Cumberland Plateau groups are looking to expand efforts to preserve and connect large tracts of plateau land -- a minimum of 1.7 million acres and perhaps about 2 million acres.
With 110,000 acres for sale in parcels larger than 50 acres, Chris Roberts with the Land Trust for Tennessee says the clock is ticking to analyze preservation priorities for the rare and biologically rich area.
"This is a unique opportunity. The key is can we share information where it's appropriate," Mr. Roberts said. "If we work together we can get more done," he told representatives of about a dozen agencies that met this week at Sewanee: The University of the South to begin discussions of a comprehensive conservation action plan for the tri-state's South Cumberland region.
"We don't want to reinvent studies and good work that's already done," Mr. Roberts said. "What we hope to do is bring all of that work together and create a blueprint that identifies the most important resources to protect and the highest-priority actions."
The effort, he said, could help refocus national attention on the Cumberland Plateau, which extends through Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama. The attention could improve the region's economy through agritourism and recreation, group members said.
The Cumberland Plateau is the largest hardwood-forested plateau in the world and is home to the highest concentration of endangered species on the continent.
But increasingly it is the site of growth versus nature, as developers seek cheap land to relocate retirees fleeing cold winters or hurricane-ravaged coastlines.
Meanwhile, county and municipal officials find themselves torn between saving their communities as they are or building tax bases.
"Certainly, it causes indigestion," said Grundy County Mayor LaDue "Boo" Bouldin. "The last thing we need to be losing is property tax revenue, and as more of this gets put into preservation, the county just loses that revenue."
Dollars and savings
In 2010, Grundy County will lose $15,038 in tax dollars for 3,747 acres that were placed in preservation and taken off the tax rolls this year.
"That's if the tax rate stays the same," said Grundy Clerk Joann Childers.
When the parcels become publicly owned by the state, or are put in preservation by private landowners, they go off the tax rolls or receive significant tax write-offs.
But Mr. Roberts and Jon Evans, director of the Landscape Analysis Laboratory at the University of the South's Sewanee Environmental Institute, said it is too soon to talk about parcel acquisition. They acknowledge, however, that ultimately the preservation effort could include the purchase of parcels of land already for sale or easements with willing private landowners.
Mr. Roberts said more preservation could help promote the growing tourism business on the plateau. He said the preservation group plans to invite county mayors, who in the past have said they are interested in manufacturing, development and tourism, to the next meeting.
Bruz Clark, executive director of the Chattanooga-based Lyndhurst Foundation, suggested that the draft map of the South Cumberland conservation area be expanded to include Sand Mountain, a continuation of Walden's Ridge into Georgia and Alabama. The foundation has supported the Tennessee Land Trust in other endeavors.
Mr. Clark also said he is interested in seeing Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and Georgia included.
"Right now, there is very little protected on Sand Mountain," Mr. Clark said, noting that it has much the same biological richness as the rest of the plateau.
Gina Hancock, associate state director of the Nature Conservancy, said the idea has merit.
"It will be interesting to see if we can all get on the same page and share energy and focus," she said.
Mr. Evans said the school will compile the information, reports and data from the agencies and government departments that join the project.
"The southern plateau has never had this kind of process before," he said. "Sometimes it just takes a big funder to pull it all together," referring to the Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations' potential interest and assistance. "It gives us an opportunity to leverage our strengths."
The group plans a second meeting in January. Over the next year and a half, members will prioritize strategies and protection plans and complete a report.