Clinch Valley Program
Protecting our nation's most important river for imperiled freshwater animals.
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.
For nearly three decades, The Nature Conservancy has worked with local communities and partners 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 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.
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 a variety of activities.
We also work with local farmers and other rural landowners to protect water quality in 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.
RESTORING GLOBALLY RARE MUSSELS
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.
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, so we work with numerous agency and university partners to increase mussel populations. Our partners at Virginia Tech’s Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center and the Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center in Marion raise the juvenile mussels we release into targeted sections of the Clinch and Powell rivers.
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.
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. In 2014, the program became the first Conservancy project to earn and market certified forest-carbon credits under California’s Global Warming Solutions Act.
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.
THE ENERGY INTERSECTION
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.