Tennessee is historically an agricultural state but is geologically varied with mountains in the east, rolling hills in the central part of the state, and the wide floodplain of the Mississippi in the west.
The Great Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee are sensitive to changes in air quality. In 1997 the state forged an agreement with the US National Park Service and the US Forest Service to ensure that the process for issuing permits for new industries in the area take into account both business and environmental concerns.
The first conservationists were agricultural reformers who, even before the Civil War, recommended terracing to conserve the soil and curtail erosion. Such conservation techniques as crop rotation and contour plowing were discussed at county fairs and other places where farmers gathered. In 1854, the legislature established the State Agricultural Bureau, which sought primarily to protect farmlands from floods. The streams of west Tennessee were extensively channelized for flood control beginning in the late 1800s, with a negative impact on both habitat and cropland. As of 2003, the state was working with local citizens and the US Army Corps of Engineers to reverse this process by restoring the natural meandering flow to the tributaries of the Mississippi.
The Department of Environment and Conservation is responsible for air, land, and water protection in Tennessee. The department also manages the state park system and state natural areas. In 1996, Tennessee had approximately one million acres of wetlands. The Tennessee Wetland Act of 1986 authorized the acquisition of wetlands through the use of real estate taxes. In 1997, the state created four new natural areas.
When many of the first environmental laws were written in the 1970s, pollution of the air and water was widespread and severe. The early laws focused on tough enforcement tools and strict compliance measures to address this problem. In 1993, the Division of Pollution Prevention Assistance was established to provide information and support to industries attempting to reduce their pollution and waste. In 2003, Tennessee had 245 hazardous waste sites listed in the Environmental Protection Agency's database, 12 of which were on the National Priorities List. In 2001, Tennessee received $31,235,000 in federal grants from the Environmental Protection Agency; EPA expenditures for procurement contracts in Tennessee that year amounted to $2,491,000.