Street in St. Paul Virginia
Cumberland Project Lebanon, VA © Travis Dove


TNC and UVA-Wise Announce New Local Grant Program

The collaboration will support nature-based economic and community development in seven counties of Southwest Virginia.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise (UVA-Wise) have announced the launch of a new collaboration to establish a local grant program that will support nature-based economic and community development in seven counties of Southwest Virginia.

With funding provided by TNC’s Cumberland Forest Project, the initial focus of the collaboration will be to complete the design of the local grant program, which is expected to take 6-9 months. After that, UVA-Wise will then begin soliciting local project proposals from businesses, non-profits, and communities.

Successfully funded projects will produce tangible contributions to local economic development, while promoting, protecting, and enhancing Southwest Virginia’s forests, rivers, and other natural assets. A wide array of nature-based projects could be eligible to receive support from the new grant program including, but not limited to, outdoor recreation, forestry, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture.

“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, Vice Chancellor, Office of Economic Development and Strategic Initiatives at UVA-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.”

The Cumberland Forest Project is an impact investment fund managed by TNC, which in 2019 acquired a quarter-million acres in the coalfields of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. With a total land area bigger than the Shenandoah National Park, the Cumberland Forest Project includes 100,000 acres spanning Kentucky and Tennessee, and another 153,000 acres in Virginia. The Virginia property is located in portions of Wise, Dickenson, Buchanan, and Russell Counties.

As the surface owner of these properties, the Cumberland Forest Project receives periodic royalties from mineral owners and lessees. To support economic diversification in the coalfields, these royalties are being contributed in their entirety to local non-profit partners (such as UVA-Wise in Virginia) for the purpose of supporting local economic and community development efforts. Similar programs are being set up in Tennessee and Kentucky.

“The Cumberland Forest project seeks to demonstrate an approach to land management in the coalfields that creates positive outcomes for both nature and local people,” says Brad Kreps, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program. “We are very excited to be working with the University of Virginia’s College at Wise to establish this new grant program which will provide seed funding to support entrepreneurial individuals and communities that have viable plans for sustainable nature-based economic development.”

The initial agreement between UVA-Wise and TNC’s Cumberland Forest Project will be for a two-year period, but both parties are hopeful that the relationship and grant program can be extended for additional years. In the two-year start-up phase, TNC and UVA-Wise will work together to design the details of the grant program, establish its project solicitation and selection committee process, and complete at least one round of grant funding. If successful, TNC and UVA-Wise expect to conduct additional grant rounds as funds are available.

The counties that this program will support include Wise, Russell, Tazewell, Dickenson, Buchanan, Lee, and Scott.

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.