Stories in Tennessee

2023 Year in Review

Muted sunlight shines on a forested mountain valley.
Roan Mountain State Park Muted sunlight shines through storm clouds onto mountains at Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee. © Byron Jorjorian
James McDonald in glasses and a sportcoat smiling.
James McDonald James McDonald is Chair of The Nature Conservancy's Board of Trustees in Tennessee © Courtesy/James McDonald

Board Notes from James McDonald

Greetings and welcome to The Nature Conservancy’s Tennessee 2023 Year In Review. The past year has been an exceptional one for conservation efforts in Tennessee, and we are thrilled to share the highlights of our most impactful projects.

As we step into the new year, we are delighted to announce the addition of two key leaders to our team: Laurel Creech as the new State Director and Mark Thurman as the Director of Conservation Collaboration. Laurel and Mark have decades of conservation and leadership experience and are dedicated to steering our work in Tennessee towards reaching TNC’s 2030 goals. Their primary focus is addressing the urgent challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, starting right here in our state.

In other news, after serving a fulfilling three-year term as the board chair, my journey in this role concludes with a mix of reflection, gratitude and enthusiasm for the work we’ve accomplished. Working alongside an exceptional team, I have witnessed our unwavering commitment to TNC’s mission. Notably, Christy Smith, who has served as Vice Chair, assumes the Board Chair position in 2024, continuing our legacy of exceptional leadership.

To each one of you, I want to say thank you. Your dedication, steadfast support and tireless efforts have been the bedrock of our collective successes. Let’s move forward into 2024 with renewed determination as we continue our vital mission of conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends.

A hand holds a small turtle while the other hand writes in a notebook.
Bog Turtle A scientist takes measurements on a bog turtle living in Tennessee's Shady Valley. © Byron Jorjorian


The Nature Conservancy and Zoo Knoxville marked more than four decades of working together on protecting and monitoring bog turtles in northeast Tennessee. Listed as federally threatened, and as very rare and imperiled by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, these diminutive reptiles favor unique fens scattered throughout the landscape that are almost as rare as the bog turtles themselves.

Identifying, protecting and restoring these wetlands—fed by underground mountain springs and surface water from rain and streams—is what launched this enduring partnership that continues today in light of formidable challenges. These changes in weather and groundwater conditions required to feed the fens, the loss of habitat that once connected the fens, and a slow reproductive cycle that produces few eggs over several years. Bog turtles also remain threatened by diminished water quality, roadway mortality, predators and the illegal pet trade.

In response, TNC and Zoo Knoxville recently ramped up conservation efforts thanks to support from the Barbara J. Mapp Foundation. This includes establishing northeast Tennessee as the first place in the world where scientists are using the Motus Wildlife Tracking System. Equipped with radio-telemetry equipment capable of tracking tagged turtles, MOTUS provides scientists with an opportunity to study bog turtle movements, habitat preferences, and the impacts of management and restoration efforts. Additionally, TNC and Zoo Knoxville are working together in North Carolina on raising turtles in captivity during their first year to improve chances of surviving in the wild. Over the years, Zoo Knoxville has helped to reintroduce hundreds of bog turtles into their native range and they plan to continue this work in a state-of-the-art room at their new Clayton Family Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Campus. 

Betting On Biodiversity

Putting nature first benefits plants and animals.

A red drip torch apparatus is held by a person wearing gloves and a pack.
Fire Management A member of a TNC/USFS fire crew holds a drip torch during a controlled burn. © Mike Wilkinson


Stretching 2,000 miles from Alabama to Canada’s Maritime Provinces, the Appalachian Mountains represent one of the most important landscapes for tackling climate change and conserving biodiversity in the world. A part of this globally important range touches in Tennessee, although state lines tend to fade when it comes to securing vast, connected forests that are healthy enough to absorb carbon and calm volatile climate changes happening worldwide.

While conserving the Appalachian Mountains is a coordinated effort among 15 states, The Nature Conservancy and our partners in Tennessee are leading the way when it comes to strategically delivering fire to promote the growth of trees – like oak, hickory and yellow pine. These trees are known to store carbon more efficiently in a region where the temperature is rising at the rate of .5 degrees Celsius every decade.

Most recently, in Tennessee’s corner of the Appalachians, TNC’s fire teams assisted the South Zone of the Cherokee National Forest with a record-breaking prescribed burn season totaling more than 34,952 acres. TNC also teamed up with the University of the South - Sewanee’s student prescribed fire team to complete two burns on 197 acres that targeted oak, hickory and shortleaf pine woodlands at the Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain. It was the largest controlled burn at Chestnut Mountain to date.

