NASHVILLE - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to create a new national wildlife refuge in Middle Tennessee.
The refuge would cover approximately 25,000 acres in Franklin County near Estill Fork, Hurricane Creek and Larkin Fork.
Dwight Cooley, who manages refuges in Alabama, said the tract is one of the most important in the Southeast with respect to natural resources. Living within it are at least 15 federally endangered or threatened species and a number of species considered endangered or threatened in Tennessee. Much of the land is forested and provides habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife.
"It's a wonderful opportunity," he said. "It's a wonderful area."
Within the proposed Paint Rock River National Wildlife Refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service would seek to either buy the land outright or purchase conservation easements that allow the land to stay in private hands while maintaining the undeveloped nature of the area.
Outside the proposed refuge, the agency hopes to work with the state, conservation groups and interested landowners to protect an additional 15,000 acres. The whole area forms much of the headwaters of Alabama's Paint Rock River - a tributary to the Tennessee River and one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southeast.
Some nearby land is already protected, and Cooley said that played a role in their selection of the site.
Gina Hancock, director of the Nature Conservancy's Tennessee chapter, said the nonprofit group has acquired about 26,000 acres in the Paint Rock River watershed that it conveyed to Tennessee and Alabama. In Tennessee, that land now forms the Bear Hollow Wildlife Management Area and the Walls of Jericho State Natural Area.
"That's an actual canyon that gets narrower and narrower as you walk down it, and waterfalls shoot out from the sides of the walls," she said.
Hancock said the nonprofit is looking for further opportunities to protect land in the area. That could include purchasing land or conservation easements, but it could also include working with land owners to build buffers that prevent runoff into streams or to restore forest.
"Doing all that adds to the bigger conservation story in the southern Cumberland region," she said.
Fish and Wildlife hopes to have a draft plan for the Paint Rock River National Wildlife Refuge ready for public review in April and have authorization for the refuge by fall. After that, it could take years to purchase land and acquire easements to create the refuge.
The agency currently is taking comments on the proposal by phone, mail and email. It will host a public question and answer session on Feb. 5 at the Franklin County Public Library in Winchester.
More information is available at fws.gov/southeast/paintrockriver