Conservation project buys huge tracts of coalfields forest

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The nonprofit Nature Conservancy announced Monday it has partnered with private investors to acquire over a quarter-million acres (101,000 hectares) of forest land in the coalfields of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.

The group said its new Cumberland Forest Project is designed to not only protect the land but also to make money through sustainable forestry, carbon offsets, recreational leases and the eventual sale of the properties. It’s a model that allows conservation at a scale impossible through philanthropy alone, officials said.

“The Cumberland Forest Project deploys private capital as a powerful tool to achieve large scale conservation,” Tom Tierney, chair of the board of directors at The Nature Conservancy, said in a statement. “What’s more, we think this will prove that sustainably managing natural assets can be good business and deliver big benefits to wildlife, water quality and the local economy.”

The nonprofit said the project’s total land area is bigger than the five boroughs of New York City and the District of Columbia combined, making it one of the largest conservation efforts the group has ever pursued in the eastern United States.

The forest lands — 100,000 acres (40,500 hectares) in Kentucky and Tennessee and 153,000 (61,900 hectares) in southwest Virginia — were purchased from timber investment management companies at a cost of $130 million, Locke Ogens, Virginia director for The Nature Conservancy, said in an interview.

The Cumberland Forest Project will not own the mineral rights on the land, so mining activities could still take place. However, The Nature Conservancy expects only a small percentage of the land to be subject to mining, and the group would have a say in the process, Ogen said.

For instance, the project would get surface damage payments from mining companies and would use that money for restoration efforts, she said.

The group’s own research shows the central Appalachians are a particularly important area for preserving biodiversity and helping wildlife adapt to climate change, Locke said.

The Nature Conservancy hopes it can replicate the Cumberland Forest Project model in other areas, with a long-term goal of creating a “superhighway” of protected land up and down the mountain range and even beyond, Locke said.

Dr. Jay Sullivan, professor and head of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech, said the physical scale of the project was significant, noting that forest land helps offset manmade carbon emissions.

“It would be great to see protection of the area as well as economic opportunity for the region,” said Sullivan, who was not involved in the project.

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