A rock outcrop looks out on a dense, green forested valley.
Cumberland Plateau A rock outcrop reveals Cumberland Plateau scenery. © Byron Jorjorian

Stories in Tennessee

Cumberland Plateau

We're stepping up efforts to safeguard the world's longest hardwood forested plateau.

Carved by time and water, the Cumberland Plateau—the world's longest expanse of hardwood-forested plateau—boasts varied elevations, topography, soils and even microclimates. With certain portions remaining remote and rugged, the Cumberland Plateau is a global hotspot for amphibians, cave fauna and vascular plants, and some of our nation's greatest variety of fish and mollusks, including laurel dace, purple bean and Cumberland pigtoe. Shortleaf pine and oak forests, interspersed with open woodlands and grasslands, welcome birds such as northern bobwhite, prairie warbler, brown-headed nuthatch and Bachman's sparrow. 

Conserving the Cumberland Plateau

Success in the Cumberland Plateau hinges on conserving and restoring key wildlife habitat in the face of pressures that include:
  • fire suppression
  • tree disease and pest infestations
  • agricultural runoff
  • stream modification
  • introduction of non-native species
  • unsustainable farming, timber and mining 

The Nature Conservancy is well positioned to face these pressures due to our science-driven, collaborative approach that includes pursuing mutual goals with agency partners on public lands, working with private landowners to sustainably manage their working farm or forest, and building on lessons learned at TNC's system of Tennessee nature preserves.

In recent years, TNC has marked several achievements in the Cumberland Plateau, most recently with a transaction that secured 253,000 acres of Central Appalachian forestlands spread across two parcels, one located in Southwest Virginia and one along the Kentucky and Tennessee border. In addition to storing millions of tons of carbon, these properties comprising the Cumberland Forest Project—one of TNC’s largest conservation efforts in the eastern U.S.—secure critical habitat and natural corridors for diverse wildlife while providing a variety of recreation opportunities for people throughout the region.

A dense forest with fall colors surrounds a rock outcrop.
Cumberland Plateau Carved by time and water, the Cumberland Plateau rises more than a thousand feet above the Tennessee River Valley to a vast tableland created by pressurized layers of limestone, sandstone and shale dating back 500 million years. © The Nature Conservancy

Additionally, in 2018, TNC welcomed the opportunity to permanently protect 5,763 acres in the Cumberland Plateau thanks to a land donation from a longtime corporate partner, Bridgestone Americas, Inc. Prior to assuming ownership, Bridgestone Americas, Inc. accepted an invitation to join TNC’s Forest Stewardship Council® certificate for the property—now known as the Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain. TNC also implemented protective treatments to combat the non-native, invasive hemlock woolly adelgid pest and planted native shortleaf pines, a forest community that has declined by more than 50 percent in the past 30 years throughout its native range. 

Living Laboratory

Scientific research and on-the-ground conservation taking place at The Nature Conservancy’s Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain have established it as a living laboratory for ground-truthing conservation tools and technologies that can benefit the surrounding Cumberland Plateau. Results of this work also extend more broadly, to the Appalachian Mountains, a global hotspot for biodiversity that harbors more rare and imperiled fish, mussels, crayfish and other freshwater species than anywhere in North America. These species benefit from healthy, intact forests that double as important carbon reserves with the potential for storing even more carbon with improved management.

The salamander's face that is bright green with brown speckles peeks out from between two orange rocks.
Green Salamander A green salamander peeks out from under a rock at the Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain in Tennessee. © TWRA/Daniel Istvanko

At Chestnut Mountain, TNC's priority is to gain an understanding of the property’s ecology through inventory and field study, and building relationships with local partners and members of the community. Specifically, we are:

  • Developing the preserve as a cornerstone for science and research with cutting edge tools such as bioacoustics monitoring and Lidar mapping, and through partnerships with several universities.
  • Continuing to restore shortleaf pine woodlands to accommodate plants and animals found in this rare habitat. 
  • Pursuing Forest Stewardship Council® certification for the entire property to advance sustainable management of timber harvested at the preserve.
  • Exploring the idea of harnessing, and even building on, the preserve’s potential for sequestering more than 200,000 metric tons of carbon each year.
  • Identifying ways of engaging the surrounding community by reaching out to youth, developing the preserve as a stop on the Cumberland Plateau’s Fire Learning Trail, and through other opportunities.
  • Working to connect the preserve with nearby conservation lands totaling more than 65,000 acres to establish corridors for wildlife and improve the health and resilience of the Cumberland Plateau.

