First grant from OSI's Southern Cumberland Land Fund

CHATTANOOGA, TN — December 28, 2012 — Bolstered by a $500,000 grant from a new conservation fund focused on preserving the Southern Cumberland Plateau, The Nature Conservancy has protected 11,364 acres on Jacobs Mountain in Jackson County, Alabama on behalf of the state of Alabama. The grant to conserve the tract of land, which is adjacent to the Skyline Wildlife Management Area in the ecologically significant Paint Rock River Watershed, was the first to be made through the Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund, a $6.75 million capital fund that was created with grants from the Chattanooga-based Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations.

“At a time when conservation funding is highly constrained, this project represents a bold statement by its funders and The Nature Conservancy that our natural heritage is too important, too precious to squander,” said Peter Howell, executive vice president of the Open Space Institute (OSI), which manages the Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund. “We salute the state of Alabama and are pleased to have played a role in ensuring the protection of this important tract for future generations.”

The Southern Cumberlands, extending from Chattanooga to Huntsville, is a treasure trove of biological diversity within the Southern Appalachian Mountains, an area designated as one of two “biological hotspots” east of the Mississippi in Precious Heritage, a landmark ecological study conducted by Nature Serve.

The Jacobs Mountain parcel, which contains large forest blocks and extensive underground cave systems supporting rich animal and plant diversity, has now been transferred to the state of Alabama and will be available to the public for recreation. 

Jacobs Mountain was one of five projects to be reviewed in the inaugural round of funding for the Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund. The Fund was created with support from the Benwood and Lyndhurst foundations, the Merck Family Fund and the Open Space Institute. Overseen by an expert advisory committee and using strategic criteria to allocate funds to the most important projects, the Fund requires that grants be matched at least 3:1 by other public and private funds.

The Fund was the outgrowth of a study done by OSI focused on the effects of climate change on wildlife habitat in the region. Through Protecting Southern Appalachian Wildlife in an Era of Climate Change, OSI identified lands throughout a 3 million-acre region in northeast Alabama, northwest Georgia, and southeast Tennessee that are now being targeted for conservation. 

Jacobs Mountain is located on and near large forest blocks that are priorities for protection and threatened with high rates of habitat loss due to development, fragmentation, conversion and, increasingly, change in climate. Protection of this site will allow the forest to regenerate naturally into a healthy native forest. Maturing of the native forest protects watersheds of the Paint Rock River and tributaries, which are important conservation priorities for The Nature Conservancy and others.

The Conservancy’s acquisition is a purchase from an out-of-state landowner and will be transferred to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The state’s Forever Wild program will acquire approximately 6,400 acres and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries will acquire approximately 4,970 acres. The Nature Conservancy is providing a $1 million donation to Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries to match a federal grant from the Pittman-Robertson Funds for the $9.3 million acquisition. The $1 million comes from the aforementioned $500,000 grant from OSI’s Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund and an additional $500,000 grant Fred and Alice Stanback of North Carolina.

The Open Space Institute has been active over the past decade helping to conserve land in the Southeast. Though its loans and grants, OSI has helped to protect more than 20,000 acres of land in western North Carolina, northwest Georgia and Alabama. 

“This 11,364-acre parcel has been identified in an analysis by the Open Space Institute as among the most important in the entire Southern Appalachians for its wildlife habitat and breeding areas,” said David Ray, OSI’s Southern Appalachians Field Coordinator. “The conservation of these large, contiguous swaths of forest also protects a spectacular network of underground caves and helps maintain drinking water quality for residents of the region. The property is also adjacent to more than 50,000 already-protected acres in Alabama and Tennessee.”

The Conservancy’s ability to acquire this land can be credited to dedicated funding and project partners. “We are thrilled to provide permanent protection of such a vital landscape as the Southern Cumberlands,” said Chris Oberholster, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama. “This would not have been possible without the Open Space Institute and the Stanbacks, who have also supported projects in Alabama along the Pinhoti Trail, in the Talladega Mountains, at Little River Canyon and elsewhere.”

Alan Cressler, National Speleological Society member and long-time explorer of Alabama caves, says the acquisition of the Jacobs Mountain property will assure the protection of more than 50 caves. “Several of these caves are highly significant in length and depth. One cave has been mapped to over six miles long and is one of the most pristine underground wilderness areas in Alabama. The acquisition helps protect this very important underground drainage system that becomes a major tributary of the endangered Paint Rock River.”

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