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The Tennessee Conservationist Magazine

Photos Courtesy of Division of Natural Heritage
by Brian Bowen

Anniversaries and birthdays are times for celebration, reflection, and rededication.

Not long ago, these or similar words were written in The Tennessee Conservationist magazine recognizing the 25th anniversary of the Natural Areas Preservation Act of 1971. This year’s 30th anniversary provides yet another opportunity to appreciate Tennessee’s treasures that the act protects, while recognizing how much more needs to be done to preserve the best of the rest. The anniversary also offers a chance to raise awareness about how lands are protected through the Tennessee Natural Areas Program (TNAP).

The birth of natural area preservation in Tennessee was in 1971 when the General Assembly enacted the Natural Areas Preservation Act. This progressive legislation put Tennessee on the map as one of the first states in the Southeast to enact natural area legislation.

The very first legislation occurred in the Midwestern states in the 1950s where the late conservationist Aldo Leopold’s influence was strong and The Nature Conservancy emerged. Today, Tennessee is one of more than 30 states that have natural area preservation programs and laws protecting land.

Land Protection Through Designation

The Natural Areas Preservation Act of 1971 protects land in perpetuity. Since 1995, Gov. Don Sundquist has established 24 new natural areas, raising the total number to 62 natural areas protected by law. This increase is significant when considering that the first 25 natural areas were designated in 1973 and 1974, with only 13 more added between 1975 and 1994.

There have also been thousands of acres added to state natural areas during this same period. The protected land base is expected to increase from approximately 70,000 acres in 1995 to over 100,000 acres in 2002. The designation occurs on acquired land, donated land, private lands with conservation easements, lands owned by land trusts, and lands already in public ownership. Natural areas may also become registered state natural areas. These sites are recognized as ecologically significant through non-binding agreements with landowners. Registry agreements often are an interim step to designation.

The mechanism for protecting natural areas in Tennessee is legislative. Natural areas are designated by an amendment to the Natural Areas Preservation Act, usually as a part of the governor’s legislation. This formal process begins as designations are recommended to the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) by the Natural Areas Advisory Committee.

These recommendations originate from the TNAP as sites are nominated to the Natural Areas Advisory Committee for approval at an annual meeting.

The TNAP is one of three complementary programs in the TDEC’s Division of Natural Heritage (DNH) that work together to effect land protection. The Natural Heritage Program and the Tennessee Rare Plant Protection Program support natural area preservation by conducting statewide inventory, mapping locations of rare elements, and entering this information into a statewide database.

The criteria for nominating natural areas is based on methodology developed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). A ranking system is used to evaluate sites. Sites that support populations of federally listed threatened or endangered species rise to the top, followed by sites that have several state listed species, or that support exemplary native plant communities. Geological and scenic attributes are also evaluated. This ranking system reduces subjectivity so sites are evaluated for their ecological importance. This is critical for prioritizing protection actions, and for allocating valuable resources for acquisition and stewardship.

Gaining Support

This new nomination process was established at the 25th anniversary meeting in November 1996. This anniversary meeting was a celebration event and an opportunity to reconvene the Natural Areas Advisory Committee that met last in 1985. At that 1996 meeting, approximately 75 invited guests attended the birthday celebration. This event included an unveiling of the Natural Areas 25th anniversary commemorative poster and presentations on the state of natural area programs in the U.S. and in Tennessee. A representative of the Natural Areas Association presented a plaque to former TDEC Commissioner Justin P. Wilson recognizing 25 years of preservation in Tennessee. That afternoon, the Natural Areas Advisory Committee met and they were presented their first slate of site nominations.

The advisory committee took their mission to heart and began the task of strengthening the TNAP. The committee, which is made up of representatives of private citizens, land trusts and conservation organizations, and directors of state and federal land managing agencies, chose to meet often over the next two years. They submitted a white paper to the governor’s office in 1998 that proposed increased funding for acquisition and stewardship of natural areas.

The strategy to improve the program rallied around this milestone event, raising the profile of the program and gaining support. This actually began prior to our 25th anniversary meeting, as The Tennessee Conservationist dedicated a 28-page special section to Tennessee State Natural Areas in June of 1996. The magazine, the poster, the anniversary meeting, and the reconvening of the Natural Areas Advisory Committee helped jump-start a very dormant state natural areas program.

