Water rushes over rocks creating a series of short waterfalls on the Clinch River. Yellow leaves swirl in a pool created by the water.
Clinch River Since 1990, The Nature Conservancy has been working with partners to preserve water quality and globally important habitat in the Clinch River and its key tributaries. © Margie Nea

Stories in Virginia

Clinch Valley Program

Protecting the Clinch River and promoting sustainable economic and recreational opportunities for Southwest Virginia

The Clinch, Powell and Holston rivers run nearly parallel courses through the remote mountains and valleys of southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. These last free-flowing tributaries of the Tennessee River system harbor the nation’s highest concentrations of globally rare and imperiled fish and freshwater mussels.

They are truly a global hotspot for biodiversity.

Close up view of a man's cupped hands holding an assortment of freshwater mussels. The mussels vary in size and shades of color from brown to golden yellow.
Freshwater mussels Virginia's Clinch River harbors the nation’s highest concentrations of globally rare and imperiled fish and freshwater mussels. © Jon Golden


Freshwater mussels are filter feeders, removing bacteria, algae and sediment to clean the waters in which they live. This function makes them vulnerable to contamination and, thus, an important indicator species for river health and water quality.

An open green pasture rolls into the distance before meeting a line of trees. A mountain range rises in the background topped by low hanging clouds. A small fenced enclosure is in the foreground.
Best Practices Working with farmers on agricultural best practices helps protect water quality. © Kent Mason

We work with local farmers and other rural landowners to protect water quality in the region's streams, rivers and caves. Since 1995, we have assisted more than 250 landowners in implementing economically sensible agricultural best management practices such as fencing cattle away from waterways.

We are currently spearheading a $4.5-million initiative to improve agricultural practices and water quality on farms spanning five counties in southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. This project area encompasses more than 4,000 farms and 350 miles of impaired streams, and it hosts some of the most diverse and imperiled aquatic wildlife in the nation.

In the Clinch River alone, we have protected seven key shoal habitats that support some of the world’s most diverse assemblages of mussels. But boosting populations of these beneficial creatures remains critical to their survival.

A man stands in a mollusk hatchery facility. The large, industrial space contains a heavy metal rack that is laden with tanks containing juvenile freshwater mussels.
Boosting Populations Virginia Tech Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center. © Daniel White / TNC

In partnership with Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), TNC embarked on a significant ramp-up of mussel-augmentation capacity. Thanks to an approximately $200,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and matching resources from the partners, TNC will collaborate with the Virginia Tech Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center and VDGIF’s Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center to produce 100,000 juvenile mussels—an approximately six-fold increase—for release into the Russell County, Virginia, reach of the Clinch River.

The grant will also support a cutting-edge new juvenile mussel transformation technique that, instead of requiring live fish hosts, uses in-vitro media. If successful, this innovation may enable far greater mussel production than previously possible. This three-year project commenced April 1, 2020; TNC ecologist Braven Beaty anticipates the first releases occurring in summer or fall of 2021.

A Deal for the Centuries Innovation and community based conservation is helping to prepare a biodiversity hot spot for climate change.

The Cumberland Forest Project: A Deal for the Centuries

In July 2019, TNC announced the acquisition of 253,000 acres in the Central Appalachians. The Cumberland Forest Project is TNC’s largest-ever conservation effort in the eastern United States, protecting sweeping forest landscapes across two parcels, one in Southwest Virginia and one along the Kentucky and Tennessee border.

The project has its roots in the Clinch Valley, building on the program's successes and lessons learned in community based conservation, sustainable forestry and carbon markets.

Safeguarding this vast stretch of forest tackles climate change on two fronts: by storing millions of tons of carbon dioxide and by connecting a migratory corridor that scientists believe could be one of North America’s most important “escape routes” as plant and animal species shift their ranges to cooler climates.

In August, 2019 TNC took another historic step with the announcement of the largest open space easement ever recorded in the Commonwealth. The partnership between TNC, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permanently protects 22,856 acres of forest land in Russell County in southwest Virginia.

The Clinch Highlands working forestry easement is unique not only for its size, but more importantly because of the many ways it supports the resiliency of the surrounding communities.

The head of a bull elk is visible above the tall, green grass. The elk's tall curved antlers are covered in soft velvet.
Protecting Biodiversity A bull elk in velvet, Breaks, Virginia. © Steven David Johnson

Fall Elk Rut

Watch a video to experience the shrill, bugling calls of the elk rut in Southwest Virginia. Closed captioning available.

In 2021 TNC completed the protection of 1,100-acres in Buchanan and Dickinson counties, an acquisition that directly connects to the Cumberland Forest Highlands property.

TNC's acquisition and ownership of this land provides long-term certainty that it will be protected for many years to come. The largest parcel is the site where elk were first reintroduced to Virginia in 2012. This property remains central to ongoing restoration and ecotourism efforts initiated by state and federal wildlife agencies, along with the SWVA Sportsmen and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, whose members manage viewing stations in the area.

Autumn view of forested ridges in the Clinch Valley. Mist fills the valleys as the mountains stretch to the horizon.
Clinch Valley The forests of the Clinch Valley help filter and protect the last free-flowing tributaries of the Tennessee River system. © Jon Golden

Conservation Forestry Program: Promoting Sustainable Forestry

To maintain healthy forests that protect water quality for people, fish and mussels, we launched the Conservation Forestry Program in 2002 and now manage some 22,000 acres to model sustainable forestry practices.

"How to Manage an Appalachian Forest to Sequester More Carbon", an illustrated infographic showing four phases to managing healthy forests to enhance climate resilience.
Carbon Sequestration Managing forests to sequester more carbon. © TNC

Our program emphasizes long-term stewardship, providing an economic return to landowners and making forests healthier, more diverse and more resilient in the face of climate change.

Our on-the-ground operations are designed to enhance forest resources such as soil and water quality, high-value timber, sensitive wildlife habitat and carbon storage. All forest management, including our timber harvesting, is guided by principles set forth in an Operations Plan prepared in consultation with many forestry and wildlife professionals.

TNC's Conservation Forestry Program is one example of how creative problem solving has provided much needed conservation funding through carbon markets.

The Benefits of Carbon Markets

Creative problem solving is rewarded through carbon markets. When companies must pay for their carbon dioxide pollution, they have a financial incentive to reduce the amount they pollute. This creates business opportunities for sectors that improve energy efficiency, fuel efficiency, renewable energy options, and more.

"Limits on Carbon Emissions Create Financial Opportunities in Virginia", illustrated infographic showing an example of how healthy, diverse forests can be used to create income earning carbon offsets.
Carbon Offsets Creating financial opportunities in Virginia. © TNC

Carbon offsets, a component of carbon markets, are credits given to projects that remove carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. These projects require money to develop and maintain. Businesses fund these projects through purchasing carbon offsets, and in return, receive credit for the carbon that project removed from the atmosphere.

In 2014 our Conservation Forestry Program became the first TNC project in the nation to earn and sell certified forest-carbon credits under California’s cap-and-trade program. In 2018, we successfully verified 158,905 tons of carbon captured, offsetting emissions from almost 18 million gallons of gasoline.

With California’s legislature extending the program through 2030, market stability will generate increased revenues, which will enable more on-the-ground forest restoration—a big win for climate, habitat and water quality.

Carbon offsets have made our Conservation Forestry Program economically viable and environmentally sustainable. This is just one example of the potential of carbon markets to create new financial opportunities.

A man stands on the rock lined shore of a narrow river. Two kayaks, orange and white, are pulled up onto the rocks in the foreground. The river is thickly lined with trees that overhang the water.
Clinch River Bringing beauty, biodiversity, and economic value to southwest Virginia. © TNC

Community Based Conservation

For nearly three decades, TNC has worked with local communities and partners in Southwest Virginia to promote sustainable economic and recreational opportunities that are consistent with protecting the region’s lands, waters and way of life.

As partners in the Clinch River Valley Initiative, we have been part of the movement to create Clinch River State Park. All four counties through which the river flows will share the park’s physical footprint and economic benefits, making it a unique addition to Virginia's state park system.

The first unit of Virginia’s 41st state park, the Sugar Hill Unit in St. Paul, was dedicated on June 16, 2021. It currently has nearly 9 miles of hiking trails, more than 2 miles of river frontage and significant cultural and historical attributes.

Once developed, Clinch River State Park will highlight the Clinch River’s natural, historical and recreational resources. The first blueway state park in Virginia, it will consist of several smaller (250-400 acres) anchor properties connected by multiple canoe and kayak access points. This “string of pearls” along a 100-mile stretch of the Clinch River will provide outdoor enthusiasts access the river as well as opportunities to enjoy the river’s beauty and ecological diversity.

A large group of people pose for a photo during an annual meeting of partners. Four people are in costumes dressed as a hellbender salamander, dragonfly, fish and freshwater mussel.
Cross-State Collaboration Partners at the Clinch-Powell Clean Rivers Initiative 2018 annual meeting, joined by a few of the species we're working to protect. © The Nature Conservancy

Making Informed Decisions about Energy Resources

The Clinch Valley’s rare river animals and habitats overlap with valuable energy resources, including an estimated 250 million tons of coal and significant natural gas reserves. This convergence spurred us to develop strategies for reducing impacts from coal mining, natural gas infrastructure and other energy development.

To increase scientific understanding of historic and current mining impacts on streams and other resources, we helped launch the Clinch-Powell Clean Rivers Initiative in 2008. The members—representing state and federal agencies, industry, academia, and conservation organizations—are focused on improving water quality and river health.

We also work with mining regulators to track the region’s inventory of abandoned mine lands and to rank priorities for restoration. We have partnered with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to complete reclamation projects that rejuvenate compacted soils, reduce erosion, improve water quality and restore native trees.

The Nature Conservancy is engaged in efforts to avoid and minimize the impacts that energy infrastructure could have on the forests and rivers of Virginia. We have created maps of critical habitats to aid the goal of ensuring irreplaceable resources are avoided and other ecological impacts minimized. We have made these maps accessible online so that energy companies can use them in the earliest stages of siting projects.


Brad Kreps
Director, Clinch Valley Program
146 East Main Street
Abingdon, VA 24210
email: bkreps@tnc.org
Phone: (276) 676-2209