Landmark Legislation

  • Throughout 2023, we marked the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Signed into law on December 28, 1973 the ESA has benefited numerous plants and animals comprising our nation’s unique biodiversity, including gray bats, shiny pigtoe clams, snail darters, red-legged salamanders and Ruth’s golden aster in Tennessee.

  • August 2023 marked one year since Congress passed this historic law that provides investments and incentives for reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 to meet our nation’s climate commitments. As of that time, Tennessee has benefited as the recipient of almost $7 billion for 14 projects slated to advance clean energy and generate 5,600 additional jobs in our state. The law also directed approximately $208 million to Tennessee government agencies grant recipients for projects that advance energy efficiency, reduce pollution and protect forests. The Nature Conservancy looks forward to working with state partners to implement these efforts.

People stand in a forest opening that is surrounded by very tall trees.
Paint Rock River In 2023 The Nature Conservancy transferred a parcel to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to establish the Paint Rock River National Wildlife Refuge. © True Capture Studios Courtesy/OSI


In 2023, The Nature Conservancy teamed up with partners to protect a total of 4,022 acres around the state. These acquisitions resulted in expanding and connecting public and private conservation lands, and even the establishment of a brand new National Wildlife Refuge. It is exciting to think that in one year, we were able to secure more than 4,000 acres of land to support wildlife, filter air and water, and provide recreation opportunities for Tennesseans and visitors to our state.. 

A green map of the state of Tennessee has blue dots to identify places that have been protected.
Places We Protect In 2023, The Nature Conservancy teamed up with partners to protect 4,022 acres in Tennessee. © The Nature Conservancy

By The Numbers: Managing Lands

  • 5

    Dedicated a new five-mile trail at the Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain that connects Virgin Falls and Dog Cove State Natural Areas.

  • 24,198

    Three fire teams burned 24,198 acres at the Cherokee National Forest and 197 acres at the Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain

  • 840

    Treated 840 hemlocks against hemlock wooly adelgid on 68 acres at the Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain.


Securing Freshwater Resources

  • Nature Conservancy staff in Tennessee and Kentucky have been collaborating across state lines on a set of projects for TNC’s Sustainable Rivers Program. This innovative program—a partnership between TNC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)—aims to find more sustainable ways to manage river infrastructure like dams and levees to optimize benefits for people and nature.

    For example, with 70 mussel and 150 fish species, the Green River in Kentucky is one of the most biologically diverse river systems in North America. It is also where, more than twenty years ago, TNC and USACE first explored the potential for re-operating dams in ways that improve river health. Since then, the partners have expanded this effort to 44 rivers, influencing 12,079 miles of U.S. waterways and 90 associated reservoirs and dams.

    Most recently, over the summer, TNC worked with staff from USACE’s Louisville District to facilitate a three-day workshop that updated participants on conditions in the Green River and engaged them in discussing future Sustainable Rivers Program projects elsewhere in the Basin. The gathering also inspired USACE’s Nashville District to work with TNC on a similar workshop planned for the Cumberland River in 2024.

  • Working with farmers to voluntarily transition land from agricultural production into wetlands and bottomland hardwood forest is not a new conservation practice. The conservation community has long assumed that returning frequently flooded farmland to wetlands supports wildlife, stores and filters water, and reduces flooding further downstream. However, quantifiable evidence of how such practices benefit nature has been limited in the middle region of the Mississippi River Basin…until now. In 2023, The Nature Conservancy and our partners completed a six-year study, funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which monitored the wildlife and water-quality benefits of restoring floodplain habitat in western Kentucky and West Tennessee. The study, launched in 2018, confirmed that a natural, connected floodplain effectively holds and slowly filters water back into the river to benefit a variety of species and local communities throughout the Mississippi River Basin.

    For more than a century, farming and development practices ditched and cleared a significant amount of wetlands in this region, leading water to rush off the land and into the Mississippi River along with excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments. This pollution eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico and creates a low oxygen “dead” zone—nearly devoid of life—that is currently the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

  • Since aligning strategies, staff and funding around priorities in Southern Appalachia, in recent years, The Nature Conservancy’s Watershed Restoration Partnership with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has experienced tremendous growth. An example of this collaboration is Citico Creek in the Cherokee National Forest. The watershed supports exceptional biodiversity—67 fish and mussel species, including three federally listed fishes. However, Citico Creek is compromised by old road-stream crossings and other barriers that prevent aquatic species from moving throughout their native habitats, and pose great risk of failure during increasingly severe storm events. For these reasons, the watershed represents one of the highest priorities for protecting aquatic biodiversity in not only Tennessee or the Southern Appalachians, but in the nation.

