Conservation group buys 100,000 acres in Kentucky and Tennessee. Here’s its plan.

The Nature Conservancy has arranged to buy 100,000 acres in southeast Kentucky and Tennessee. This is a view of part of the property seen from the Tennessee portion of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.
The Nature Conservancy has arranged to buy 100,000 acres in southeast Kentucky and Tennessee. This is a view of part of the property seen from the Tennessee portion of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. The Nature Conservancy

A conservation group has bought 100,000 acres of forest land in Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee with plans to use it to demonstrate sustainable forestry, provide jobs and help protect key wildlife habitat in Central Appalachia.

A subsidiary of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) owns the land and the conservancy will manage it, according to David Phemister, state director of the organization in Kentucky.

The acquisition is by far the largest the organization has done in Kentucky.

“Fundamentally the project seeks to demonstrate that sustainable forestry can yield both smart conservation and good business, potentially creating a model that TNC, partners and communities could replicate across the Appalachians,” Phemister said.

The Nature Conservancy announced the purchase Monday.

The land straddles the state line, with 55,000 acres in Bell, Knox and Leslie counties in Kentucky and 45,000 acres in Claiborne and Campbell counties in northeast Tennessee.

Nature Conservancy map
The Nature Conservancy announced in April 2019 that it had arranged the purchase of 100,000 acres in Kentucky and Tennessee that it plans to manage for sustainable forestry and other conservation uses. The areas in red are the property, called Ataya, and the green areas are public lands. The Nature Conservancy

There has been logging and coal mining on the land.

The conservancy plans to continue logging, but in a way designed to improve the ecological health of the forest and wildlife habitat over time, rather than simply taking out the highest-grade trees.

Sustainable forestry should provide jobs using local loggers and sawmills, the organization said.

“This is very much what we would call a working lands project,” Phemister said.

The purchase covers only the surface. Ownership of any underlying coal was not included, and it’s likely there will be more mining in the area, Phemister said.

If so, The Nature Conservancy will work with regulators and coal companies to reduce the environmental impact and will require good reclamation, including putting trees back on the sites, Phemister said.

The group said it plans to donate any mining royalties it receives to local economic and community-development efforts.

The Nature Conservancy financed the purchase with money from several sources, including donations and a loan from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The organization declined to disclose the owner or the purchase price on Monday.

The conservancy may hire professionals for some management of the land.

Other goals include offering outdoor recreation opportunities, increasing carbon storage to combat climate change and protecting the 200 miles of headwater streams on the property.

Many of those streams flow into the Cumberland River or the Kentucky River, the water source for Lexington.

The property, which was known as Ataya before TNC bought it, is part of an area that is one of the most biologically diverse on the planet and includes more than 100 species with the greatest conservation need, including the little brown bat, the black mountain salamander and the cerulean warbler, according to the group.

It’s also part of a key migratory bird corridor from the southern Appalachians to Canada, and is projected to be one of the most important migratory routes as the climate changes, according to The Nature Conservancy.

“It really is an incredibly important place and it has incredibly important resources on it,” Phemister said.

The Kentucky Natural Lands Trust has worked to protect thousands of acres on Pine Mountain in the same region.

Phemister said The Nature Conservancy has protected about 50,000 acres of land in Kentucky since it started in 1975. The organization transferred most of that land to public agencies but owns 8,000 acres.

The purchase in Kentucky and Tennessee pushes the amount of forest land owned and managed by the group nationwide to nearly 800,000 acres, Phemister said.