WARREN COUNTY, TENNESSEE — I’m inside Bridgestone’s LEED Silver-certified 46-acre tire factory in rural Tennessee, watching workers and robots turn out 9,000 18-wheeler tires daily.

If 46 acres sounds like a lot of space, well, it is, and there are giant pallets of rubber filling rooms, rows of curing ovens pressing tread into place, and an ultra-cool 10-story automated crane that carries trembling piles of completed tires to just the right warehouse space.

But making tires is only one thing that’s done here. The plant sits on a 906-acre site, and more than 700 acres of it is devoted to wildlife habitat. We saw a wild turkey on our drive in, and coyote and deer tracks on a nature trail. The plant started operating in 1990, but its Learning Center (dedicated to training workers) began operation a year earlier.

Bridgestone's BEECH facility includes this combined solar array and rain barrel.

Bridgestone's BEECH facility includes this combined solar array and rain barrel. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Today, there may be a racing tire signed by Mario Andretti in the lobby, but nearly a whole floor is devoted to classrooms (one featuring a live bull python) for the 13,000 students who visit annually. Some are making their first foray into nature, says Carol Rose. She’s the community relations manager at the plant, but much of her day is devoted to running Bridgestone Environmental Education Classroom Habitat (BEECH), a Tennessee Wildlife Federation award winner.

Diane Parton, a Warren County science teacher who works closely with Rose, says that many teachers in the state get $100 annually for classroom supplies, and precious little opportunity for field trips and outdoor education. At BEECH, students get to walk the trails, look for wildlife (or at least wildlife scat), check 65 bluebird boxes for occupants, scope out ponds with croaking frogs, and see rain barrels and solar panels in action.

Bridgestone BEECH plant with snakeNo, it doesn’t have much to do with tires, but it fits right in with Bridgestone’s increasingly front-and-center environmental message. The Wildlife Habitat Council has made encouraging creative use of corporate and manufacturing campuses part of its central mission. Who needs acres of monoculture grass, even if it is a perfect emerald green?

WHC, active in 45 states, certifies corporate wildlife programs that meet strict criteria. The way it works is employee volunteers work with local community groups — Scout troops, garden clubs, schools — to encourage native wildlife by restoring wetlands, developing meadows and pollinator gardens, and establishing buffer zones around streams. At BEECH, periodic controlled burns keep the vegetation low and hospitable to birds and mammals. Here are some success stories, including two car companies:

  • At General Motors’ former Saturn plant in Tennessee (which now makes the Chevrolet Equinox) some 990 acres are available to wildlife, and 235 acres are “actively managed.” Six employees and volunteers maintain the habitat, which includes active farmlands, open fields and biologically diverse creeks with 30 species of fish (including two native darters). Team members also plant native trees, including red maples, hawthorns and redbuds, and establish micro-wetlands.
  • At Toyota’s plant in Gibson County, Indiana, encompassing more than 1,100 acres, 180 acres are deeded to wildlife. Fifteen native tree species were planted, and 83,000 seedlings have gone in the ground (with an 85 percent survival rate). Future plans include a native pollinator garden and prairie grassland.
  • At Roanoke Cement Company in Troutville, Va., the Corporate Lands for Learning Program centers on pollinator habitat, where employees and their families prune the apple trees, build viewing platforms for the trout pond, and attend meetings of the Botetourt Beekeepers Association. Trout Unlimited makes classroom visits and talks about the fish’s lifecycle.
  • ITC Holdings, the big electricity transmission company in Michigan and Iowa, encourages wildlife habitat in its power line conservation corridors. In its Wildlife at Work program, it focuses on removing invasive woody and herbaceous species, and re-establishing native plants. At the Sand Point Nature Preserve on Michigan’s Saginaw Bay, for instance, it removed vegetation blocking preserve trails, created brush piles to encourage animal habitat, and installed six wood duck boxes to encourage a declining population. At its Iowa City warehouse, it built an 840-square-foot native plant garden to catch roof runoff.
  • Waste Management’s High Acres Landfill in Fairport, N.Y., has partnered with Rochester Institute of Technology to add four new sites for monitoring threatened marsh birds. Students conducted a migratory avian productivity study, which identified habitat locations, set up nets to catch birds, and then examined their reproductive health before releasing them. Another study identified breeding birds that were nesting on the site. Graduate students are studying invasive vegetation there, and installing native food plants to encourage wildlife.
Back at the tire plant, I talked to Greer Tidwell, director of environmental management for Bridgestone Americas. After telling me that the only company that builds more tires than Bridgestone is Lego, he starts talking about the American chestnut tree restoration program and the fact that the company is embracing it as a corporate cause. On the nature trail, we walked past a fenced-off garden of experimental seedlings, which all are hoping will survive the blight.

Just as closed military bases (and the Chernobyl site!) have become unlikely homes for wildlife, so have America’s oversized corporate campuses. Take a visit; you’ll never know what you’ll find. Here's a closer look at a visit to Bridgestone's BEECH:

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