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OSI helps grow protected land in Tennessee's South Cumberland Plateau region by 13,000 acres

Photo Credit: Chuck Sutherland

CHATTANOOGA, TN (Jan. 4, 2016)—In a series of six targeted land conservation projects completed within a short six-month period, nearly 13,000 acres have been acquired and added to Tennessee state parks and wildlife management areas. The lands, clustered along the biologically rich Cumberland Plateau region as it stretches through Tennessee, have all been preserved thanks in large part to the Open Space Institute (OSI).

The recently completed land transactions, made possible through OSI’s Resilient Landscapes and Southern Cumberland Land Protection funds, build on the 17,452 acres OSI has helped to protect in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia since 2007. Over that time, OSI has invested a total of $5.3 million in the Southern Cumberlands region.

The transactions buffer, connect and enlarge some 192,598 existing acres—over 300 existing square miles—of public land.

“Recognizing the significant ecological and recreational value of the Cumberland Plateau, the Open Space Institute is investing financial resources and supporting local land trusts to achieve high-impact priority conservation goals here in Tennessee,” said Peter Howell, OSI’s Executive Vice President. “These are enduring places that truly merit permanent protection, given their remarkable role as a haven for wildlife under a changing climate. We are proud to play a role in these four projects and congratulate our partners on this series of impressive achievements.”

Long recognized as a “resilient stronghold” due to its ability to harbor wildlife in a changing climate, the Cumberland Plateau faces an array of threats from unsustainable timber harvesting, development and invasive species. Amid rising concern about the damaging effects of climate change, land protection is a key national strategy for wildlife protection and moderating climate effects such as flooding and drought.

The recently conserved properties are:

  • Winchester, a 4,372-acre scenic and resilient property in Franklin County. OSI grants of $750,000 provided the match that enabled The Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund to secure federal funding and purchase the land, which will be managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for hunting, hiking and wildlife viewing.
  • Denny Cove, a 685-acre, ecologically significant site in Marion County that is also a popular rock-climbing destination. OSI provided $380,000 in seed funding that helped the Access Fund and its partners leverage other funding and on December 16 acquire the land, which will enlarge the South Cumberland State Park.
  • Sherwood Forest, a 4,062-acre highly resilient tract in Franklin and Marion Counties. The Land Trust for Tennessee and The Conservation Fund transferred the land into state ownership on November 8, and it will become part of the South Cumberland State Park and Franklin State Forest. OSI’s grants totaling $800,000 provided the critical private funding to secure matching federal funding.
  • Tunnel Hill, a 411-acre resilient parcel in Franklin County that the Land Trust for Tennessee in September transferred into state ownership and has become part of the Bear Hollow Mountain Wildlife Management Area. OSI played a critical role in making this project happen, providing a no-interest loan and then almost $200,000 in grants funds that became the match for federal funding.
  • Dog Cove, a 680-acre tract that has been incorporated into Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee’s largest and most visited state park. With $275,000 from OSI, the Land Trust for Tennessee was able to secure enough state funding to close the project.
  • Mid-Cumberlands, a 2,600-acre property that has been added into the Bridgestone Firestone Wilderness in White and Van Buren Counties in the heart of 60,000 acres of publically and privately conserved lands. Private funds, including OSI’s $475,000 grant, and public funding from the State of Tennessee were instrumental in helping the Land Trust for Tennessee purchase the land.

“The state’s biologists helped identify important habitats and rare species that occur on a number of these properties,” said Roger McCoy, Director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Administration. “The acquisition of such important sites not only allows for their perpetual preservation but also provides both residents and tourists with additional outdoor experiences."

In addition to providing recreation opportunities, the transactions highlight the region’s ecological resilience. Resilient sites are likely to withstand the growing impact of changes and to offer refuge to a diverse array of plants and animals as well as mitigating the effects of floods and droughts for human communities. Recent research undertaken by The Nature Conservancy identified parts of the Southern Cumberlands as among the most resilient sites in the entire southeast because of their diverse land forms and unfragmented landscapes. 

“This land protection work is an extraordinary achievement in an area of unrivaled ecological importance. The newly protected lands enhance public access for the people of the region and conserve globally significant biological diversity,” said Dr. David Haskell, professor of biology at Sewanee, the University of the South, writer and member of OSI’s Southeast Resilience Fund’s advisory committee.

“The conservation actions not only help protect this unmatched natural heritage in the present day, but look to the future. These lands are in a geographic sweet spot whose terrain and ecology will allow biological adaptation in an uncertain future.”

OSI’s work in the Southern Cumberlands is funded through two complementary initiatives. The Southern Cumberlands Land Protection Fund, launched with the support of the Lyndhurst and Benwood Foundations and the Merck Family Fund, provides support to protect large, forested lands in the region.

The $12 million Resilience Landscape, launched with support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in 2012 in the northeast and expanded in 2015 to the southeast, provides capital grants to protect resilient habitat in the Southern Cumberlands and two other regions in North and South Carolina, and supports efforts to integrate climate considerations into regional and state-wide land protection plans. In 2014, President Obama commended the Initiative for its investment in natural infrastructure.

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