Scott Davis, director of The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee
By Paul Kingsbury
The Nature Conservancy and the state of Tennessee have completed the largest conservation transaction in the state since the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1930s — to protect nearly 130,000 acres of majestic hardwood forests, mountains and streams on the Cumberland Plateau:
“This is as good an example of 21st century conservation as there is,” says Scott Davis, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee, referring to the sophisticated methods and multiple stakeholders involved in the deal. "Because of its scale, this project required a different approach from the old model of buying land to lock it up as a preserve."
“These kinds of opportunities are becoming increasingly rare," he adds. "The fragmentation of the landscape is making it increasingly difficult to do conservation on this scale. If we don’t protect lands like this now while we can, we won’t get to do it in the future.”
The Cumberland Plateau — which cuts a broad, diagonal, 450-mile-long swath through Tennessee between Nashville and Knoxville — is the world’s longest hardwood-forested plateau and is widely considered one of the most biologically rich regions on Earth, rivaling the biodiversity of tropical rainforests.
A vast tableland rising more than 1,000 feet above the Tennessee Valley, the Plateau sequesters numerous animals and plants found nowhere else. The region has long been a remote and rugged wilderness: For generations much of the Cumberland Plateau remained undeveloped or maintained as timber company lands.
In recent years, however, many timber companies have divested themselves of their forest holdings. Because of its scenic beauty and its largely undeveloped character, the Cumberland Plateau has become increasingly attractive to developers of second homes and vacation getaways. The result is fragmentation and degradation of the area’s rich forests and pure streams.
The Conservancy had already made the Cumberland Plateau a conservation priority. Since 2001, with major support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, we have protected the Walls of Jericho, Pogue Creek and Skinner Mountain — all on the Plateau.
But through ecoregional planning and collaborating on the development of Tennessee's State Wildlife Action Plan, the Conservancy had also targeted the lands involved in this deal as ecologically valuable.
So when these lands went on the market, the Conservancy swung into action and brought the deal to the attention of Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen and Jim Fyke, commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Environment and Conservation, a key agency in the project.
“We recognized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime, large-scale conservation opportunity on the Cumberland Plateau, which is the most threatened area in the state,” says Fyke.
“Two timber investment groups were selling their rights at the same time in this area, and the window of opportunity would be closing soon," he adds. "It would have been very difficult to do this project without the help and guidance of The Nature Conservancy.”
With 127,000 acres at stake, simply buying all the land was not an option. The combined value of the tracts involved — if sold piecemeal — could have been as high as $300 million.
So the Conservancy and the state joined forces with two timber investment firms — Lyme Timber Company and Conservation Forestry LLC. Together these partners were able to protect the forests — and the interests of many stakeholders — through a sophisticated combination of targeted land purchases, working forest agreements and conservation easements.
Led by Governor Bredesen, the state of Tennessee brought $82 million to the project, which is the largest state appropriation for conservation in the U.S. in 2007. The Nature Conservancy contributed $13 million, and the timber companies contributed around $40 million.
The areas protected are:
The deal not only provides public access — it also ensures that local communities will receive the economic benefits of timber companies paying property taxes and contributing jobs to the local economies. All timber work on the properties will be strictly controlled by scientifically determined and certified forestry practices.
"This is a new model for conservation," says Davis. "We took into account the needs of a lot of stakeholders — hunters and fishermen, state agencies, local communities, timber companies. We had to make compromises. But I think we did it right.”
Paul Kingsbury is a conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee.