Water rushes over rocks on the Clinch River
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 our nation's most important river for imperiled freshwater animals.

Download the Clinch Valley Program Brochure (pdf)

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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.

COMMUNITY CONSERVATION

Since establishing our Clinch Valley Program in 1990, the Conservancy has worked with local communities to promote sustainable economic and recreational opportunities that are consistent with protecting the region’s lands, waters and way of life. 

Two kayaks sit on the banks of the Clinch River
Clinch River Bringing beauty, biodiversity, and economic value to southwest Virginia. © TNC

As partners in the Clinch River Valley Initiative, we have been part of the movement to create a 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.

In 2016, the Virginia General Assembly took a big step toward development of the park by including the project in a package of capital projects that will be funded through the issuance of bonds. 

The park is envisioned as a "string of pearls" along the river.  Several anchor sites, likely 400-600 acres each, will offer visitor amenities such as campgrounds, trails, and canoe and kayak launches. In between, smaller holdings will enable shorter, more manageable float trips and provide river access for activities like fishing.

We also work with local farmers and other rural landowners to protect water quality in streams, rivers and caves. In Hancock County, Tennessee, for instance, more than 120 landowners have partnered with the Conservancy to implement agricultural best management practices such as fencing their cattle away from streams. 

In 2016, in partnership with five local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices, the Conservancy was awarded $4.5 million by the USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) for a 5-year project that will target investment of Agricultural Best Management Practices across five counties in the Clinch Watershed. 

As part of this grant, the Conservancy will chair a 5-county advisory board that will select BMP projects aimed to maximize benefits to rare species, water quality, and local farmers in the Clinch Valley.

RESTORING GLOBALLY RARE MUSSELS

On October 6, 2016, we gathered with conservation partners in Tennessee and Virginia, along with students from Lincoln Memorial University, to release 750 freshwater mussels into the Powell River. 

Hands holding freshwater mussels
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 filter bacteria, algae and sediment and are an important indicator species for the health of a river.  The release is part of an ongoing effort to increase the mussel population in the Powell River.

The $100,000 restoration project was funded by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  The juvenile mussels were propagated at Virginia Tech's Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center and the Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center in Marion, VA.

To date, the Conservancy has helped protect more than 35,000 acres of critical natural habitat throughout the Clinch Valley. In the Clinch River alone, we’ve protected seven key shoals that collectively represent one of the world’s most diverse assemblages of freshwater mussels.

SUSTAINABLE FORESTRY

To help 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.  

Forests of the Clinch Valley
Clinch Valley: The forests of the Clinch Valley help filter and protect the last free-flowing tributaries of the Tennessee River system. © Jon Golden

The program emphasizes long-term stewardship, making our forests healthier, more diverse and more valuable places in the future.  Our improved management of the Clinch Valley’s forests is also creating new opportunities for the Conservancy to collaborate with partners.

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

THE ENERGY INTERSECTION

The Clinch Valley’s rare river animals and habitats overlap with valuable energy resources, including significant natural gas reserves and an estimated 250 million tons of coal. This convergence led the Conservancy to develop strategies to reduce impacts from coal mining, natural gas wells and other energy development. 

Through diverse partnerships, we're fostering scientific inquiry on coal mining and other land uses, seeking to increase our understanding of historic and current impacts to streams and other resources. 

The Clinch-Powell Clean Rivers Initiative was launched in 2008, with members coming from state and federal agencies, private business interests, academia, and non-profit conservation organizations, all focused on improving water quality and river health.

We're also working with mining regulators to update the Clinch Valley’s inventory of abandoned mine lands and to rank priorities for restoration. At Flint Gap in Russell County, we partnered with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy and with Virginia Tech to rejuvenate compacted soils, replant native trees and capture carbon emissions.

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.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Brad Kreps
Director, Clinch Valley Program
146 East Main Street
Abingdon, VA 24210
Phone: (276) 676-2209