Cumberland’s Big New Deal
The Nature Conservancy helps protect 253,000 acres of Appalachian forests and prepares a biodiversity hot spot for climate change.
In July 2019, The Nature Conservancy announced a massive new land deal that helps conserve a broad swath of forest in the central Appalachian Mountains—a haven for biodiversity that scientists predict will become even more valuable as climate change moves the habitable zones of many plants and animals.
Together, the purchases total 253,000 acres of working forestland in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. One of the largest-ever land acquisitions led by TNC in the eastern United States, the Cumberland Forest Project showcases a visionary strategy drawing on an array of new tools. It includes transforming industrial forests into biodiverse carbon sinks capable of generating valuable credits on the carbon market—helping the project pay for itself.
The Conservancy’s impact investment arm, NatureVest, created a $130 million fund to pursue the purchases. The Conservancy drafted plans to manage the lands for improved biodiversity and to bring in revenues from sustainable timber harvesting, carbon capture and recreational leases. The projects can support local jobs in conservation, forestry and the region’s burgeoning outdoor industry.
“This is the largest land deal TNC has completed using investor capital so far, and a model we’ll keep building on to help make the most of our resources and achieve conservation at a new scale,” says Charlotte Kaiser, managing director for NatureVest.
Conservation wins don’t get much bigger than this one, given the area’s exceptional natural resources. Nearly equal in size to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, the Cumberland Forest Project lands are also connected to protected state and federal forests, parks, and other preserves, all in the heart of the central Appalachians, one of the most biologically rich regions in the eastern United States
Dr. Mark Anderson, TNC’s director of science for the eastern U.S., has identified this part of the Appalachians as a crucial migration corridor for both plants and animals as they move to adapt to climate change. “This project elevates our conservation to a new level,” he says, “a level where we can include resilience to climate change in our decisions about what land to protect.”
Anderson and dozens of other TNC staffers have been laying the groundwork for the Cumberland Forest Project for years. “It’s a large enough scale,” says Will Bowling, TNC’s Central Appalachians project director for Kentucky, “that we can aim to have a highly functional landscape here in a hundred years and beyond.”
The Importance of the Cumberland Forest: Mapped
Habitat across North America is warming, and many plants and animals are on the move. The nooks and crannies of the hilly Cumberland Forest create cooler "microclimates" that can help them thrive into the future.