SPARTA, Tenn. - An iconic Tennessee waterfall now belongs to the state.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reports the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation purchased Virgin Falls State Natural Area using both public funding and private contributions. The 1,551-acre tract in White County that contains Virgin Falls had been privately owned since the 1970s, though the state had leased it.
State officials said the change means more protection for Virgin Falls against development and assures that public access won't be denied.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave $1.5 million toward the purchase of the land with a grant to protect critical habitat for federally endangered species in the area which include the Indiana bat, a fish called the bluemask darter and two plants - the Cumberland rosemary and Virginia spirea.
In addition to the federal money, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency contributed $300,000 for the purchase, and the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation raised $107,530.
A majority of the property, which is about 20 miles south of Sparta and cost a total of about $1.8 million, will be under the purview of the Tennessee State Parks and Natural Areas, though some will be owned and managed by TWRA.
"The number of private and governmental entities that came together to accomplish this acquisition is a testament to cooperation for the greater public good," said Ed Carter, TWRA executive director.
The 110-foot-high Virgin Falls is the main feature of the property, which is adjacent to the state-owned Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Wildlife Management Area, but it also include 8 miles of hiking trails, an overlook of the Caney Fork River gorge, and a smaller waterfall called Big Branch Falls.
"This particular property possesses special qualities found on the Cumberland Plateau, and its scenic beauty is hard to match," said Brock Hill, TDEC deputy commissioner.
A formal rededication of Virgin Falls is planned by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation during Tennessee State Natural Areas Week this spring.