Two Chattanooga foundations supporting a new Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund just helped protect 11,364 acres of Cumberland Plateau wilderness in the ecologically significant Paint Rock River watershed of Jackson County, Ala.
The 10-year-old Open Space Institute, based in New York, used a $500,000 grant from the Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations to buy a chunk of Jacobs Mountain adjacent to the Skyline Wildlife Management Area.
Peter Howell, executive vice president of the Open Space Institute, said the grant is the first to be made through the Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund, a $6.75 million capital fund created by Lyndhurst and Benwood. The institute manages the fund.
The property was purchased under the name of the Nature Conservancy and will be turned over to Alabama.
"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," Howell said.
The Southern Cumberlands area, 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, 48 miles southwest of Chattanooga as the crow flies, contains large forest blocks and extensive underground cave systems supporting rich animal and plant diversity.
It was purchased from an out-of-state landowner and will be transferred to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. It will be available to the public for recreation.
David Ray, Open Space Institute's Southern Appalachians Field Coordinator, said the property was identified in an analysis by the institute as among the most important in the entire Southern Appalachians for its wildlife habitat and breeding areas.
"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," he said. "The property is also adjacent to more than 50,000 already-protected acres in Alabama and Tennessee."
Alan Cressler, a National Speleological Society member and longtime explorer of Alabama caves, said the acquisition will assure 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," he said in a prepared statement. "The acquisition helps protect this very important underground drainage system that becomes a major tributary of the endangered Paint Rock River."
Jacobs Mountain was one of five projects to be reviewed in the inaugural round of funding for the Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund.