Why The Nature Conservancy Works in West Tennessee
The ecologically-distinct lands and waters of West Tennessee provide a number of unique habitats types for fish and wildlife that are not found anywhere else in the state. Additionally, the Mississippi River and its floodplains are key components in The Nature Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership and are recognized across our organization as a conservation priority.
While West Tennessee has areas of protected land, including state parks, state natural areas, federal parks and federal refuges, there remain many crucial conservation opportunities to pursue. These include protecting habitat zones in between previously protected areas, restoring bottomland hardwood forests and continuing stream restoration efforts, which can ultimately improve water quality and habitat all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Tennessee portion of the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain Ecoregion, which totals 24 million acres and covers 7 states in the lower Mississippi River valley, is a biodiversity hotspot. While the area and quality of river and bottomland forest habitats have been greatly reduced, the ecoregion still boasts a great diversity of life. Varieties of animals found in West Tennessee include 240 species of fish, 50 species of mammals, 45 species of reptiles and amphibians and 37 species of freshwater mussels. Approximately 60 percent of bird species in the continental United States use this ecoregion, either as permanent habitat or as part of their migration route. In addition, the bottomland hardwood forests of this region are among the most productive bird-nesting areas in the United States. West Tennessee also supports the greatest variety of reptiles in the state.
Due to flood control practices and other dramatic alterations to the landscape over the past two hundred hears, only 4.4 million acres of bottomland hardwood forest remain in this ecoregion, equivalent to 20 percent of the forest's original extent. Decades-old channel alterations (channelization), particularly in the Obion and Forked Deer river systems have significantly limited aquatic habitat in the region. Excessive siltation associated with increased runoff and streambank erosion continue to pose threats to the ecological integrity of West Tennessee.
What the Conservancy Has Done and Is Doing in West Tennessee
By partnering with government agencies and organizations, the Conservancy is implementing a variety of innovative conservation strategies aimed at land protection and watershed restoration in West Tennessee. Recent projects include the following:
- The West Tennessee Program is partnering with wildlife managers and university researchers to evaluate methods for restoring rivercane (Arundinaria gigantea), a native bamboo that historically formed large stands called "canebrakes" throughout West Tennessee floodplains. Due to land-use change, canebrakes currently cover less than 2 percent of the plant's historical locations. Rivercane not only provides important habitat for several rare species of wildlife, it also is a more effective filter of agricultural runoff than either trees or grass. It also is an excellent stabilizer of the sandy soils that are common in West Tennessee. For these reasons, the Conservancy is working with our partners to refine methods for restoring rivercane on a large scale.
- Staff from the West Tennessee Program are participating as a part of larger Conservancy efforts to identify and implement aquatic habitat restoration efforts in the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain. Through the Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership, conservation staff throughout the Mississippi River watershed are working collaboratively to develop and implement innovative solutions to conserve and restore the world's great river systems for the benefit of the people and animals.
- The West Tennessee Program recently launched a Water Quality Trading Feasibility Study through an EPA grant to evaluate the potential for wetland restoration as a market-based strategy for reducing nutrient levels in the Mississippi River, reducing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and restoring wildlife habitat. Preliminary results suggest that a Water Quality Trading Program in certain West Tennessee watersheds may be able to restore ecologically significant river wetlands while reducing environmental compliance costs for local communities and improving water quality.
- Building upon our previous success in stream restoration in several tributaries of the Hatchie River, the Conservancy's West Tennessee Program continues to partner with agencies and organizations to reduce streambank erosion and restore floodplain ecosystems on both private and public lands. Reforestation along river corridors throughout the region is a primary strategy for increasing wildlife habitat connectivity, reducing streambank erosion and improving the health of aquatic ecosystems.