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The Cherokee National Forest is seen in this image provided by Volkswagen. The company is partnering with The Conservation Fund to expand the forest by 1,500 acres and donate the land to the U.S. Forest Service (Contributed photo: Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.)

The Cherokee National Forest is expanding by 1,500 acres near the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga thanks to a partnership between the German automaker and The Conservation Fund, the groups announced Thursday afternoon.

The announcement comes alongside a major expansion at Volkswagen's U.S. headquarters, which was unveiled in a groundbreaking Wednesday morning. The company will donate $1.25 million to the Conservation Fund to purchase private forested land near its Chattanooga Assembly Plant near Ooltewah, Tennessee. Excess funds will go toward new community grants. 

 "Our work with The Conservation Fund will help strengthen the environment and help us give back to a community where more than 3,800 of our colleagues live," said Scott Keogh, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, in a statement. "We feel a responsibility to show how a major automaker can credibly contribute to the greater good."

The Conservation Fund, a national non-profit, is negotiating with private landowners to purchase the property. It will then transfer the land to the U.S. Forest Service for long-term care in 2020 and 2021.

The purchase will be added to the 650,000-acre national forest, which stretches across East Tennessee from east of Chattanooga to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and into surrounding states. 

The plan is for the land, which consists of three separate tracts, to be open to the public for recreation. It will be conserved for habitat for black bear and Indiana bat populations in the area. The project is part of an ongoing effort by the non-profit to protect American forests from development and fragmentation, according to a release. 

"We are excited about our partnership with Volkswagen and the opportunity to advance their commitment to corporate leadership around sustainability," said Larry Selzer, president and CEO of The Conservation Fund, in a release. "Volkswagen is taking real, measurable steps forward to help protect the environment, embrace sustainable business practices and support the communities in which they work."

Contact Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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