A view of the sky as observed through leafy, green treetops.
Trees A stand of leafy, green trees located in Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau. © Byron Jorjorian

Stories in Tennessee

Tennessee Forests

Partnerships are key to conserving Tennessee's native forests and woodlands.

This page was updated on July 31, 2020.

Tennessee is a forested state. Tennessee’s forests cover an estimated 13,881,540 acres—53 percent of the state—and provide numerous benefits to all Tennesseans. In addition to cleaning air and filtering water, they store carbon, harbor diverse wildlife, and serve as a source of timber and other resources that support local economies and livelihoods. Last (but certainly not least), Tennessee’s forests serve as a cherished destination for those seeking solace and beauty, or active outdoor recreation, in a natural setting. 

Tennessee’s forests face significant threats in the form of wildfire, insects and disease, sprawling development and a changing climate. The Nature Conservancy is working to combat these threats throughout Tennessee in three primary ways:

  • Managing forests for optimum health and productivity,
  • Restoring native forests and woodlands to promote biodiversity and resilience, and
  • Acquiring land and conservation easements to safeguard fragile habitat requiring permanent protection. 

Working Forests

Since many of Tennessee’s forests are in private ownership, TNC assists landowners interested in improving the health and value of their forests through its Working Woodlands program. As part of the process, landowners enter into a voluntary agreement to leave the land undeveloped, forever, in return for guidance on sustainably harvesting timber in ways that promote forest health and generate revenue. This includes identifying socially responsible and ecologically-sound management practices that qualify a property for Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) certification C008922. Landowners enrolled in Working Woodlands also have an opportunity to participate in an emerging market that allows for the sale of carbon credits to businesses and individuals seeking to voluntarily offset emissions.

In 2019, TNC signed a historic agreement that established the University of Tennessee (UT) as the first academic institution to enroll approximately 11,400 acres managed by UT’s Institute of Agriculture in Working Woodlands. The agreement supports a climate smart forestry fund that enables UT researchers and students to develop the science on natural climate solutions such as sustainable forestry, and train the next generation of leaders in climate smart forestry.

The Conservancy is also working with University of the South ("Sewanee") at a 13,000-acre forested landscape known as the Domain, also located within the Cumberland Plateau. In addition to securing FSC® certification, the partners are drawing upon ecological and cultural data to inform additional actions that include prescribed burning and restoring shortleaf pine habitat to benefit native wildlife.

Two people wearing orange vests stand in a forest.
Father and Daughter Rebecca Tuuk stands in a forest with her father, John Shafer. © Courtesy/Rebecca Tuuk

Faces of Conservation

One Family's Experience

During his lifetime, the late John Shafer—who lived to be 106 years old—took care to harvest trees sustainably on the 3,120 acres of beautiful forestlands used for his family’s lumber business since the 1940s. In 2016, just before he died, Mr. Shafer joined his daughter and her husband in enrolling the property in TNC’s Working Woodlands progra...

During his lifetime, the late John Shafer—who lived to be 106 years old—took care to harvest trees sustainably on the 3,120 acres of beautiful forestlands used for his family’s lumber business since the 1940s. In 2016, just before he died, Mr. Shafer joined his daughter and her husband in enrolling the property in TNC’s Working Woodlands program, in his words, to “keep the property undeveloped and intact while still producing income.” Doing so involved securing a working forest conservation easement—a binding legal agreement that is permanently tied to the property—that prevented development, agriculture or unsustainable forestry practices. The easement did allow for the sustainable harvest of timber. Shafer’s daughter, Rebecca Tuuk adds, “This agreement protects our land forever, which is why I highly recommend Work­ing Woodlands to private forest owners seeking to protect nature and their own livelihoods.”

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Native Woodlands

Tennessee didn’t always boasts 14 million acres of forest. Instead, a mosaic of rich and complex prairies, glades, woodlands and other grasslands once dominated up to 64 percent of the landscape now considered forest. On these lands, frequent, natural fire disturbances pruned back all but the most fire-tolerant tree species while prairie grasses and wildflowers thrived in the sun. These woodlands all but disappeared after more people settled into the landscape.

Without fire, forests grow unchecked to develop closed tree canopies that block sunlight, which has altered native plant and animal communities. In fact, many of Tennessee's rare and declining plant, insect, reptile and bird species are associated with fire-adapted habitats. The Conservancy is committed to restoring these nearly lost landscapes and with them, their characteristic plants, animals and incomparable beauty.

Together with partners, we are employing geospatial and other technology to identify where native woodlands and forests once naturally occurred and prioritize locations for restoration. Then, we intend to increase the pace and scale of restoration, which will include delivering fire to the highest conservation priorities, especially in portions of the Cumberland Plateau and targeted TNC preserves. We are also working to eradicate the non-native and highly invasive hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), which without any natural predators, is killing hemlocks in Tennessee and throughout the eastern United States. 

Orange ribbon tied around a hemlock tree.
Hemlock Forest Stand A hemlock tree marked with an orange ribbon will be sustainably logged as part of TNC's Working Woodlands Program. © Kelly Donaldson

Places We Protect

No matter where you travel throughout Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, you can witness TNC’s 40+ years of protecting native forest and woodland habitats. “Conserving the stage” by identifying and protecting our most critical wildlife corridors is a foundational strategy in TNC’s conservation toolkit.

  • At the Walls of Jericho and Bear Hollow Mountain Wildlife Management Area in southeast Tennessee, TNC and partners acquire land from willing private landowners to expand an 80,000-acre public land base that includes forests key to safeguarding Alabama’s Paint Rock River watershed headwaters. The watershed is home to 100 species of fish and about 45 mussel species, including two mussel species—pale lilliput and Alabama lampshell—found nowhere else in the world and one fish species, palezone shiner, that is confined to the Paint Rock River and one stream in Kentucky. The area also provides important habitat for migratory songbirds, such as the cerulean warbler, and for non-migratory birds like ruffed grouse.
  • The 5,763-acre Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain serves as a living laboratory for exploring innovative forest management strategies that include quantifying the carbon-capturing power of forests, restoring shortleaf pine woodlands (once the most prevalent pine tree in the eastern United States), and much more. Acquired by TNC through a land donation in 2019, Chestnut Mountain connects to over 50,000 contiguous acres of state-owned conservation lands.
  • Along the Tennessee-Kentucky border in northeast Tennessee, TNC has launched a 100,000-acre forest and woodland restoration and protection endeavor that is a portion of the larger, 253,000-acre Cumberland Forest Project, where goals include conducting environmentally beneficial forest management activities pursuant to FSC® standards to increase atmospheric carbon storage on the property. The sale of carbon offsets from the property generates revenue for TNC’s restoration management activities while providing for public recreational use of the land base.