More than 153,000 acres of land across Southwest Virginia are now part of The Nature Conservancy’s Cumberland Forest Project, the group announced Monday.
“This new project is just tremendously exciting,” said Brad Kreps, 44, the Clinch Valley program director for The Nature Conservancy in Abingdon, Virginia. “It’s a large property. And, for us, it’s a big scale-up for our conservation work in Southwest Virginia.”
The three-state Cumberland Forest Project is part of a partnership with investors, allowing The Nature Conservancy to manage forested mountains and 700 miles of headwater streams in ways that can conserve land yet also afford opportunities for logging and best land-use practices, Kreps said.
“We have organized this partnership, and we are going to be the management for this land,” he said.
Monday's announcement follows an earlier one in April, when The Nature Conservancy began managing 100,000 acres of land in both Kentucky and Tennessee, lying just west of — and connected to — the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
“In both cases, the properties have recreational access,” Kreps said. “This creates opportunities for a broad public-use access agreement.”
The condition of this land in Virginia varies — from ridges that have been timbered to reclaimed mining sites, Kreps said.
“This shows that we're trying to do great conservation at a great scale and, at the same time, support local communities’ local economies,” Kreps said. “And we have other investors in support of conservation work.”
The state director for The Nature Conservancy, Locke Ogens, calls this project “a historic opportunity to blend conservation and economic development,” in a news release issued Monday.
Highlands and headwaters
Not all of the land in Virginia is connected.
One portion sits near Breaks Interstate Park, close to the Dickenson-Buchanan county line. More lies along the Wise-Dickenson county border, Kreps said.
Much of the “Highlands” section in Virginia also lies on the headwaters of the Clinch River in the Dante, Cleveland and St. Paul communities, Kreps said.
“It encompasses the western part of Russell County up in the coalfields,” he said.
A small portion also lies along the Clinch River.
“Portions of this property on the Clinch River are ones that we’ll be keenly interested in because of our longstanding commitment to the Clinch River,” Kreps said.
For more than two decades, The Nature Conservancy has worked largely along the Clinch River in Russell, Wise and Scott counties in Virginia, acquiring land and helping protect the river's rare and endangered mussel species.
Logging the property
The Highlands-Lonesome Pine property in Virginia was acquired from an investment fund managed by The Forestland Group, a timberland investment management organization focused on the sustainable management of natural forest ecosystems, according to the release.
The project’s funding includes equity investments from several limited partners, as well as support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which has previously supported The Nature Conservancy’s work in the Central Appalachians, the release states.
Now, The Nature Conservancy aims to work with loggers supplying timber for mills near the property.
“In this new project, sustainable forestry is one of the big parts,” Kreps said. “We will actively manage the forestry. We're going to be doing everything we can to take care of the property and improve their condition but also manage the property in a way that supports local communities.”
Ultimately, though, this land will move to other hands, Kreps added.
“We will not hold this forever,” Kreps said. “The property will be sold. We anticipate about a 10- or 12-year management program with us.”
Yet, Kreps said, “We’re going to work on assuring long-term conservation practices.”