Brad Kreps knows the winding streams and hilly forests of Virginia’s Clinch Valley like the back of his hand. A man who’s conserved Central Appalachia for two decades, Kreps can explain at length why rare freshwater mussels like the rough rabbitsfoot or the Tennessee heelsplitter matter. Yet when it comes to describing The Nature Conservancy’s newest project in the region, he’s inclined to start with one word.
“Well, it’s big. I mean, it’s just big.”
At 253,000 acres, the Cumberland Forest Project, one of TNC’s largest-ever conservation efforts in the eastern United States, protects sweeping forest landscapes across two parcels, one in Southwest Virginia and one along the Kentucky and Tennessee border. Safeguarding this vast stretch of forest tackles climate change on two fronts: by storing millions of tons of carbon dioxide and by connecting a migratory corridor that scientists believe could be one of North America’s most important “escape routes” as plant and animal species shift their ranges to cooler climates.
Larger than Shenandoah and Acadia National Parks combined, this huge win represents a new way of doing conservation. For decades, donors have been core to TNC’s conservation successes. With this project, TNC builds on that incredible base of support by attracting private investment capital that allows the organization to conserve at a greater scale and a faster pace.
Tom Hodgman knows his forests and his markets. The first words he uses to describe the properties are “Appalachian mixed hardwood,” as he details the economics of sustainable forestry and carbon offsets. Hodgman is a Senior Director in TNC’s NatureVest division, the team that worked across the three states to structure this project as an investment fund.
By carefully managing these forests and enrolling them in the California Carbon Market and under Forest Stewardship Council certification, the project aims to improve the forests’ health while generating the revenue to pay back these conservation-minded investors. The project also has implications for conservation’s future. TNC’s science proves that a future where people and nature thrive is possible–if we act soon. By managing forests in a large-scale way that is both ecologically beneficial and economically sound, the Cumberland project can demonstrate an important tool in achieving that future.
Protecting Nature's Diversity into the Future
The benefits of this project are many: healthy trees store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, contributing to the global fight against climate change. Healthier forest along 700 miles of streams will benefit rivers like the Clinch and the Cumberland that contain some of the world’s rarest freshwater ecosystems. And in the long-term, protection along this specific area of the Cumberland Valley will aid biodiversity into the future.
Mark Anderson, an ecologist with TNC for 30 years, was part of the team that identified the conservation value of this region. Anderson has spent the greater part of a decade concentrating on what he calls ‘climate strongholds,’ natural places with enough diversity in their altitude and geology that even as the planet warms, regional species like the black mountain salamander can survive by moving around within its ‘microclimates.’
Without protection of strongholds and the routes between them, the world could end up with more weedy generalist species that could survive anywhere. By keeping this migration route in place, a large conservation project like this one is giving biodiversity the best possible chance.
Anderson says that the area around the Cumberland project has more of these microclimates than pretty much anywhere else in the United States. And because of its proximity to highly developed areas of the East Coast, it makes a perfect “climate escape route” for both plants and animals that are moving over time northward to avoid intolerable conditions. This benefits species like the ruffed grouse, a ground-dwelling bird that benefits from the cold microclimates of the Appalachians.
For Danna Baxley, TNC’s Kentucky Conservation Director, these properties make up a critical puzzle piece for wildlife and water protection as the climate changes. To her, the power of this historic project is in the legacy it establishes. “If you think 200 or 300 years down the road about things that will matter,” says Baxley, “this deal will matter.”
A Project that Grew Like Rings on a Tree
As a tree ages, it’s continuously growing newer and larger layers around its original core. This idea of constantly building upon previous layers is also a good way to describe how this groundbreaking project came to be.
If the Cumberland Forest Project grew like a tree, then it first sprouted in Virginia’s Clinch Valley. TNC first identified the area’s conservation importance because of the valley’s globally rare freshwater mussels. It then started listening to local people and understanding their relationship to the land. “If we were going to be successful [conserving the Central Appalachians], we had to really put roots down and have people really living here and building relationships on a local level,” says Kreps, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program in Virginia. “We had to come up with different approaches to conservation that recognized the need to keep land working and build a sustainable approach to that.”
The next ring on the tree, poetically enough, was TNC’s 2002 entrance into sustainable timber harvesting. The organization learned that it could make forests healthier, more diverse and more resilient to climate change by carefully selecting some trees to cut as part of a conservation plan. With that timber bringing an economic return to families in the region, TNC was able to show that it could achieve its conservation goals through what’s called a “working forest.”
Adding another ring to this tree, TNC’s working forest in Clinch Valley became certified by the California carbon market in 2014. Under California law, the state’s businesses can offset up to 8% of their carbon emissions; one way to do that is to pay forest owners in California or another state (like Virginia) to store that carbon in their trees. Here, TNC was able to strike an ideal balance between sustainably cutting some trees for the timber market while letting the majority of them grow and store even more carbon. This working forest of 23,000 acres is fighting climate change and getting paid to do so.
And now the Cumberland Forest Project adds the newest and largest ring yet. By honing its skills in sustainable forestry and carbon markets in Clinch Valley, TNC was able to put all the pieces together and attract investment capital to conserve more forest here than ever before.
“This is a way to take our work to new scale,” says Hodgman. “All across the Conservancy, we’ve done great forest conservation projects. We’ve done great carbon projects for the voluntary and California market. We’ve built those muscles and can demonstrate that we know how to put these deals together. The Cumberland Forest Project pulls all of this work together into a project you can finance; it pulls this work into an investment.”
TNC’s ardent donors and supporters have made it clear how much nature means to them. With this latest effort, TNC is showing that by identifying the economic value of nature, in language that financial markets understand, private capital can be enlisted to do even more to solve pressing challenges like climate change and habitat loss.
And so, alongside a 23,000 acre forest project, a 253,000 acre forest project is able to take root. With it comes a model for grander, more ambitious conservation. And the rings will continue to grow.
The Importance of the Cumberland Forest: Mapped
Habitat across North America is warming, and many plants and animals are on the move. The nooks and crannies of the hilly Cumberland Forest create cooler "microclimates" that can help them thrive into the future.