Newsroom | The Nature Conservancy

New Style of Conservation in Virginia

Charlottesville, VA

The Nature Conservancy today announced that the Cumberland Forest Project, managed by The Nature Conservancy, has acquired a quarter-million acres of working forest land in the Central Appalachian coalfields of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. The project represents one of the largest land conservation and ecological restoration efforts pursued by The Nature Conservancy in the eastern United States in the organization’s 68-year history. With a total land area bigger than the Shenandoah National Park, the Cumberland Forest Project includes 100,000 acres spanning Kentucky and Tennessee, announced in April, and another 153,000 acres in Virginia, announced today.

The Nature Conservancy plans to manage the property as a working forest, using sustainable practices to improve and maintain the health of the forests. The project is designed to protect and restore wildlife habitat, secure clean water for people and nature and sequester atmospheric carbon to mitigate climate change. At the same time, it aims to support outdoor recreation and foster important investments in local economies.

“The Cumberland Forest Project is a historic opportunity to blend conservation and economic development in a region where we have lived and worked for 30 years at a scale we have never seen before,” says Locke Ogens, State Director for The Nature Conservancy in Virginia. “The Nature Conservancy is in a unique position here to change the way people think about nature’s value and put private capital to work to solve some of our most pressing challenges.”

Ecological Importance

Southwest Virginia is home to a globally significant biodiversity hotspot, a major North American migratory corridor and a network of watersheds vital to both people and nature. The recently acquired Virginia property, known regionally as Highlands-Lonesome Pine, features vast landscapes of climate resilient forest and more than 500 miles of headwater streams that feed into globally important waters including the Clinch and larger Tennessee River systems.

“The mountain forests and streams of southwest Virginia have one of the highest concentrations of rare and imperiled species in North America,” says Brad Kreps, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program. “This ambitious land acquisition gives us the chance to showcase this special part of Virginia while demonstrating an approach to conservation that benefits both nature and people.”

The forests and streams of the Virginia property support 20 federally listed threatened mussel species in the Clinch River and more than 130 types of fish. In addition to their ecological importance, they are critical to downstream water quality and public water supplies. The Highlands-Lonesome Pine property complements other existing conservation lands on High Knob and Pine Mountain, and it will serve as a forested backdrop for outdoor destinations like Breaks Interstate Park and the developing Clinch River State Park.

The Highlands-Lonesome Pine property was acquired from an investment fund managed by The Forestland Group, a timberland investment management organization focused on the sustainable management of natural forest ecosystems.  The Forestland Group had managed the property in accordance with FSC standards and enrolled it in an Improved Forest Management program with the California Air Resources Board.

“We are very excited by the prospect of The Nature Conservancy’s ongoing management of the Highlands-Lonesome Pine property and we look forward to our continued working relationship in the future to promote a shared vision of protecting sustainably managed working forests to ensure that the important economic, environmental and social co-benefits are available for future generations,” said Blake Stansell, President and CEO of The Forestland Group.

Community Impact in Southwest Virginia

Many residents and visitors currently use and enjoy portions of the property for hunting, trail riding and other outdoor recreation pursuits. In taking on this project, The Nature Conservancy is committed to supporting these existing uses and connecting its conservation work to the needs and interests of local communities.

“We have a long history of working with local communities, landowners and other partners in the Clinch Valley to support sustainable development through forestry, agriculture, outdoor recreation and mined land reclamation,” says Kreps. “Through our management of this new property, we can build on our existing momentum with local people and partners to significantly scale up our positive impact on the region.”

Acquisition of this 153,000-acre property is a significant milestone that builds on a legacy of community-based conservation success in southwest Virginia. Since The Nature Conservancy opened a local office in the early 1990s, it has worked collaboratively with local people in a variety of ways to protect and promote the unique and nationally important landscapes of the Clinch Valley.

Prior to this acquisition, nearly 40,000 acres of critical natural habitat have been conserved by The Nature Conservancy in the region including the creation and expansion of the Pinnacle and Cedars State Natural Areas, the Channels State Forest, a string of rare freshwater mussel preserves along the Clinch River and nearly 23,000 acres of private working forest land on Clinch Mountain and surrounding ridges. Additionally, The Nature Conservancy has worked successfully with hundreds of farmers to protect water quality; collaborated with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy and companies to reclaim abandoned mined lands; and formed partnerships with many localities through the Clinch River Valley Initiative.

