Gov. Ralph Northam announced Monday a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Forestry and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to permanently protect 22,856 acres of forest land in Russell County in Southwest Virginia through the largest open space easement ever recorded in the Commonwealth.
“I am excited to announce this unique partnership that will allow for sustainable forestry, improve access to outdoor recreation, and increase protection of wildlife habitat and water quality,” said Northam. “This historic open space easement represents exactly what we are aiming for through our administration’s ConserveVirginia initiative to protect the highest conservation value lands in the Commonwealth. And in addition to the benefits to our environment and natural resources, sustainably managed forests will make important contributions to our rural economies and support local jobs in Southwest Virginia.”
“Forests matter to everyone because they are essential to clean air, clean water, and healthy communities,” said Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring. “The Clinch Highlands working forestry easement is unique not only because it is the largest in the Commonwealth’s history, but more importantly because of the many ways it supports the resiliency of the surrounding communities.”
“This project is a model for sustainable economic development,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler. “Conserving this land as a carefully managed working forest while also protecting a key part of the Clinch River watershed is a huge achievement.”
The announcement of this partnership comes on the heels of TNC’s Cumberland Forest Project, which recently acquired a quarter-million acres in the Central Appalachian coalfields of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
“The Virginia Department of Forestry is honored to be a part of this unprecedented conservation project and to hold Virginia’s largest open space easement ever recorded,” saidVirginia State Forester Rob Farrell. “The Virginia Department of Forestry is known as an organization that emphasizes leading by example, and so we are pleased to have the opportunity to do so through this innovative project that will protect the environment while supporting local communities.”
The 22,856 acres now protected in perpetuity through the Clinch Highlands easement were identified early on as a critical piece of the Cumberland Forest Project’s footprint. This particular section of the property’s vast forests also provides water-quality benefits to the Clinch River, one of the most biodiverse river systems in North America.
“When we announced the Cumberland Forest Project one month ago, we made it clear that one of our goals is to permanently protect as much of this high conservation value land as possible,” said Locke Ogens, State Director of The Nature Conservancy in Virginia. “This easement and partnership with the Commonwealth of Virginia marks the first example of how The Nature Conservancy aims to work with partners to protect critical pieces of the property for the long term.”
The Clinch River is one of the last free-flowing tributaries of the Tennessee River system and harbors one of the nation’s highest concentrations of globally rare and imperiled freshwater animals. It has tremendous potential as an educational and recreational resource that can support a growing outdoor recreation economy in Southwest Virginia.
The Clinch Highlands easement has further synergy with the new Clinch River State Park, which will have several anchor sites along the river that offer visitor amenities such as campgrounds, trails, and canoe and kayak launch points. The Clinch Highlands easement will conserve open space in the viewshed of the new state park and will ensure sustainable forestry and the protection of headwater streams that feed into the Clinch River and contribute to its water quality.
A key part of the financing of the Cumberland Forest Project is a loan from the Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund, which is administered by the Virginia Resources Authority and DEQ. The fund provides low-interest loans for wastewater treatment, water collection systems, and protection of natural resources.
“We are pleased to provide funding of more than $20 million for the Cumberland Forest Project through the Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund,” said DEQ Director David K. Paylor. “Forest conservation is one of the most effective investments when it comes to protecting water quality. Forests serve as natural sponges, filter rainfall, prevent erosion of sediment into the water, moderate soil and water temperatures, and help recharge ground water.”
With this project, VDOF’s easement program has grown to include more than 60,000 acres in just ten years. The easements protect tens of thousands of acres of working forests and hundreds of miles of streams and rivers, as well as significant habitats, scenic views, and historic features. The Clinch Highlands easement is the VDOF’s first in Russell County, and increases the agency’s portfolio by nearly 50 percent in a single transaction.