$10 million plan would spruce up plateau

By Morgan Simmons, News-Sentinel staff writer

The Nature Conservancy has announced a $10 million initiative that puts the Cumberland Plateau on the same page with some of the nation's last wild frontiers.

The project, which already has received $3.1 million from private donations and grants, will involve a combination of conservation tools ranging from the outright purchases of sensitive tracts to partnering with landowners and communities to protect the overall landscape.

Gina Hancock, spokesperson for the Conservancy's Tennessee chapter, said the Nature Conservancy is dedicated to the project "over the long haul."

"Our desire is that one day the Cumberland Plateau will resonate with people the same way Yellowstone or the Everglades do now," Hancock said.

Hancock said the Conservancy's Cumberland Plateau initiative dovetails with the organization's recent decision to place more emphasis on landscape protection rather than purchasing individual tracts of property in piecemeal fashion.

She said the Plateau, which stretches north to Kentucky and south to Alabama, contains some of the largest privately owned tracts of forests in the eastern United States.

"There aren't many opportunities left for eco-regional planning that can really make a difference," she said. "This project is exciting, but a little intimidating, too."

To reach its goal, the Nature Conservancy has broken the Cumberland Plateau into two regions, north and south.

The northern region covers 1.5 million acres and includes such notable public landholdings as the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, the Obed Wild and Scenic River, Frozen Head State Park and the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area.

The southern region contains about 700,000 acres, 80 percent of which is covered in native hardwood forests. Here the Tennessee Chapter of the Nature Conservancy will work with the Alabama chapter, which has opened a conservation office at the headwaters of the Paint Rock River.

The Nature Conservancy currently is paying off a land debt for the 1,500-acre Jim Creek Tract, in Fentress County, and the 4,769 acre David Carter tract, in the southern Plateau. The Conservancy already owns two small tracts adjacent to the Obed Wild and Scenic River, and has helped add land to Savage Gulf and Fall Creek Falls.

As part of the Plateau project, the Nature Conservancy has assigned on-site staff members to the two regions.

Chris Roberts, landscape director for the southern region, said the conservation strategy for the Plateau will draw on scientific data generated by local universities and the state's Natural Heritage program.

Roberts said that about 50 percent of the landbase on the Plateau is in industrial timber company ownership, and that the southern region in particular is characterized by privately owned forests and small communities.

"I live near my project area," Roberts said. "I understand that being a part of the community is an important requisite if the Nature Conservancy is going to pull this off."

Chris Bullington, landscape director for the northern region, said a significant part of his job will be networking with other conservation groups, building on foundations laid in the past.

"We didn't discover anything," Bullington said. "The Cumberlands have long been recognized as a biological jewel. In fact, our role is based on the common knowledge that this region is so important.

"People who've heard of the Cumberland Plateau might associate it with the negative connotations of Appalachia, like systemic poverty. We want to change that so when they think of the Cumberland Plateau, they think of majestic beauty.

"It might not have the scenic qualities of Yellowstone, but from a biodiversity standpoint, it blows the West away."


Morgan Simmons may be reached 865-342-6321 or [email protected]

Copyright 2001 The Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.

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