    In 2023, the partners successfully secured funding to advance restoration in Citico Creek in significant ways. Specifically, the new funding will support:

    • Removing seven culverts and a low head dam to reconnect 175 miles of streams.
    • Hiring a new Watershed Restoration Engineer to advance barrier removal projects.
    • Pursuing additional projects required to complete USFS’s Watershed Restoration Action Plan.

    This approach—aligning human and financial resources around shared priorities—serves as a model for additional projects in watersheds in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. With funds in place, the partners intend to begin implementing priorities at Citico Creek in late 2024.

A river flows into a waterfall created by a dam.
Green River Lock and Dam #5 Removing the Green River Lock and Dam #5 allows 73 miles of water to flow freely. © Mike Wilkinson
Two people bend over to look at pebbles in shallow water.
Little Citico Creek Scientists conduct a pebble count to inform the design of a passage for aquatic organisms. © Allison Williams/USFS
Green River Lock and Dam #5 Removing the Green River Lock and Dam #5 allows 73 miles of water to flow freely. © Mike Wilkinson
Little Citico Creek Scientists conduct a pebble count to inform the design of a passage for aquatic organisms. © Allison Williams/USFS

Mission-Driven Messaging

Our work in Tennessee gains national attention.

  • Two men stand behind a table that is set up in a forest.

    Brave Wilderness

    YouTube's Brave Wilderness featured TNC’s efforts to combat white-nose syndrome in Tennessee’s Gray bats. Watch Now

  • A powerpoint slide includes an image of birds flying around tall buildings.


    The Nature Conservancy hosted five webinars attended by more than 120 people and watched on YouTube by an additional 390 viewers. Find Them Here

  • A magazine cover features a man wearing overalls and a headlamp standing in a cave.

    The State of Caves

    Nature Conservancy Magazine highlighted Tennessee’s cave restoration work on the cover of its Fall 2023 issue. Check It Out

Five people stand at a table and sign papers.
Urban Bird Treaty Local leaders, including Nashville's Mayor Cooper, gather to sign the Urban Bird Treaty. © Office of Mayor Cooper


After 150,000 purple martins descended upon Nashville during annual migration along the Mississippi Flyway, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center sought assistance with redirecting the birds away from their buildings. That effort revealed the need for a long-term plan for supporting the 325 bird species that, according to eBird, migrate, nest or overwinter in the city. 

In response, The Nature Conservancy—together with local partners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of Nashville and the Symphony—decided to pursue an Urban Bird Treaty (UBT), an action taken by 30 U.S. cities spanning from Alaska to Alabama. Specifically, the UBT represents a commitment to conserving birds and their habitats in ways that engage and benefit city residents. A city entering into the UBT agrees to implement a five-year plan that pursues three primary goals:

  • Protect, restore and enhance urban habitat for birds.
  • Reduce urban hazards to birds.
  • Educate and engage surrounding communities about conserving birds and their habitats.

With the UBT in place, the City of Nashville aims to coordinate with an existing infrastructure that is already beneficial for birds, including a Metro Parks portfolio of 178 parks and 99 miles of greenways. Several of the larger parks already have nature centers with active bird banding, outreach and education programming. The area also boasts five State Natural Areas and four locations designated by Audubon and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency as Important Bird Areas: Old Hickory Lake, Radnor Lake State Park, Shelby Bottoms Greenway Natural Area and Warner Parks. Additionally, local bird enthusiasts launched an initiative called Lights Out Nashville to encourage Davidson County homes and businesses to reduce light pollution during certain times of the year when migratory birds fly at night.

Quote: Nasyr Bey

It's great to partner with organizations across the city on this effort. Everyone is passionate and excited about improving our urban habitat for birds and other species.

TNC’s conservation policy fellow/Nashville urban bird coordinator

Catalyzing Urban Conservation

Download the Report

  • Muted sunlight shines over a forested mountain valley.

    2023 Year in Review

    A look at highlights and conservation successes across Tennessee during 2023.


Thank You

Thank you for your continued support of The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee. Your investment is critical to the impact of our conservation work, communications and operations.