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Thin clouds cover a vast mountain valley.
Cherokee National A forest covers the South Zone of the national forest. © USDA. Forest Service


Conserving the South Zone

Local organizations find common ground in the name of restoring key Cherokee National Forest habitat.

Nashville, TN

The USDA Forest Service today released a decision to restore native forest diversity in a 300,000-acre portion of the Cherokee National Forest. The decision was informed by recommendations from a diverse group of local NGOs, private businesses, and state and federal agencies convened by The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee. The group, known as the South Zone Collaborative, worked to establish priorities for ecological restoration in areas where white pine and Virginia pine are crowding out other native species, compromising the forest’s ecological integrity and habitat diversity. 

Over the course of two years, the South Zone Collaborative met regularly to discuss the forest’s most pressing needs for ecological restoration. During that time, the Forest Service provided meeting space, data and maps, and accompanied stakeholders on visits into the field. The South Zone Collaborative submitted its recommendations in December 2018.

After proposing the idea to the public for comment, the Forest Service has now adopted the recommendations as a final decision. Under this decision, the Forest Service will begin the restoration of up to 62,000 acres, over a 10-year period, across the entire South Zone of Cherokee National Forest.

“We are pleased with this outcome where 13 partners representing diverse organizations and missions enthusiastically assembled to engage in creative solutions that will benefit something they collectively care about—the Cherokee National Forest,” says Katherine Medlock, TNC’s East Tennessee program director.

According to Medlock, restoration in the South Zone has historically taken place in a piecemeal fashion. The Collaborative worked to reverse that trend by analyzing the entire South Zone for common conditions where too much white pine and Virginia pine were jeopardizing the landscape’s natural diversity. Although these species are native in the Cherokee National Forest, the legacies of prior management and fire suppression have contributed to these species’ uncharacteristic dominance, which crowds out other species such as oaks and hickories that provide food for wildlife.

The Forest Service’s approval of the South Zone Collaborative’s recommendations gives a green light to proceeding with restoration throughout the entire Zone, including activities such as thinning stands of white pine and prescribed burning to increase habitat diversity, which will in turn encourage the return of more diverse and abundant wildlife. It would also generate revenue from sustainable timber harvest resulting in a forest that is more resilient in the face of threats related to climate change.

The South Zone Collaborative’s innovative approach to analyzing restoration opportunities across the landscape supports renewed efforts by the Forest Service to complete project decision making in a timelier manner. The approach, known as “programmatic” decision making, combines scientific analysis and public input to make both landscape-scale and site-specific decisions in an adaptive, iterative process over time.

“This represents the first time such an approach has been pursued for managing vegetation in a National Forest,” says Sam Evans, Senior Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This decision offers the best example in the nation for how we can do more, better work together, without compromising the Forest Service’s commitment to the unique ecological and social values on national forest lands. We’re all looking forward to continuing to work with the Forest Service to restore diversity and ecological integrity, protect the land and water, and provide economic and recreational opportunities for local communities.”

TNC convened the South Zone Collaborative in 2017 to develop restoration recommendations in the Cherokee National Forest. Participants included representatives from state and local forestry, state and non-profit wildlife organizations, conservation organizations and environmental advocacy groups, specifically:

  • National Wild Turkey Federation, Tennessee State Chapter
  • Tennessee Forestry Association
  • Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
  • Tennessee Division of Forestry
  • Panther Creek Forestry
  • Freichs Lumber
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Southern Environmental Law Center
  • The Wilderness Societ
  • Mountain True
  • Tennessee Heartwood and Sierra Club
  • Cherokee Forest Voices

Since 2017, the South Zone Collaborative held five working meetings, including site visits, to gain an understanding about: native plant and animal communities, including off-site species, and current and desired conditions. Since the South Zone Collaborative submitted their recommendations, they continue to be involved with the implementation and monitoring of the restoration work into the future. 

“This is a dedicated group of individuals who came together to make recommendations to the Forest Service and who continue to show their commitment to the restoration work that needs to be accomplished,” says Terry Cook, TNC’s state director in Tennessee. “They have worked together to find agreement and innovative solutions, and to collaborate on the highest priority restoration goals in the name of a healthy and productive future for an irreplaceable landscape that is located in all of their backyards.”

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 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.