Great blue heron at Reelfoot Lake.
reelfoot lake Great Blue Heron on Reelfoot Lake. © Byron Jorjorian

Stories in Tennessee

West Tennessee Program

The region's bottomland forests are among the most productive bird-nesting areas in the U.S.

The Special Landscape of West Tennessee

West Tennessee is a distinct ecological region, very different from the mountainous areas in central and eastern Tennessee. West Tennessee's river bottomland forests provide important wetland habitats for migrating waterfowl and other birds. The region's rivers and streams harbor more than 130 species of fishes adapted to life in the slow-moving, sandy waters.

West Tennessee is the state’s most active agricultural region with productive fields of corn, cotton and soybeans. In the early 20th century and into the 1970s there was a push to drain many of the natural bottomlands in an effort to reduce flooding, mostly for the sake of farmlands. Local drainage districts and federal agencies began channelizing many streams and rivers in the region, with the exception of the Hatchie River and Wolf River. Channelization involved abandoning the original river course and digging a new channel that was wider and straighter.

The rationale was to move water off of the landscape as swiftly as possible. As wetlands were drained, much land was cleared of timber and converted to cropland. Unfortunately, the region's sandy soils have eroded badly in these rivers and streams because of the channelization, often causing the flooding that channelization was meant to curtail.

Since 2010, The Nature Conservancy and the West Tennessee River Basin Authority (WTRBA) have collaborated on numerous projects to restore streams, rivers and floodplains in West Tennessee. Ourwork together reduces flooding, improves stream and floodplain habitats and improves water quality all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Fighting the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

TNC is undertaking a bold strategy to help fix the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. In a multi-state effort, TNC aims to reduce the influx of nitrogen and phosphorus, also known as nutrients, into the Mississippi River by 20 percent. In doing so, we aim to shrink the size of the Gulf's dead zone from its current average of 5,220 square miles to 2,000.

Tennessee's role in nutrient loading in the Mississippi comes partly from agricultural runoff. Much of our stream and river work in West Tennessee is intended to reduce erosion and sedimentation, which reduces nutrient loading and improves habitats.

Why The Nature Conservancy Works in West Tennessee

The lands and waters of West Tennessee provide a number of unique habitat types for fish and wildlife that are not found anywhere else in the state. Among many key areas of focus, since the 1980s TNC has worked to conserve the biologically rich Hatchie River, the longest unchannelized river in the region and one of the richest in aquatic wildlife.

Biological Diversity

Despite widespread farming and channelization of local streams and rivers, the region supports a great diversity of wildlife, including 130 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.

Threats

Due to flood control practices and other dramatic alterations to the landscape over the past two hundred years, only 4.4 million acres of bottomland hardwood forest remain in this ecoregion, equivalent to 20 percent of the forest's original extent. Channelization, particularly in the Obion and Forked Deer river systems, has significantly affected aquatic habitat in the region. We are continuing to address the excessive siltation and stream bank erosion that has come from channelization in this region.

The West Tennessee River Basin Authority

Learn about our important partners in West Tennessee conservation.