Critical work on the plateau

Critical work on the plateau

January 6th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Hunters, anglers, hikers and a range of small businesses and communities have long found recreation, jobs, solace and a special way of life on the Cumberland Plateau. Yet this richly forested high plain, which runs parallel to the Appalachian Mountain foothills across eastern Tennessee and into northwest Georgia and eastern Alabama, continues to face long-term threats to the viability of its globally renowned ecological diversity.

As population and development in this region grows, loss of natural habitat and demands on the plateau's forests, watersheds, plant and animal life will only increase. Coherent land conservation and focused preservation efforts are increasingly vital to avert such unsustainable damage to the fragile, thin-soil, ecology of the plateau.

The good news is that such conservation efforts have been spreading roots since the alarm bells began ringing three decades ago about the strip-mining, clear-cutting and mono-pine pulp plantations that were threatening vast expanses of the plateau. State foresters and chip-mill plants were finally persuaded in the 1990s to rein in environmentally abusive logging practices and the massive conversion of hardwood wilderness to chip-mill fodder.

And though mountain stone rock-robbers continue to plow up and pillage significant acreage on the plateau under myopic state negligence that allows surface mountain stones to be mined under land titles to mineral rights, a range of civic-minded organizations have taken up the cause of preservation.

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen propelled that goal by establishing a $30 million fund to help purchase and restore pine-pulp plantations in Tennessee's section of the Cumberland Plateau, and state agencies in Georgia and Alabama adopted preservations efforts through state grants and civic partnerships. The popularity of these efforts led to establishment in Alabama of a Forever Wild program, and in last November's balloting, 75 percent of Alabama's voters approved a new initiative that calls for spending around $15 million a year from state leases for oil and natural gas wells on land preservation.

National opinion polls by The Nature Conservancy prior to that vote confirmed the breadth of personal sentiment among voters for land preservation: 87 percent of American voters agreed that land and water conservation are essential to their quality of life; 83 percent said they would pay more in taxes to help conserve land; four out of five said preservation of natural resources is patriotic. And the vote in Alabama to provide revenues for the state's Forever Wild program proved that citizens there would put their money behind their words.

With that range of support, the Alabama chapter of The Nature Conservancy was able in December to consummate the purchase of 11,364 acres on Jacobs Mountain, a pristine promontory in the unique Paint Rock Rivershed in Jackson County, Alabama, about 50 miles southwest of Chattanooga. That $9,440,000 purchase was aided by a $565,000 grant from the Open Space Institute (OSI), a New York-based national land preservation advocacy group which works with local partners in the Southeast, including parts of Lookout Mountain in Georgia, to facilitate land conservation in support of critical habitat.

Chattanooga's Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations contributed to that grant through their partnership with the OSI in building a $6.75 million capital fund to establish the Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund. This far-sighted endeavor is focused on the broad goal of protecting large portions of land that possess critical core plant and wildlife habitat, and that protect corridors and buffer lands essential to the preservation of such wilderness ecology. It's worth noting that much of the land for such efforts is privately owned and voluntarily put under conservation easements by owners who themselves value preservation of their land and their way of life.

These are important goals in any case. The Jacobs Mountain conservation work, for example, involves support from a wide and diverse range of groups, from businesses that rely on sustainable harvests and products from the Cumberland Plateau, to the tourism industry and advocates of outdoor recreation. Communities on the plateau also support the sustainability of the plateau for the quality of life they derive from the land, forest and watersheds.

The work of conservation should not be seen as a special interest that benefits just special interests, however. The forests, plants and watersheds of the Cumberland Plateau provide immense benefits to all in this region through nature's service as filters for air and pollution and biological diversity. The more we conserve the natural quality of the Cumberland Plateau, the more we improve our own quality of life.