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Photo by Victoria Stamey / The Hiwassee River from Starr Mountain in Southeast Tennessee is shown. A new fund will help protect that area and six others around Chattanooga.

Seen as a major step in conserving key natural areas around Chattanooga, an environmental group is launching a $5.25 million fund to protect forests in the tri-state region.

The Open Space Institute (OSI) is to use the fund to accelerate land conservation and climate change efforts in the area, according to the Chattanooga-based Thrive Regional Partnership.

The aim of the Appalachian Landscapes Protection Fund is to conserve at least 30,000 acres in the tri-state area.

"It's absolutely enormous," said Rhett Bentley, director of communication for Thrive, the nonprofit that has crafted a long-range plan for responsible growth in 16 counties in Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama.

New York-based OSI is targeting seven locations in the region earlier identified by Thrive's "Natural Treasures Alliance" work group.

The areas are Walden Ridge, Lookout and Pigeon mountains, Hiwassee River Corridor, Cumberland Plateau, Southern Blue Ridge Mountains, the Appalachians Connector and Paint Rock Watershed.

Joel Houser, OSI's Southeast field coordinator located in Chattanooga, said all of the $5.25 million has been raised and there's hope of securing more for the effort.

Along with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York, Chattanooga's Lyndhurst, Riverview and Tucker foundations contributed, he said.

OSI will administer the fund and work with entities such as land trusts and municipalities involving property acquisitions and conservation easements, Houser said.

"Chattanoogans and those around Chattanooga, we identify with our natural treasures," he said.

Thrive's Natural Treasures Alliance has set a goal to at least double protected lands in the region by 2055 by adding 1 million acres.

The tri-state region, which Thrive calls the Cradle of Southern Appalachia, is expected to see its population increase by a half-million people by 2055, the group said.

"We definitely see conservation and our outdoor assets as a tool for successful economic and community development," Bentley said. "It's not conservation at the expense of economic development. It's both in tandem with each other."

Houser said that earlier outreach by Thrive to people in the region revealed that the Chattanooga area's rivers, streams, mountains and forests rose to the top of importance. He termed those "all the things which make this place what it is."

At the same time, Houser said, the outdoors brings in "a good bit of money" through recreation and tourism.

In addition, the Chattanooga area is a bio-diverse region and forests help clean the air and water, he said.

"There's the out-sized role forests play in climate change," Houser said.

Daniel Carter, chairman of Thrive's Natural Treasures Alliance and an assistant professor at the University of the South, cited the "thousands of citizens who took the time over the past several years to convey the importance of protecting natural treasures as a key priority for this region."

He said the fund is "a direct result of what happens when citizens and local leaders come together to thoughtfully plan for our future."

Kim Elliman, OSI president and chief executive officer, said the forests of the Southern Appalachians are not only critical for their natural and local heritage, but also protect the land that matters most as "we take on the largest environmental challenge of our time — a changing climate."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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