Improvements to the Natural Areas Program

These efforts contributed to program improvements that resulted in hiring four stewardship ecologists. These four staff members, who are supervised by the natural areas administrator, are responsible for natural areas stewardship activities in the Northeast region, Southeast, Middle and West regions of the state.

Since hiring these new staff members, some day-use natural areas not previously open to the public have become accessible. This has resulted in constructing small parking areas, trails and boardwalks, and erecting information kiosks and signs. These improvements have been made recently at numerous natural areas including Piney Falls, Short Springs, Devils Backbone, Flat Rock Cedar Glade and Barrens, Sunk Lake, Hampton Creek Cove, and Ghost River.

While the Natural Areas Program does not focus on providing the type of recreation found in Tennessee State Parks, it does provide opportunities for passive use so that the public can appreciate the ecological value and scenic beauty of these special places. Since natural areas are low impact areas, development is not allowed and operational costs are kept at a minimum while land is preserved.

The staff of the natural areas program has marked boundaries with state natural area signs and erected fences where illegal activities such as dumping or off road vehicle use occur. Their management activities focus on controlling invasive exotic plants and using fire to maintain grassland ecosystems. These stewardship ecologists consider all management needs as they revise, develop, and implement management plans for all the state designated natural areas.

Cooperative Efforts

In caring for these special places, the Natural Areas Program creates long lasting partnerships to help manage natural areas.

One effort has entailed bridge building at Short Springs Natural Area in Coffee County. This project involved working with TVA, the Tennessee Trails Association (TTA), Friends of Short Springs, and the City of Tullahoma. Partnerships have enabled us to open Devils Backbone in Lewis County in cooperation with the National Park Service, Lewis County government, Tennessee Trails Association, and the Natchez Trace Parkway Association. Our partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has allowed us to put in a boat ramp and boardwalk at Sunk Lake in Lauderdale County in West Tennessee. We have completed riparian restoration at Hampton Creek Cove in Carter County, working with the Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy in East Tennessee.

Since federally listed species (species near extinction) rise to the top for protection, the natural areas program cooperates extensively with the USFWS who administers the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It is the Division of Natural Heritage’s Rare Plant Protection Program that has statewide responsibility for protecting state and federally listed plants and implements federal endangered species recovery plans. Recovery plans provide management recommendations and identify research. Many of these actions are implemented in state natural areas. The USFWS provides funding for these recovery activities which until recently had been the principle funding source for natural area stewardship.

Cooperation is the cornerstone for being good managers and getting work done in state natural areas. It is especially necessary when state natural areas are owned and managed by other agencies. This holds true for 10 Designated State Natural Areas owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, or Bays Mountain, owned and managed by the City of Kingsport, or state natural areas in Tennessee State Parks, on Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency land or in state forests.

Fire: Managing to Restore

Many of our Middle Tennessee natural areas are grassland-dominated landscapes. Some support federally endangered plants and require fire to curtail woody species invasion. In 1998, funding was procured from USFWS to implement a Middle Tennessee burn program. This resulted in implementing prescribed burning and vegetation monitoring at Designated State Natural Areas including Fate Sanders and Flat Rock, both in Rutherford County; and Cedars of Lebanon in Wilson County.

Burning these sites helped provide staff the experience to plan and conduct prescribed burning in state natural areas. This is where science and management meet and this how natural area management frequently proceeds.

The burn monitoring has been conducted in cooperation with Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro with the purpose of observing change in vegetation patterns resulting from the burn treatment.

Flat Rock Cedar Glade and Barrens

Flat Rock was designated in 1999 and is a premier cedar/glade barren complex. Flat Rock is a case study in how the TNAP and TNC work together to accomplish preservation. Flat Rock is jointly owned and managed by both. TDEC’s land acquisition fund was more accessible for purchasing key tracts because TNC provided matching funds.

The original designation in 1999 protected 579 acres, since then TDEC and TNC have acquired more land and increased protection to include 849 acres. It is managed with fire and is an important research area for MTSU.

