The Clinch, Powell and Holston rivers run nearly parallel courses through the remote mountains and valleys of southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. These last free-flowing tributaries of the Tennessee River system harbor the nation’s highest concentrations of globally rare and imperiled fish and freshwater mussels.
Since establishing our Clinch Valley Program in 1990, the Conservancy has worked with local communities to promote sustainable economic and recreational opportunities that are consistent with protecting the region’s lands, waters and way of life.
As partners in the Clinch River Valley Initiative, for example, we're helping lead a movement to create a Clinch River State Park. In 2016, the Virginia General Assembly took a big step toward development of the park by including the project in a package of capital projects that will be funded through the issuance of bonds. The park is envisioned to provide at least 600 acres of new public land for recreation such as hiking, canoeing and camping, along with enhanced public access and education at multiple sites along the river.
We also work with local farmers and other rural landowners to protect water quality in streams, rivers and caves. In Hancock County, Tennessee, for instance, more than 120 landowners have partnered with the Conservancy to implement agricultural best management practices such as fencing their cattle away from streams.
In 2016, in partnership with 5 local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices, the Conservancy was awarded $4.5 million by the USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) for a 5-year project that will target investment of Agricultural Best Management Practices across five counties in the Clinch Watershed. As part of this grant, the Conservancy will chair a 5-county advisory board that will select BMP projects aimed to maximize benefits to rare species, water quality, and local farmers in the Clinch Valley.
Restoring Globally Rare Mussels
On October 6, 2017, The Nature Conservancy gathered with conservation partners in Tennessee and Virginia, along with students from Lincoln Memorial University, to release 750 freshwater mussels into the Powell River. The $100,000 restoration project was funded by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The juvenile mussels were propagated at Virginia Tech's Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center and the Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center in Marion, VA.
Freshwater mussels filter bacteria, algae and sediment and are an important indicator species for the health of a river. The release is part of an ongoing effort to increase the mussel population in the Powell River.
To date, the Conservancy has helped protect more than 35,000 acres of critical natural habitat throughout the Clinch Valley. In the Clinch River alone, we’ve protected seven key shoals that collectively represent one of the world’s most diverse assemblages of freshwater mussels.
To help maintain healthy forests that protect water quality for people, fish and mussels, we launched the Conservation Forestry Program in 2002 and now manage some 22,000 acres to model sustainable forestry practices.
The program emphasizes long-term stewardship, making our forests healthier, more diverse and more valuable places in the future. Our improved management of the Clinch Valley’s forests is also creating new opportunities for the Conservancy to collaborate with partners.
Our on-the-ground operations are designed to enhance a wide range of forest resources, including soil and water quality, high-value timber, carbon storage, and sensitive wildlife habitat. All management, including our timber harvesting, is guided by principles set forth in an Operations Plan prepared in consultation with many forestry and wildlife professionals.
The Energy Intersection
The Clinch Valley’s rare river animals and habitats overlap with valuable energy resources, including significant natural gas reserves and an estimated 250 million tons of coal. This convergence led the Conservancy to develop strategies to reduce impacts from coal mining, natural gas wells and other energy development.
Through diverse partnerships, we're fostering scientific inquiry on coal mining and other land uses, seeking to increase our understanding of historic and current impacts to streams and other resources. The Clinch-Powell Clean Rivers Initiative was launched in 2008, with members coming from state and federal agencies, private business interests, academia, and non-profit conservation organizations, all focused on improving water quality and river health.
We're also working with mining regulators to update the Clinch Valley’s inventory of abandoned mine lands and to rank priorities for restoration. At Flint Gap in Russell County, we partnered with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy and with Virginia Tech to rejuvenate compacted soils, replant native trees and capture carbon emissions.
The Nature Conservancy is engaged in efforts to avoid and minimize the impacts that energy infrastructure could have on the forests and rivers of Virginia. Recently it has been announced that an energy company is exploring the potential to develop a pumped storage electric generation facility in the southwestern Virginia coalfields.
We have created maps of critical habitats to aid the goal of ensuring irreplaceable resources are avoided and other ecological impacts minimized. We have made these maps accessible online so that energy companies can use them in the earliest stages of siting projects.
The Nature Conservancy is interested in working collaboratively with energy companies, local communities, and other stakeholders throughout the process of selecting a site and seeking government approval for specific energy projects, such as the potential pumped storage facility.
Clinch Valley Program in the news:
Shrinking Carbon Footprints (Appalachian Voices)
The Conservancy's carbon sequestration program in the Clinch is a major focus of this article about carbon offset approaches.
Discover Hancock County: The Clinch Valley Program
TNC has worked with people of the Clinch Valley since 1990 and the end result of those efforts is that, today, more than 35,000 acres of critical natural habitat throughout the two-state region is protected.
Mussels Released to Help Grow Population (WBIR)
Members of The Nature Conservancy and Lincoln Memorial University students released rare freshwater mussels into the Powell River in Claiborne County in an effort to keep the native species off the endangered list.
Using Nature to Nurture a Depressed Economy: Part 1 of 2 (WVTF Radio IQ)
The Clinch River in Southwest Virginia is the most biologically diverse in all of North America. “The Clinch is this incredibly special river with more rare species than any river in North America and yet nobody really knows about it ... There are stretches of the river where you just feel like you’re the only person on earth.”
Using Local Culture to Nurture a Depressed Economy: Part 2 of 2 (WVTF Radio IQ)
Brad Kreps is gazing up at Tank Hollow falls in the town of Cleveland Virginia. Already envisioning the new hiking trails, which will knit these mountain ridges into natural sanctuary for wildlife and people. “It's beautiful isn’t it? And it’s just a secret, one of the many little treasures you find in Southwest Virginia.”
Download the Clinch Valley Brochure
Clinch Valley Program
146 East Main Street
Abingdon, VA 24210
Phone: (276) 676-2209
Explore the Clinch Valley
There's a groundswell of support for a unique new state park along the Clinch River. Explore
Explore the nation's most important river in terms of rare and imperiled fish and mussels. Play video
An ecological hotspot with national significance for its concentration of rare species. Explore
Kyles Ford is valued for its assortment of aquatic life, including many rare and threatened species. Explore
This environment supports the highest concentration of Cumberlandian mollusk species known to exist anywhere in the world. Explore
One of Virginia's largest caves, Unthanks Cave houses an unusually diverse animal community, comprised of cave-adapted species (troglodytes). Explore