the world.”
Franklin County Mayor Monte Adams said emotions of Sherwood residents on both sides made the environment vs. jobs zoning decision “heart-wrenching.”
“Employment opportunities are vital for the people down there,” Adams said. “It’s a chance to keep a community sort of surviving.”