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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ The crest of Big Frog Moutain, frosted with snow, rises above the Ocoee River in the Cherokee National Forest. The mountain, 4,222 feet high, was capped with snow on January 20, 2020.

An $18 million conservation effort aimed at protection and conservation of the forests of the Appalachians was launched this week targeting the Chattanooga region with an initial $5.25 million grant focused on protecting key portions of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia while combating climate change.

The protection fund aims to conserve at least 30,000 acres in the tri-state area officials dubbed the "Cradle of Southern Appalachia," a 7-million-acre region that has long been a priority for environmentalists.

"The forests of the Southern Appalachians are not only critical for their natural and local heritage, they also protect the land that matters most as we take on the largest environmental challenge of our time — a changing climate," Open Space Institute president and CEO Kim Elliman said in a statement issued Thursday.

The $5.25 million fund aimed at the Cradle of Southern Appalachia "will be guided by a conservation blueprint developed by Thrive Regional Partnership's Natural Treasures Alliance, a regional collaboration of conservation groups, private businesses, and citizens," according to the statement.

(READ MORE: Many Appalachian residents don't believe climate change is real or caused by humans. But why?)

The $18 million Appalachian Landscapes Protection Fund will provide grants for acquisition of land and conservation easements to "protect wildlife habitat and store carbon," officials said. The institute's grants and loans will also leverage an additional $66 million in matching public and private funds.

The Appalachian Mountain region stretches 2,000 miles from Alabama to Canada, containing vast contiguous forests that are critical in combating climate change, officials said. But those forests face significant threats from development, poor management and energy extraction. Nationally, U.S. forests are permanently lost at a rate of just under 1 million acres per year.

In 2019, U.S. forests stored 59 billion metric tons of carbon, the equivalent of more than 33 years worth of emissions in the nation, officials said. Every year, forests remove 15% of the country's carbon dioxide emissions, equal to removing more than 673 million cars from the road.

The Cradle of Southern Appalachia is one of the fund's three focus areas, including protection of 50,000 acres along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, according to institute officials. The region is home to the world's largest broadleaf forest, which stores more than half the country's carbon and serves as an essential climate refuge for plants and animals.

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ The sun sets on a cloudy day over Parksville Lake in the Cherokee National Forest on January 20, 2020. The cypress trees are Ocoee landmarks as they grow from the lake near where Greasy Creek joins the reservoir.

Thrive officials and others applauded the work and players behind the effort.

"This funding announcement is a direct result of what happens when citizens and local leaders come together to thoughtfully plan for our future," Thrive Regional Partnership Natural Treasures Alliance chairperson Daniel Carter said in the statement. Carter expressed thanks to 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"

(READ MORE: Southeast Climbers Coalition to pay off $1.3 million rock climber's paradise Denny Cove in Marion County)

Institute officials are eyeing a better future.

"We want to make sure that what's protected does its part to mitigate climate change both in terms of protecting carbon stores where carbon is in the trees right now, but we'll also sequester additional carbon so the impacts won't be so bad for people and wildlife in the future," the institute's southeast field coordinator, Joel Houser, said.

The current fund is the fourth the institute has operated in the region and is only possible with local help from supporters and organizations such as the Lyndhurst Foundation, Riverview Foundation and Tucker Foundation, he said.

Houser said the work should resonate with community interests.

"We really do try to find the balance between protecting land for people and wildlife," he said.

Doris Duke Charitable Foundation program director Sacha Spector and American Forests president and CEO Jad Daley applauded the science-based fund's goals and the institute's leadership in Thursday's statement.

"Over the past two decades, OSI has been leading the way with innovative, science-based efforts to protect the most biodiverse and climate-resilient places across the Eastern U.S.," Spector said.

"The fund is an invaluable tool in demonstrating and documenting the value of land conservation as a critical and necessary response to climate change," Daley said.

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

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