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Staff file photo by Doug Strickland / The falls over the dam at Rainbow Lake are seen on Nov. 28, 2014, in Signal Mountain, Tenn. The Land Trust for Tennessee at the time was helping the town of Signal Mountain to permanently protect the 342-acre public park space.

Officials and supporters with The Land Trust for Tennessee are celebrating after recently receiving the Land Trust Alliance's National Land Trust Excellence Award for its work in conservation of land that is meaningful to people and places statewide.

"Tennessee's farms, forests, parks and open spaces are vital to our state," Liz McLaurin, President and CEO of The Land Trust for Tennessee, said in a statement on the award. "We're honored to receive national recognition for our work to protect this beautiful place we call home."

For more than 20 years, The Land Trust for Tennessee has worked to protect more than 130,000 acres of land through over 400 conservation projects in 70 Tennessee counties, according to a statement on the award. The organization earned the recognition from the Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation organization that shares the same goals.

The extraordinary circumstances of 2020 highlight the importance of those goals, according to McLaurin.

"During the pandemic, we across Tennessee have recognized that conserved open spaces offer both mental and physical respites, whether enjoyed though the window of a car, on a trail, behind the handlebars of a motorcycle or on a tractor," McLaurin said. "We need more emphasis on the protection of all these distinctive landscapes."

The Land Trust for Tennessee is the 20th land trust in the U.S. to receive the National Land Trust Excellence Award since 2007, according to officials.

The National Land Trust Excellence Award, according to information from the national organization, recognizes land trusts for excellence in broadening support for land conservation, collaboration initiatives, communications and outreach, engagement of the community through education and outreach programs.

The land trust's impact in Tennessee is felt in communities statewide and includes the protection of thousands of acres that consist of family farms, mountainous forests, public parks and historic landscapes, according to the trust's statement and background on its past work.

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Staff file photo by Doug Strickland / Berries still remain on a bush along a trail at Rainbow Lake on Nov. 28, 2014, in Signal Mountain, Tenn. The Land Trust for Tennessee at the time was helping the town of Signal Mountain to permanently protect the 342-acre public park space.

In partnerships, the trust also has been able to protect more than 44,000 acres of public land and natural areas in the state.

Protected areas in Southeast Tennessee include the 685-acre Denny Cove in Marion County, 4,000-acre Sherwood Forest in Franklin County and thousands of acres along the Cumberland Trail. In the western end of the state, there's the 4,000-acre Shelby Farms Park in Memphis.

"The work that land trusts all across our nation are doing has never been more urgent or important," Land Trust Alliance President and CEO Andrew Bowman said in a statement on the award. "As we celebrate the many accomplishments of The Land Trust for Tennessee, we lift them up as an inspirational example to others working in conservation. I am proud to count The Land Trust for Tennessee among the Land Trust Alliance's 1,000 member land trusts."

Former Tennessee governor and founder of The Land Trust for Tennessee Phil Bredesen said the organization is a model for others.

"We all started with high hopes and expectations, but today, The Land Trust for Tennessee has grown and evolved into something that has far exceeded all of them," Bredesen said in a statement on the award. "I especially love the way in which the organization connects with Tennesseans from all sorts of backgrounds and approaches to life. This group represents everything a land trust should be."

In other areas of Southeast Tennessee over the years, the organization notched the preservation and conservation of places like Marion County's Castle Rock, north of Jasper, a premier rock-climbing destination and a million-dollar view of the Sequatchie Valley; a secured easement on 342 acres of soaring bluffs and Rainbow Lake in Signal Mountain in Hamilton County; and 5,500-acres that included the acquisition of almost 5,000 acres of wilderness and a conservation easement on 718 acres in Grundy County's Savage Gulf and Fiery Gizzard areas on the Cumberland Plateau, along with many others.

(READ MORE: 2,600 acres of Tennessee land gains protection)

"In our first 20 years, our protected acres have grown to more than 130,000 in almost every corner of Tennessee. In 2019, we embarked on the monumental task of creating a statewide land conservation plan for Tennessee to continue guiding our future work because we know how important it is to keep going," said Emily Parish, The Land Trust for Tennessee vice president of conservation, who has been with the organization for 16 years.

"Our vision for the future is guided by our new strategic plan, Forever Tennessee, which is directing us to conserve properties with the greatest conservation value across our state," Parish said Friday in an email. "By honing our focus for today's challenges and opportunities, we believe we will increase the quality, pace, and impact of our work over the next 20 years and beyond."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

Past National Land Trust Excellence Award Recipients

The recipient or recipients of the prestigious Land Trust Excellence Award are celebrated during the Welcoming Dinner at the “Rally: The National Land Conservation Conference” each year. Past recipients include:

2019: Sonoma Land Trust (California)

2018: Newtown Forest Association (Connecticut) and Shirley Heinze Land Trust (Indiana)

2017: Groton Open Space Association (Connecticut) and Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (Colorado)

2016: Oblong Land Conservancy and Putnam County Land Trust (New York) and Arizona Land & Water Trust (Arizona)

2015: Kent Land Trust (Connecticut) and Openlands (Illinois)

2014: Gates Mills Land Conservancy (Ohio) and Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust (Alaska)

2013: Alachua Conservation Trust (Florida)

2012: Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (Michigan) and Leelanau Conservancy (Michigan)

2011: Scenic Hudson (New York)

2010: Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (Michigan)

2009: Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (New Hampshire)

2008: Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust (Rhode Island)

2007: Coalition for Buzzards Bay – Bay Lands Center (Maine)

Source: The Land Trust Alliance

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