MTSU’s Biology Department is hopeful of developing a center for cedar glade research. Flat Rock would be a principle outdoor living laboratory since it is practically in MTSU’s backyard.

Middle Tennessee cedar glades, like Flat Rock, are one of Tennessee’s rarest ecosystems. They support three federally endangered species: Tennessee Coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis); Leafy Prairie-clover (Dalea foliosa); and Pyne’s Ground-plum (Astragalus bibullatus) and more than 25 rare state listed species. Cedar glades occur in exposed limestone surrounded by very thin soil that support highly adapted rare plants. The glades are surrounded by cedar and hardwood trees in deeper soils. The barrens are also in deeper soils and are characterized by an abundance of perennial grasses like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula).

Barrens: Protection and Restoration

Barrens are distinct communities not associated with cedar glades on the Highland Rim in Middle Tennessee.

For example, at May Prairie DNSA in Coffee County, barrens have tall grass characteristics similar to tall grass prairies of the Midwest (the terms “prairie” and “barrens” are used synonymously). Examples of barrens on the Highland Rim include remnant areas in natural areas located at Montgomery Bell State Park in Dickson County; on hillsides at Beaman Park in Davidson County (nominated as a state natural area); Ridgetop Barrens in Davidson County; the Farm in Lewis County; May Prairie; and at Fort Campbell, located in Montgomery and Stewart Counties.

The best remaining large-scale example is at Fort Campbell Military Reservation. There are approximately 20,000 to 30,000 acres of barrens and it is probably the best example of a barrens ecosystem east of the Mississippi. It exists today because of the continuous burning by the military in restricted ordinance zones. The 1,200-acre Hellcat Barrens, outside the ordinance zone, is recommended as a registered state natural area.

May Prairie DSNA is a small open prairie surrounded by nearly 1,000 acres of forest. It is unique and supports over 25 rare state listed plants, many of which are found in the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains. In 1947, the late Dr. A.J. Sharp, a distinguished botanist at the University of Tennessee, discovered the 36-acre open grassland barrens.

In recent years research of the barrens ecosystems has recognized that much of Coffee County and the surrounding county lands were open forested grassland ecosystems. This led to a change in management recognizing the importance of both open prairie and oak barrens forest. A basic management goal is to put fire back into the oak barrens and remove competing shrub and small tree growth that have grown up since stopping the open burning practices permitted in Tennessee before the 1940s.

This has led to a barrens restoration initiative to help manage significant public lands and provide private landowner assistance in restoring and protecting barrens. TNC and the Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) provide assistance to private landowners. Public land managers at Arnold Engineering and Development Center (AEDC) in Coffee County, May Prairie and TWRA are focused on restoring barrens on public lands. A protocol for barrens restoration is being developed at AEDC (40,000 acres) where there are three registered state natural areas. This initiative includes developing rapid assessment to identify barrens, develop management strategies to restore them, and monitoring to determine how successful restoration is working.

From grasslands to wetlands; designations out west

Preservation efforts on the western Highland Rim are increasing as new natural areas will be proposed for designation in 2002. Carroll Cabin Barrens is a Little Bluestem grassland located in Silurian period limestone, (dating from 440 to 410 million years ago) found in Decatur County. The geology is unique for barrens in Tennessee. In Lewis County, Auntney Hollow is a wet seep dominated by sedges, Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia), and the federally listed Tennessee Yellow-eyed Grass (Xyris tennesseensis). It is nestled in a forested area near Little Swan Creek. These two sites were first registered state natural areas and are owned by Willamette Industries. Willamette is donating conservation easements to the state for both sites enabling the protection of these places through designation.

Similar efforts to work with industrial forest landowners is on going, as discussions are underway as previously to register wetlands as state natural areas in Stewart County with Westvaco and also with International Paper in Lewis County, where new Tennessee Yellow eyed-Grass sites have been discovered. Tennessee Yellow-eyed Grass is one of the state’s rarest species. Six of the 15 sites known in the world are located in Lewis County. In 2001, one of the six sites, Langford Branch, was purchased by TNC and designated as state natural area.

