Lookout Mountain Ga Alan Cressler

Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund

Image Credit: Alan Cressler

On the Southern Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, a landscape of unrivaled ecological richness, we are helping to save forest strongholds for plant and animal species. 

Guided by our research on how the Southern Appalachians will respond to climate change, OSI launched the Fund in 2012 to accelerate the protection of forests on the plateau most likely to support species diversity as the climate shifts.

Why Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund

A tenth of the world’s biodiversity can be found in the astonishingly varied landscapes and habitats of the Southeast. One of the most ecologically rich parts of the region is the remote and still largely wild Southern Cumberland Plateau. 

With its vast hardwood forests, rocky ridges, lush ravines, underground caves, and limestone soils, the plateau supports a great diversity of aquatic and terrestrial life – including species found nowhere else on Earth. These same features make the plateau a refuge for wildlife diversity as the climate charges.

State parks and wildlife management areas have set aside some important forestlands on the plateau, but large tracts remain unprotected from development, unsustainable timber harvesting, mining, and invasive species. In a series of grant and loan funds begun in 2004, OSI has attracted attention and resources to the conservation of the best wildlife habitat in the Southern Appalachians. 

The Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund focuses on the plateau’s high-priority lands for species diversity and climate change adaptation, as identified by OSI’s Protecting Southern Appalachian Wildlife in an Era of Climate Change, State Wildlife Action Plans, and other landscape conservation plans.

Impact of the Fund

Capitalized with grants from the Lyndhurst and Benwood Foundations and Merck Family Fund, OSI’s Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund protects wildlife habitat and biodiversity in landscapes that are critical to facilitating adaptation to climate change.

As of 2018, fourteen capital grants protected more than 30,000 acres of forestland on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama.

Connecting and expanding blocks of protected habitat, these projects conserved globally significant terrestrial and aquatic species and facilitated species adaptation to climate change. 

Many of the projects enlarged state parks and wildlife management areas, increasing access for hiking, hunting, and other outdoor recreation. 

Grant opportunities

Capitalized with grants from the Lyndhurst and Benwood Foundations and Merck Family Fund, the Fund awards grants for permanent conservation easements or fee purchases of large forest blocks in the portion of the Southern Cumberland Plateau shown on this map (see PDF of map).

Capital grants are available to qualified nonprofit organizations to acquire permanent conservation easements and/or fee interests in land. Under exceptional circumstances, OSI will also provide funds directly to state or local government agencies. Grants may also be used to defray transaction and other associated costs. Limited stewardship funding will be granted only when a convincing case is made that it is necessary to enable the transaction. Short-term low-interest loans, to bridge gaps of up to two years in permanent public or private funding, are also available.

Grants may not be used to pay interest on loans, staff time, mileage, travel expenses and general overhead.

Projects which close before the application deadline are not eligible for funding. 

Grant Awards

OSI staff and the Fund’s Advisory Committee review applications against the Fund’s criteria and goals. Once OSI has approved a grant, we will provide the grantee with a checklist of items required for OSI to prepare a grant agreement. When all required information and documents are received, OSI will forward a grant agreement to the grantee. If applicable, the grantee must provide documents pertaining to each project phase and match parcel. OSI will release funds at the time the transaction closes. Projects must close within 18 months of OSI’s grant approval.

Conservation Easement Standards

Stewardship of Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund grant projects must be consistent with the goals of the Fund: to maintain the ability of wildlife to adapt to climate change and to conserve native biodiversity and ecosystem processes. Prior to submitting a grant proposal, applicants should review OSI’s standards for fee land stewardship and for conservation easement terms.

Match Requirements

A fundamental goal of the Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund is to encourage leveraging of additional conservation funding sources. Every dollar granted from the fund must typically be matched by three other dollars from other sources. A lower leverage ratio will be considered only in exceptional circumstances.

The following qualify as match for a Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund grant:

  • Public funds (federal, state and local) and private funds from individuals and foundations used for the acquisition of fee interest or a conservation easement on the subject property or on eligible match properties.
  • The value of a donated conservation easement or bargain sale on the subject property.
  • The value of a conservation easement or value of eligible match properties.
  •  Transaction and other acquisition costs, including appraisals, surveys, environmental assessments, title exams and insurance, recording fees, transfer and real estate taxes, property carrying costs, and fees for outside counsel.

Match Property Eligibility

To be eligible as match, property must 1) be adjacent or proximate to the subject property, 2) meet the Fund’s criteria, 3) generally be part of the same project area as the subject property, preferably as defined by a larger conservation plan, and 4) close prior to the closing of the subject property, but not more than one year before date of application. In addition, to determine eligibility of match parcels, OSI will consider whether the match and the subject properties lie in the same watershed, matrix forest block, natural community, and/or State Wildlife Action Plan priority area.

The following do not qualify as matching funds:

  • Ecological or land restoration dollars
  • Stewardship endowments and land management expenses
  • Staff time, mileage, travel expenses and general overhead

Next Steps to Apply

Applications are accepted on a rolling basis until all funding has been committed.

Sign up to receive updates about the fund.

OSI staff and advisory committee will review applications within approximately four months of the proposal’s submission date.

Applications must be submitted online. We encourage applicants to contact OSI staff before preparing a proposal.

For more information, contact:

Southern Cumberlands Land Protection Fund Inquiries

Joel Houser

Director of Capital Grants

(423) 364-5980

Yasemin Unal-Rodriguez

Conservation Capital Program Associate

(212) 290-8200 x1311

Neil Jordan

Director of Geospatial Strategy

(212) 290-8200

What You Can Do

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Become a part of our mission to safeguard at-risk places through your tax-deductible gift.


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