“The Nature Conservancy has a great track record of working with our local communities to support the expansion of the creative economy in southwest Virginia,” says Lou Wallace, current member of the Russell County Board of Supervisors and Founding Chairman of St. Paul Tomorrow. “This project is going to provide some amazing opportunities for us here in St. Paul and throughout the region.”

A New Kind of Investment

Achieving conservation goals at this large of a scale is difficult if relying solely on philanthropic funding. By structuring this project as an investment, The Nature Conservancy sought to leverage decades of donor- and grant-funded scientific research and forestry expertise to approach impact-oriented investors with a new perspective on the economic value of nature.

Due to the size of this important land acquisition, traditional funding models previously used by The Nature Conservancy were insufficient. The Cumberland Forest Project takes a new approach, taking advantage of the fact that sustainable forestry can generate revenues through timber harvesting, carbon offset sales and recreational leases. In this case, The Nature Conservancy will manage a limited partnership funded by investment capital that aims to achieve valuable conservation and social outcomes alongside financial returns.

“We have attracted impact-oriented investors to this project who are creating an opportunity for conservation at a scale beyond what is possible with philanthropic and public funding alone,” says Ogens. “Over the long-term, our goal is to use projects like this one to influence the way millions of acres of forest land are managed.”

The project’s funding includes equity investments from several limited partners, as well as support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which has previously supported The Nature Conservancy’s work in the Central Appalachians.

The Nature Conservancy is also working with the University of Virginia-Wise to assess opportunities to support local businesses and community development projects that are sustainable and nature-based, including but not limited to outdoor recreation and tourism, forestry and the reclamation of abandoned mined lands.

“The biodiversity of southwest Virginia offers tremendous opportunities for ecological education, outdoor adventure and recreation as well as economic revitalization of the region,” states Shannon Blevins, Associate Vice Chancellor, Office of Economic Development & Engagement at the University of Virginia-Wise. “The Nature Conservancy continues to find ways to preserve unique natural resources as well as opportunities for development, which aids in the revitalization of the region. Their leadership in this regard is a valuable part of the region’s economic development strategy.”

Divided Mineral Ownership

In the Central Appalachian coalfields, economies have been driven by natural resource extraction for more than a century, including both forestry and mining. As is common in this region, ownership of the property is divided in two: a surface estate, which was acquired by the Cumberland Forest Project, and a sub-surface mineral estate, which will continue to be owned by third parties. As manager of the surface estate, The Nature Conservancy has no control over those parties’ mining activities on the properties; however, the project intends to work with regulators and mining companies using a collaborative, science-based approach to advocate for best environmental practices and restoration that can minimize the impacts of mineral extraction.

As the surface owner, the Cumberland Forest Project expects to receive compensation for any impacts these existing mining operations have on the properties’ forests and infrastructure and can direct those funds to restoration and conservation activities. In addition, the project is expected to receive royalties, which it plans to contribute in their entirety to third-party community organizations to support local economic and community development efforts. The Nature Conservancy also intends to work with Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to restore other abandoned mined lands features on the property.

“The Nature Conservancy’s management of this property creates potentially exciting synergies as our coalfields region continues to diversify its economy by reclaiming former mined lands to new economic uses,” says Mike Quillen, Region 1 Chairman for the Go Virginia Economic Development Initiative. “Having this large part of our region transfer to The Nature Conservancy where environmental stewardship, managed restoration, quality of life and interest in sustainable economic development are paramount to their mission is promising for the region’s future.”

Achieving Lasting Conservation Results

The Central Appalachian Mountains have been identified as a key part of what will become one of the most important migratory corridors in North America as the climate changes. Healthy, resilient Central Appalachian forests are instrumental in allowing wildlife to adapt to changing conditions by contributing to this corridor, which spans from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the boreal forests of Canada. The recently acquired Highlands-Lonesome Pine property is one of the largest blocks of undivided forest land in the Central Appalachians.

To achieve lasting conservation results in this climate resilient region, The Nature Conservancy will build upon well-established partnerships with state natural resource agencies and other conservation organizations to secure long-term conservation protections for key areas of the property. The Nature Conservancy will use tools such as conservation and open space easements and long-term forest carbon management agreements to permanently protect high-value natural habitats for people and nature. In doing so, The Nature Conservancy intends to create a precedent by which similar management and protection practices can be implemented on other large properties across the Central Appalachians.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.