Skinner Mountain originates on the Cumberland Plateau near the headwaters of the Obey River. Its sides are flanked by white oak and yellow poplar. Its crown is topped with shortleaf pine. Tiny golden-crowned wren and spectacular azure warblers nest in the trees.
And deep below the surface, the mountain is riddled with caves. More than 50 documented caves bubble through the limestone bedrock and many more have likely gone undiscovered. The Mountain Eye Cave System, the fifth largest in Tennessee, winds 15 miles under the hills.
Some caves contain petroglyphs and pictograms drawn over generations by indigenous peoples. Other caves are home to endemic species not seen anywhere else and provide essential hibernation shelters for endangered bat species.
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Tennessee state agencies and the Conservation Fund have reached an agreement to significantly expand protected forest land near the Skinner Mountain Wildlife Management Area on the Cumberland Plateau in Fentress County. More than 11,700 acres of ecologically diverse forest land will be conserved and managed as operating forest land by the Tennessee Wildlife Agency and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
âIt’s exciting,â said Mimi Barnes, spokesperson for TWRA. âWhen do you hear about the purchase of large tracts of land for the protection of nature and the diversity of wildlife? “
The mountain and the surrounding relief are a jewel of biodiversity. With the newly retained land, over 14,700 additional acres will be preserved from future development and deforestation.
Previously, the land was an âinvestment forestâ privately owned, out of state, as an asset that could be broken down and sold.
“What this effort has done is build on and expand this existing property,” said Ralph Knoll, director of the Tennessee Conservation Fund, of adding existing state land. . The first phase of the project more than doubled the size of state-owned land on the mountain. Phase two protected an additional 11,000 acres of mature forest on the Cumberland Plateau.
The forests and streams of the Cumberland Plateau are both a biodiversity hotspot and a migration corridor for millions of birds. These forests also filter water entering local rivers and aquifers, protecting the drinking water supply and keeping the sport fishing industry healthy.
The region is increasingly threatened by development. As the population increases, the private forests of the Cumberland Plateau are tempting targets for development. Former forest lands and investment forests have been fragmented and converted into private residences at an increasing rate since the early 2000s.
âLow density housing is booming in the area,â said Ken Smith, a professor of forestry at the University of Arizona who has worked in Tennessee for more than two decades. âOn the Cumberland Plateau, the key to maintaining biodiversity is to conserve as much natural forests (managed as unmanaged) as possible.
Beyond the impacts on health and the environment, deciduous forests provide valuable wood and jobs. The conservation easement allows the state to sustainably manage timber extraction, which in effect helps native animal species.
âWhat forest tracks do is they maintain specific tracts of land at different growth levels for the long-term success of different animals,â said Barnes, a spokesperson for TWRA. She explained that vulnerable species, like the Eastern Spotted Skunk, need young forests or clearings while others, like the Cerulean Warbler, need older forests.
Hunting, fishing and hiking will be permitted in the hilly area.
âIt’s a great hunt, deer, bear, wild turkey and small game,â said Chris Simpson, wildlife biologist for TWRA. âIt’s a win-win for our athletes.
This marriage of economic interests with the permanent preservation of forests is at the heart of the organizers’ mission. They want the TennessÃ©ens to benefit from the forests.
âYou have an impact on the local economy in terms of forestry jobs,â Knoll said. “Every time you go to harvest wood you are helping the local economy in one way or another.”
The agreement is the result of years of planning and negotiation. The Conservation Fund was looking for large, uninterrupted, ecologically significant plots of land to purchase from private landowners and convert to conservation land. The land around Skinner Mountain was prime real estate.
In collaboration with TWRA, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and Forestry, and the Nature Conservancy, conservation easement funding was secured from the Federal Forest Legacy Program, which preserves logged forests.