Cumberland Forest Project

Cameron Davidson courtesy The Nature Conservancy

Clouds shroud The Nature Conservancy’s Cumberland Forest Project, 153,000 acres of forested land in western Virginia. The property is part of a 250,000-plus-acre swath of land the conservancy will maintain to protect wildlife while allowing existing commercial and recreational uses to continue for area residents.

The Charlottesville-based Nature Conservancy has closed its purchase of 153,000 acres of Appalachian Mountain property in Virginia with the intent to protect major rivers, wildlife and forests while continuing to provide residents in that area with occupations and recreation.

The Virginia land — part of the organizations 253,000-acre Cumberland Forest Project that encompasses acreage in Tennessee and Kentucky, as well — is north of the Clinch River and northeast of the Jefferson National Forest near Wise.

The purchase of 100,000 acres in the other states was finalized in April.

Combined with state and national forests and private conservation easements, the Cumberland Forest Project properties form an Appalachian Mountain corridor that Nature Conservancy officials say acts as a migration highway for wildlife and a home for climate change-resilient forests.

The properties include diverse plant and animal life and feature 700 miles of headwater streams for the Clinch and Cumberland rivers, as well as the Ohio and Tennessee rivers.

“We started thinking, where are the most important places to protect if we’re going to give wildlife a chance to adapt to climate change and development by being able to move north and south,” said Locke Ogens, Virginia director for the conservancy. “We immediately identified the Appalachians as an important migratory route for wildlife and for watersheds and forestry.”

The land is not pristine, nor does the convervancy plan to try to return it to that state. The Virginia acreage, known as Highlands-Lonesome Pine, was acquired from an investment fund managed by The Forestland Group. The group logged the land under sustainable forestry guidelines.

The properties in the other states include inactive and active mining sites, leased recreational use areas and commercially logged properties.

The income that could be derived from those uses enabled the conservancy to attract private investors to join in the purchase. The investors will receive a return from commercial use of the acreage as part of an investment fund with the conservancy as the general partner and co-investor.

“The Cumberland Forest Project deploys private capital as a powerful tool to achieve large-scale conservation,” said Tom Tierney, chairman of the Nature Conservancy board. “What’s more, we think this will prove that sustainably managing natural assets can be good business and deliver big benefits to wildlife, water quality and the local economy.”

The sustainable logging operations will continue, as will access to the recreational areas. Mining may continue in the properties because the conservancy does not own the mineral rights to the property. It does, however, own surface land rights and can use mined land restoration funds and apply for grants to repair properties.

“[Those activities] allowed us to put together a capital investment structure that would allow a return on the timber leases and the recreational areas,” Ogens said. “That allows the people in the area to continue to earn a living while ensuring the future of the property.”

The conservancy also received a loan from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which in the past has supported the organization’s research and forestry work in the central Appalachians.

“We’re excited to make the largest single investment in [our] history to help protect this essential piece of the Appalachians, North America’s most critical climate migration corridor,” said Sacha Spector, the foundation’s environment program director. “This project offers a spectacular demonstration of how land conservation and restoration at this scale can safeguard wildlife, support a community’s livelihoods and secure the climate.”

As well as returning an investment, the commercial activities on the property will allow residents to keep their jobs.

“Everything we do is really for the benefit of nature and conservation but also for the people who live in the region,” Ogens said. “We don’t put a bubble over property and kick people out.”

“This is a working forest that’s being harvested according to sustainable methods, and we’re not going to take anything away from the people who are working.”

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