Fire on the Plateau

TNC scientists know that for thousands of years fire played a significant role in shaping the Cumberland Plateau and mountains landscape. Until recently, several questions regarding fire on the Plateau remained: 

  • Where exactly on the landscape did fire occur most frequently?
  • How can we prioritize prescribed fire efforts to maximize our impact?
  • How can we implement fire with limited resources during a narrow window of opportunity? 

In 2020, TNC and partners concluded phase one of a fact finding exercise—a mapping effort that paints a comprehensive ecological portrait of the entire Cumberland Plateau. Mapping the Cumberland Plateau at the required level of specificity, at such a large scale, happened thanks to a remote sensing tool—called LiDAR—capable of creating a precise, three-dimensional view of the earth below.

The data represent a huge leap forward in our understanding of this landscape’s ecology and provide a foundation for all ecological restoration going forward.

TNC’s East Tennessee Program Director

Specifically, this mapping exercise generated models of environmental variables for 23 counties and 3,977,320 acres that received review by local ecological experts. A big takeaway was the significant loss of native, fire-adapted forest and woodland habitat that once covered 85 percent of the landscape after more than a century of fire suppression. These findings illustrate a clear need for ecologically appropriate controlled burning that will invite native, fire adapted forests, and the species that depend on them, back to targeted portions of the Cumberland Plateau.

With mapping complete, TNC and its partners are moving ahead with prioritizing specific locations for prescribed fire using a method called Ecomath, which customizes the process based on goals identified by participating land managers. After that, teams of highly trained prescribed burn practitioners deliver fire to the landscape.

A man in a yellow vest and helmet sets a grassland on fire.
Good Fire A member of TNC's Tennessee burn crew delivers prescribed fire to a portion of the Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain. © The Nature Conservancy/Britt Townsend

Places We Protect

In addition to the Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain, TNC is protecting lands and waters at other locations throughout the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee:

  • Clifty Creek Preserve, located beside the Emory River.

    Clifty Creek Preserve

    Clifty Creek cuts through a scenic, forested gorge before flowing into the Emory River. A globally endangered plant, Virginia spirea, grows along the creek's banks. Learn More

  • View into Clear Creek from high atop the preserve.

    Clear Creek Preserve

    This 73-acre preserve encompasses breathtaking sandstone cliffs that make it a popular destination for sport climbing. Learn More

  • TNC staffer Paul Kingsbury at one of the dramatic overlooks at the Tally Wilderness.

    Dobbs Creek/Tally Wilderness

    These properties, adjacent to each other, are classic examples of northern Cumberland Plateau native hardwood forest. Support This Work

  • Obed River

    Obed River Preserve

    While the National Park Service manages this preserve as part of the Obed Wild & Scenic River corridor, TNC treats hemlock trees on the property against the woolly adelgid. Learn More

  • in Tennessee.

    Pogue Creek Canyon

    Pogue Creek Canyon is an ecological and geological jewel of the northern Cumberland Plateau. Learn More

  • View of boulder and trees at Stone Preserve

    Stone Preserve

    Known for its massive sandstone boulders, Stone Preserve is ideal for "bouldering" and exploring. Learn More

  • protected in 2004.

    Walls of Jericho

    This 21,543-acre landscape conntects several natural areas that straddles the Tennessee-Alabama border. Learn More

  • Washmorgan Hollow is a 73-acre preserve near Cookeville, featuring a rocky, forested creek that leads to a waterfall.

    Wahmorgan Hollow Preserve

    Washmorgan Hollowis a 73-acre preserve featuring a rocky creek that leads to a waterfall. Learn More