The TNAP continues to be active in West Tennessee. In Hardin County, the TWRA owned Walker Branch Dragonfly and Damselfly Preserve was designated in 1997. This 225 acre preserve supports forested wetlands and small seeps where over 35 species of dragonfly and damselfly breed.

Further west along the Wolf River in Fayette County, TNC’s William B. Clark Preserve was designated in 2000. TNC has built a boardwalk for public access into this 420-acre cypress-tupelo swamp. Only a few miles upstream, in the Ghost River DSNA, the TNAP is building a 1,300-foot boardwalk in a swamp habitat. The 2,000-acre Ghost River DSNA is part of 6,000 acres of state owned land that is cooperatively managed by the TWRA with assistance from the Wolf River Conservancy. The Wolf River Conservancy was a vital partner in the acquisition of this land in 1997.

There is more wetland protection planned for 2002. Approximately 10,000 acres of the 13,500 acres of park land at Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park in Shelby County is proposed for designation. This represents some of the largest contiguous bottomland hardwood forest along the Mississippi River that still remains in Tennessee. It is significant habitat for breeding and migratory songbirds that winter in South America.

From Bottomlands to Towering Pinnacles

Back east on the Cumberland Plateau is the Chimneys DSNA. This geologic feature has two 200-foot pinnacles connected at the base with a window in the middle and a natural bridge on top. It rises from the gorge near Pocket Creek in Marion County. The gorge supports old growth Hemlock forest towering above a dense thicket of Rosebay Rhododendron. While this natural area is only 32 acres, it is surrounded by thousands of acres of forest. Much of this land has been owned by U.S.X. Corporation (a subsidiary of Marathon Ashland Petroleum) since the 1880s. The state received the 32 acres as a corporate donation in 1999, the year it was designated. This day use natural area is managed in cooperation with the Chimneys Scenic Park Association, a non-profit organization which has provided supervision of the Chimneys since the mid-1980s, building trails, holding cleanups, and working to bring the area into public ownership (The Tennessee Conservationist, November/December, 1999).

At a lower elevation, but not far from the Chimneys is Sequatchie Cave. It was designated in 2001 to protect the Royal Snail (Pyrguloposis ogmorphaphe). It is owned by Marion County Government and is located at a roadside park where vegetation restoration has been on-going to remove invasive exotic plants and plant native trees. This is only one of two locations known for the Royal Snail, which is federally endangered. A roost of federally endangered Gray Bats (Myotis grisescens) is also known from this cave.

Further to the south just outside of Chattanooga is North Chickamauga Creek Gorge (NCCG) DSNA, covering 3,852 acres of rugged gorge and plateau land surrounded by thousands of acres of additional wilderness. NCCG is adjacent to the 1,000 acre Bowater Pocket Wildness Area that has recently become a registered state natural area.

This area was designated in 1999 and purchased by TDEC with the help of the Conservation Fund and the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy. It supports two federal and five state listed plant species as well as a vast number of wildlife species, and whitewater rapids that are frequented by kayakers who are brave enough to try.

More vast rugged gorge and plateau acreage have recently been added to the Fall Creek Fall DSNA which now has 21,002 acres designated, and Savage Gulf DSNA now has 15,590 acres. It is expected that much of the lands recently donated to the state by Bridgestone/Firestone, along with six registered state natural areas in the 12,800 acre Columbia-Duck River project area in Maury County will be proposed for designation in 2002. These are each important large landscape scale projects.

Continuing to Protect Land

With the support of citizens, conservation groups and our state’s leaders, the Tennessee Natural Areas Program will continue to help preserve natural areas in Tennessee. This is a particularly important period as Tennessee continues to rapidly grow and attract new commerce and industry. While development can threaten preservation, it is the natural areas and unique places that people who visit and live in Tennessee love and want to protect.

It is the intent of the TNAP to continue to increase stewardship and preservation of our unique natural areas through designation. It is TNAP’s hope and expectation that the natural area inventory of designated lands will continue to increase for future generations to enjoy in perpetuity and that future anniversaries of the act will be a time to celebrate and appreciate these protected lands.

For more information, contact the Division of Natural Heritage at 615-532-0431.


(Natural Areas Administrator Brian Bowen works for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Division of Natural Heritage.)



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