A Big Deal to Connect the Cumberlands

"These kinds of opportunities are becoming increasingly rare."

Scott Davis, director of The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee

By Paul Kingsbury

The Nature Conservancy and the state of Tennessee completed the largest conservation transaction in the state since the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1930s — to protect nearly 130,000 acres of majestic hardwood forests, mountains and streams on the Cumberland Plateau:

  • The area saved — three times the size of the District of Columbia — also links to 66,000 acres of existing public lands.
  • The result is a wildlife corridor amounting to 300 square miles of protected forestland for black bear, white-tailed deer, turkey, elk and numerous migratory songbirds such as the cerulean warbler and the wood thrush.
  • All 193,000 acres of these lands are now also open to the public for recreation, including hunting, hiking and fishing.

“This is as good an example of 21st century conservation as there is,” says Scott Davis, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee, referring to the sophisticated methods and multiple stakeholders involved in the deal. "Because of its scale, this project required a different approach from the old model of buying land to lock it up as a preserve."

“These kinds of opportunities are becoming increasingly rare," he adds. "The fragmentation of the landscape is making it increasingly difficult to do conservation on this scale. If we don’t protect lands like this now while we can, we won’t get to do it in the future.

Tremendous Biodiversity — But Threatened by Development

The Cumberland Plateau — which cuts a broad, diagonal, 450-mile-long swath through Tennessee between Nashville and Knoxville — is the world’s longest hardwood-forested plateau and is widely considered one of the most biologically rich regions on Earth, rivaling the biodiversity of tropical rainforests.

A vast tableland rising more than 1,000 feet above the Tennessee Valley, the Plateau harbors numerous animals and plants found nowhere else. The region has long been a remote and rugged wilderness: For generations much of the Cumberland Plateau remained undeveloped or maintained as timber company lands.

In recent years, however, many timber companies have divested themselves of their forest holdings. Because of its scenic beauty and its largely undeveloped character, the Cumberland Plateau has become increasingly attractive to developers of second homes and vacation getaways. The result is fragmentation and degradation of the area’s rich forests and pure streams.

'Very Difficult to Do This Project Without The Nature Conservancy'

The Conservancy had already made the Cumberland Plateau a conservation priority. Since 2001, with major support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, we have protected the Walls of Jericho, Pogue Creek and Skinner Mountain — all on the Plateau.

But through ecoregional planning and collaborating on the development of Tennessee's State Wildlife Action Plan, the Conservancy had also targeted the lands involved in this deal as ecologically valuable.

So when these lands went on the market, the Conservancy swung into action and brought the deal to the attention of Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen and Jim Fyke, commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Environment and Conservation, a key agency in the project.

“We recognized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime, large-scale conservation opportunity on the Cumberland Plateau, which is the most threatened area in the state,” says Fyke.

“Two timber investment groups were selling their rights at the same time in this area, and the window of opportunity would be closing soon," he adds. "It would have been very difficult to do this project without the help and guidance of The Nature Conservancy.”

Economic Benefits to Local Communities

With 127,000 acres at stake, simply buying all the land was not an option. The combined value of the tracts involved — if sold piecemeal — could have been as high as $300 million.

So the Conservancy and the state joined forces with two timber investment firms — Lyme Timber Company and Conservation Forestry LLC. Together these partners were able to protect the forests — and the interests of many stakeholders — through a sophisticated combination of targeted land purchases, working forest agreements and conservation easements.

Led by Governor Bredesen, the state of Tennessee brought $82 million to the project, which is the largest state appropriation for conservation in the U.S. in 2007. The Nature Conservancy contributed $13 million, and the timber companies contributed around $40 million.

The areas protected are:

  • Nearly 11,000 acres purchased by the Conservancy and the state, on the north and east boundaries of Frozen Head State Natural Area.
  • 75,000 acres of timber rights purchased for both segments of the Sundquist Wildlife Management Area. Acquired in 2003, these forested state lands were in danger of being cut drastically by any timber companies that acquired the rights.
  • 42,000 acres of conservation easements purchased on timber company lands, restricting cutting to no more than new growth and allowing public access.

The deal not only provides public access — it also ensures that local communities will receive the economic benefits of timber companies paying property taxes and contributing jobs to the local economies. All timber work on the properties will be strictly controlled by scientifically determined and certified forestry practices.

"This is a new model for conservation," says Davis. "We took into account the needs of a lot of stakeholders — hunters and fishermen, state agencies, local communities, timber companies. We had to make compromises. But I think we did it right.”

Paul Kingsbury is a conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee.


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