A once-remote wilderness is now attracting increased recreational use and second-home development, placing new pressures on the world's longest hardwood-forested plateau.
Stretching across eastern Tennessee from Alabama north into Kentucky, the Cumberland Plateau rises more than 1,000 feet above the Tennessee River Valley to a vast tableland of sandstone and shale dating as far back as 500 million years. Carved over time by flowing water, the plateau today is a labyrinth of rocky ridges and verdant ravines dropping steeply into gorges laced with waterfalls and caves, ferns, and rhododendrons.
The Cumberland Plateau's rivers and streams sustain some of the country's greatest variety of fish and mollusk species, and ravines and deep hollows are among the richest wildflower areas in southern Appalachia. John Muir was one of the first naturalists to document the natural bounty of this, the world's longest expanse of hardwood-forested plateau. He memorialized his crossing of the Cumberland Plateau in the book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.
For thousands of years, the Cumberland Plateau remained a remote and rugged paradise. Infertile soil and rough terrain discouraged early settlement. Artifacts and carvings (petroglyphs) found in caves and rock shelters suggest Mississipian and later Cherokee hunters camped here but never established permanent dwellings. English, Scots-Irish and German settlers staked their claims mostly in the valleys and ventured to the plateau only sporadically to mine coal and harvest timber. Today, however, the plateau is not so remote. Increased recreational use, especially by all-terrain vehicles, and a growing demand for idyllic retirement locales have placed new pressures on it.
Significant tracts on the Cumberland Plateau have already been set aside in state parks and wildlife management areas. But only a few virgin remnants of the region's once-dense hardwood forests stand in isolated hollows. The remaining second- and third-growth trees comprise the largest unprotected forest in the Southeast. At the same time, residential development continues to infiltrate previously untouched areas, threatening habitat and water quality. The Nature Conservancy has responded by forming partnerships with local land trusts and resource agencies to protect more land and promote compatible land-use practices.
The Nature Conservancy's conservation successes on the Cumberland Plateau include:
Learn about other places we protect for people and nature in Tennessee.
Want to visit more places on the Cumberland Plateau? Check out EdgeTrekker, a new trip-planning site for the Cumberland Plateau.July 31, 2012