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Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry spokesperson Tim Phelps speaks during a news conference in 2016 held to update the public on regional wildfires on the Cumberland Plateau. The Division of Forestry was awarded one of seven grants by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to protect and restore habitat on the plateau.

Projects in the greater Chattanooga area have taken lead roles this month in a national effort to conserve habitat on the Cumberland Plateau.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation granted $1.3 million to a range of nonprofits and a state agency focused on restoring the Cumberland Plateau. The grants are part of the foundation's annual Cumberland Plateau Stewardship Fund that will restore, enhance and protect shortleaf pine and riparian forests and in-stream habitats in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee. Five of seven projects that received grants will take place, at least partially, in Southeast Tennessee or Northeast Alabama.

The Cumberland Plateau stretches from Franklin County, Marion County and the western edge of Hamilton County up through Sequatchie, Bledsoe and Cumberland counties and north through eastern Kentucky.

"From our standpoint, for that whole region, the Cumberland Plateau is one amazing place for wildlife," said Jay Jensen, the foundation's southern regional office director. "The biodiversity is off the charts."

The grants will engage more than 1,400 private landowners through outreach and assistance and will be matched to bring the total to $2.6 million. The groups will largely work with landowners of large properties to teach proper land management skills.

The projects will focus on restoring shortleaf pine and oak communities on the plateau. The habitats allow for natural sunlight and support the area's historical landscape. Their ecosystems have dwindled due to forest conversion, a lack of prescribed fire, disease and pest infestation. That loss converted much of the land to heavily forested area and contributed to the decline of bird species such as Bachman's sparrow, brown-headed nuthatch and prairie warbler.

"You let a fallow piece of ground go for a long time with no management, it's going to go back to forest in Tennessee," said Tim Phelps, with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry. "Any acre of ground in Tennessee will often want to revert to forest if given enough time."

The Division of Forestry received $200,000 to expand prescribed burning on privately owned shortleaf pine forests. The group will be working with landowners across the Cumberland Plateau, including in Southeast Tennessee.

The Alabama Forestry Association received two of the seven grants awarded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Their $150,000 grant will help establish 400 acres of shortleaf pine and enhance an additional 2,200 acres of existing habitat with prescribed burning and invasive species removal in Northeast Alabama, including Jackson and DeKalb counties. A $300,000 grant, also awarded to the Alabama Forestry Association, will be used to help riparian forest habitats — forested areas adjacent to bodies of water — and benefit freshwater mussels and fish.

The two other local projects are a $100,000 grant to The Nature Conservancy to restore and enhance riparian forests and in-stream habitats and a $200,000 grant that will be used for shortleaf pine ecosystem restoration by the The Forest Stewards Guild to benefit songbirds and game species, such as wild turkey.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant program has been around for about five years. The foundation saw it as a combination of need and opportunity, Jensen said. The group wanted to aid conservation efforts in the region and was approached by a potential investor wanting to jump-start the work.

That investor — renewable fiber-based packaging, pulp and paper product manufacturer International Paper — worked with the foundation to bring other investors on board including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, US. Fish and Wildlife Service, American Forest Foundation and Altria Group — one of the world's largest producers and marketers of tobacco and cigarettes.

"We are pleased to support these seven conservation grants that will establish and enhance more than 9,700 acres of forestland within the Cumberland Plateau," said Tom Cleves, International Paper's vice president of global citizenship. "By working together with organizations that share our commitment to responsible forest stewardship, we will continue to ensure healthy and productive forest ecosystems for future generations."

Other projects include work by the Cumberland River Compact to improve farming practices and by the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy to restore forested riparian buffers and implement additional conservation practices on private agricultural lands.

Contact Mark Pace with questions, comments, concerns or story tips at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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