Tennessee Conservation Summary

The varied topography and geology of Tennessee creates nearly 60 ecological systems, providing a diversity that extends beyond the state’s iconic hills and mountains covered with hardwood trees, spring wildflowers, and its array of amphibians. Most notable are remnants of once-extensive grasslands home to endemic and disjunct plants, grassland birds and small mammals; primeval cypress-tupelo forests in and around lakes formed by a massive earthquake less than 200 years ago; and coniferous forests of red spruce and Fraser fir that connect a northern species from the maritime provinces of Canada with an endemic of the southern Appalachians.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

Tennessee’s most unique habitats host numerous rare, threatened or endangered species. The limestone cedar glades and barrens of the Central Basin feature endemic plants that depend on the basin’s harsh, dry conditions and once-natural disturbances such as fire; among them is the Tennessee coneflower, the first plant listed under the Endangered Species Act and a strict endemic of the Stones River Watershed. Another federally listed species that requires a limestone substrate is Tennessee yellow-eyed grass. In Tennessee, the species is restricted to one county of the Western Highland Rim, where it grows in thin soils over forested seeps or along streamsides.

The federally endangered painted snake coiled forest snail lives on limestone outcrops and boulders of forests of the Cumberland Plateau escarpment. Its known worldwide distribution is restricted to either side of the Crow Creek Valley in Franklin County. And the state’s extensive cave and karst systems support over 100 globally rare invertebrate animals, many known only from one or two sites.

Not all of the state’s species of concern have such narrow ranges. The breeding range of cerulean warbler covers much of the northeastern United States from Tennessee northward, and its migrations take it as far south as Bolivia. For breeding, though, the birds depend on mature closed-canopied forests like those of the rugged Cumberland Mountains.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Over the years, many individuals, agencies and organizations in Tennessee have worked to preserve representative ecological systems and portions of the state’s ecoregions. The Cherokee National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park are perhaps the best-known conservation lands in Tennessee; the Cherokee NF alone comprises 640,000 acres.

Additionally, portions of Central Basin limestone cedar glades are preserved through a suite of conservation lands that includes a state park, state forest and state natural areas, such as Cedars of Lebanon State Natural Area. Farther west, Tennessee’s largest forested floodplain occurs along the Hatchie River, a state-designated scenic river. Two national wildlife refuges have preserved over 20,000 acres along the river, and other conservation lands such as those owned by The Nature Conservancy and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency help protect this bottomland treasure.

Recently, The Nature Conservancy, in conjunction with the State of Tennessee, worked with two industrial forestland companies to protect 128,000 acres in the Cumberland Mountains. All of this land will be open to the public and is contigous with 66,000 acres of existing public lands, forming the single-largest land-protection project in Tennessee since the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934.

Threats

Perhaps the greatest threat to Tennessee’s natural landscape is urban growth and the infrastructure needed to maintain the modern lifestyle. This threat is especially acute within the range of rare cedar glade communities and species that occur on the outskirts of Nashville, where the increasing construction of homes, businesses, roads and utility corridors has excavated the thin soils in and on which rare species grow.

The sale of large industrial land holdings—often for second homes—is another significant threat in Tennessee. While sometimes allowed for large conservation projects, these sales can fragment forests into smaller-sized parcels held by multiple landowners who may be unaware of rare species or communities. These dispersals can also increase the cost of conservation management and complicate the use of tools like controlled burning.

Small to medium reservoirs are being constructed or proposed for increased water supply to these growing communities and rural vacation homes, as well as the desire for recreational lakes and ponds. Some of these waterbodies are constructed along the headwaters of streams that support rare communities and species such as the state-endangered white fringeless orchid and the state-endemic pristine crayfish.

Even protected sites are not immune. Non-native invasive species, like privet shrubs, have degraded and diminished natural communities and species diversity. One immediate threat comes from the hemlock wooly adelgid, a small aphid-like Asian insect that could eliminate eastern and Carolina hemlock forests on a scale similar to the early 20th-century’s chestnut blight.

Tennessee’s Future

Even with such threats, Tennessee conservation has been, and continues to be, a success story. Within local, state and federal agencies, and public and private universities, there are numerous dedicated biologists and conservationists who, through inventory, proper environmental review, and land conservation, have helped to avoid or minimize adverse impacts.

Along with professional biologists there are individuals who volunteer their time to survey public lands, lead wildflower, bird or butterfly hikes, and report rare species observations to the Division of Natural Areas, allowing for a more comprehensive rare-species database, more thorough environmental review, and better conservation planning.

In addition, there are countless private landowners interested in conservation, some of whom have entered into a natural areas registry agreement with the Division of Natural Areas whereby they retain full rights of ownership, but agree to manage their property for specific conservation objectives. It is essential for such collaboration to continue in order to build on the current protection of Tennessee’s natural features.

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