How forests affect our daily lives, and a Chattanooga nonprofit's mission to protect 1 million acres in the Southeast

Getty Images / The Blue Ridge Mountains

Nature-lovers know the Southeast is a gem, worthy of protection.

Rhett Bentley and her team at Thrive Regional Partnership are determined to do just that - by protecting 1 million acres of forest by 2055.

The Cradle of Southeastern Appalachia is an ambitious new initiative to highlight areas in critical need of conservation across parts of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

In part, the word "cradle" describes the land's shape: a rim of plateaus and ridges surrounding the Tennessee Valley.

But, says Bentley, Thrive's director of communications, "to me, it also connotes nurturing. We are caretakers of these places - and these places are keeping our community healthy and functional."

The effort is spearheaded by Thrive, a nonprofit dedicated to responsible growth through conservation, and its Natural Treasures Alliance, comprising a collective of conservation-minded stakeholders.

Among them is Charlie Mix, director of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Interdisciplinary Geospatial Technology Lab. To guide the effort, Mix, with the help of UTC lab students, created a landscape conversation model, or a map, identifying the forests most in need of protection, color-coding them to indicate their level of priority. The darker the shade of green, the more critical the area is to protect.

The purpose, says Mix, is to create a blueprint for sustainable growth.

"This [project] is not anti-industry," says Joel Houser, Southeast field director of the Open Space Institute and member of the Natural Treasures Alliance leadership team. "There is going to be development. People are going to need houses. But by using our scarce resources to protect the most important areas first, we can have the biggest impact."

By 2055, the population of the tri-state region is expected to increase by half a million people. By then, the partnership's goal is to have improved 50% of the region's polluted streams and protected 50% - or 1 million acres - of its forests.

But to do that, Bentley and her team must first communicate to everyone in the community why that's important, a task that will require years of outreach, education and resource-sharing.

"Progress moves at the pace of relationships," she says.

The health of our cities depends on the health of our forests, says Bentley, and just like every species has a role in its habitat, "everyone has a role in the future of this place."

Here we take a deeper look at a few of the project's key points, including how these habitats impact our daily lives, what makes them so important and why nature lovers are poised to make a difference.


How do forest habitats impact our daily lives?

To connect people to the importance of nature, Bentley says, "you have to meet them where they are."

Outdoorspeople, for example, value open spaces for their recreation opportunities. But what about city planners, business owners or simply those who don't identify as "outdoorsy"? Why should they care?

Here are some everyday examples of how healthy habitats impact us all.

- Around our cities

Chattanooga is facing a sewer crisis. During heavy rains, wastewater spills from sewer lines and into streets, yards and the Tennessee River - the source of the valley's drinking water. The crisis stems from an outdated and under-built system, and plans for an upgrade total $68.5 million.

Plants help prevent runoff that contributes to that flooding, says Houser. Leaf canopies reduce eroision by slowing rainfall before it hits the ground, while vegetation slows the speed in which water moves across land.

Moreover, he says, the forest is like a sponge, absorbing moisture.

"Even single trees throughout the city play a big role," Houser says.

- Along our highways

Just as birds migrate, wildlife such as deer, bear and fox follow their own "natural highways to feed and breed," says Bentley.

But when habitats become fragmented, those animals cross into ours.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, each year, more than 200 motorists are killed in animal-vehicle collisions, while thousands more are injured - costing society nearly $8.4 billion per year in law enforcement, emergency and road maintenance services.

The lands identified as high-priority were selected, partly, for their ability to connect more of these "natural highways."

- In our economies

In Tennessee, outdoor recreation is a powerful economy, generating $21.6 billion annually and directly employing 188,000 people, according to a 2019 Outdoor Industry Association report.

And interest in the outdoors is ever-growing.

In 2020, camping in Tennessee State Parks reached historic highs. Local bicycle companies saw record sales. And the Ocoee River remains the No. 1 most visited river in the U.S, helping bring $43 million into surrounding communities annually.

"It's time to dismantle the idea that it's the economy versus the environment," Bentley says. "We have an opportunity to take advantage of economic opportunities while supporting the health of these places and ourselves."

- For our health

Studies show that access to the outdoors improves our physical and mental health, Bentley says.

In 2017, a team of Japanese researchers found that a short walk through a forest can reduce blood pressure and lower stress levels.

But beyond that, forests play a big role in air quality.

Through photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming.

Global warming, in turn, causes an increase in harmful smog (not to mention, an increase in extreme weather events).

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is responsible for an estimated 6.5 million deaths every year.


What makes these habitats so important?

The areas on the map shaded dark green were identified as "high priority," not for their pristine conditions but for their potential to support biodiversity, with that potential determined through deep data analysis.

The forests were scored on the following criteria:

- Their proximity to other protected lands.

- Their connection to habitat corridors, allowing more movement among wildlife populations in search of food, shelter or mates.

- Their resiliency against climate change. Essentially, this asks: How varied is the landscape (think caves, cliffs, ridgelines), and how easily can species move among them?

Consider the Eastern Hemlock, a species which has been on our continent since the last ice age, about 16,000 years ago, says Houser. As the earth warmed, tree populations in what is now the Southeastern U.S. survived by moving to higher elevations.


Do your part

Outdoorspeople make the best stewards, says Mix, an avid whitewater kayaker and mountain biker.

These are people who know both the value and vulnerability of open spaces, he says.

When it comes to doing your part to protect lands, Mix urges users to "tread lightly." Pack out what you pack in; follow any posted rules; respect other users.

Not doing these things, he says, "doesn't sit well with land managers and can compromise access to public lands."

Moreover, he suggests getting involved with a local nonprofit that aligns with your outdoor passions.

For climbers, there's Southeastern Climbing Coalition; for paddlers, North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy; for mountain bikers, Southeastern Off-Road Bicycle Association. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

For those more generally conservation-minded, there are a number of regional land trusts - Lula Lake, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee River Gorge, for example - whose primary goal is to purchase and protect natural places.

Give what you can, he says, whether that's your time or money.

When it comes to the future of Southern Appalachia, says Mix, even a little goes a long way.

Significant numbers associated with the Cradle of Southern Appalachia map

1, years spent creating the map7.1 million, total acres depicted by the map3, states that comprise the "cradle" region64, watersheds within that region15, percent of forests currently protected within the region2 million, total acres recommended for protection by the initiative1 million, acres the initiative aims to protect by 205590, percent of native species the initiative hopes to protect by preserving 1 million acres of forest(Source: UTC's Interdisciplinary Geospatial Technology Lab/ Thrive Regional Partnership)