Clinch Valley Program
Protecting our nation's most important river for imperiled freshwater animals.
The Clinch, Powell and Holston rivers run nearly parallel courses through the remote mountains and valleys of southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. These last free-flowing tributaries of the Tennessee River system harbor the nation’s highest concentrations of globally rare and imperiled fish and freshwater mussels.
They are truly a global hotspot for biodiversity.
For nearly three decades, The Nature Conservancy has worked with local communities and partners to promote sustainable economic and recreational opportunities that are consistent with protecting the region’s lands, waters and way of life.
As partners in the Clinch River Valley Initiative, we have been part of the movement to create a Clinch River State Park. All four counties through which the river flows will share the park’s physical footprint and economic benefits, making it a unique addition to Virginia's state park system.
The park is envisioned as a "string of pearls" along the river. Several anchor sites, likely 400-600 acres each, will offer visitor amenities such as campgrounds, trails, and canoe and kayak launches. In between, smaller holdings will enable shorter, more manageable float trips and provide river access for a variety of activities.
We also work with local farmers and other rural landowners to protect water quality in streams, rivers and caves. Since 1995, we have assisted more than 250 landowners in implementing economically sensible agricultural best management practices such as fencing cattle away from waterways.
We are currently spearheading a $4.5-million initiative to improve agricultural practices and water quality on farms spanning five counties in southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. This project area encompasses more than 4,000 farms and 350 miles of impaired streams, and it hosts some of the most diverse and imperiled aquatic wildlife in the nation.
RESTORING GLOBALLY RARE MUSSELS
Freshwater mussels are filter feeders, removing bacteria, algae and sediment to clean the waters in which they live. This function makes them vulnerable to contamination and, thus, an important indicator species for river health and water quality.
In the Clinch River alone, we have protected seven key shoal habitats that support some of the world’s most diverse assemblages of mussels. But boosting populations of these beneficial creatures remains critical to their survival.
In partnership with Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), TNC recently embarked on a significant ramp-up of mussel-augmentation capacity. Thanks to an approximately $200,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and matching resources from the partners, TNC will collaborate with the Virginia Tech Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center and VDGIF’s Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center to produce 100,000 juvenile mussels—an approximately six-fold increase—for release into the Russell County, Virginia, reach of the Clinch River.
The grant will also support a cutting-edge new juvenile mussel transformation technique that, instead of requiring live fish hosts, uses in-vitro media. If successful, this innovation may enable far greater mussel production than previously possible. This three-year project commenced April 1, 2020 with mussel production beginning this year. TNC ecologist Braven Beaty anticipates the first releases occurring in summer or fall of 2021.
To maintain healthy forests that protect water quality for people, fish and mussels, we launched the Conservation Forestry Program in 2002 and now manage some 22,000 acres to model sustainable forestry practices.
Our program emphasizes long-term stewardship, providing an economic return to landowners and making forests healthier, more diverse and more resilient in the face of climate change.
Our on-the-ground operations are designed to enhance forest resources such as soil and water quality, high-value timber, sensitive wildlife habitat and carbon storage. All forest management, including our timber harvesting, is guided by principles set forth in an Operations Plan prepared in consultation with many forestry and wildlife professionals.
TNC's Conservation Forestry Program is one example of how creative problem solving has provided much needed conservation funding through carbon markets.
The Benefits of Carbon Markets
Creative problem solving is rewarded through carbon markets. When companies must pay for their carbon dioxide pollution, they have a financial incentive to reduce the amount they pollute. This creates business opportunities for sectors that improve energy efficiency, fuel efficiency, renewable energy options, and more.
Carbon offsets, a component of carbon markets, are credits given to projects that remove carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. These projects require money to develop and maintain. Businesses fund these projects through purchasing carbon offsets, and in return, receive credit for the carbon that project removed from the atmosphere.
In 2014 our Conservation Forestry Program became the first Conservancy project in the nation to earn and sell certified forest-carbon credits under California’s cap-and-trade program. In 2018, we successfully verified 158,905 tons of carbon captured, offsetting emissions from almost 18 million gallons of gasoline.
With California’s legislature extending the program through 2030, market stability will generate increased revenues, which will enable more on-the-ground forest restoration—a big win for climate, habitat and water quality.
Carbon offsets have made our Conservation Forestry Program economically viable and environmentally sustainable. This is just one example of the potential of carbon markets to create new financial opportunities.
THE ENERGY INTERSECTION
The Clinch Valley’s rare river animals and habitats overlap with valuable energy resources, including an estimated 250 million tons of coal and significant natural gas reserves. This convergence spurred us to develop strategies for reducing impacts from coal mining, natural gas infrastructure and other energy development.
To increase scientific understanding of historic and current mining impacts on streams and other resources, we helped launch the Clinch-Powell Clean Rivers Initiative in 2008. The members—representing state and federal agencies, industry, academia, and conservation organizations—are focused on improving water quality and river health.
We also work with mining regulators to track the region’s inventory of abandoned mine lands and to rank priorities for restoration. We have partnered with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to complete reclamation projects that rejuvenate compacted soils, reduce erosion, improve water quality and restore native trees.
The Nature Conservancy is engaged in efforts to avoid and minimize the impacts that energy infrastructure could have on the forests and rivers of Virginia. We have created maps of critical habitats to aid the goal of ensuring irreplaceable resources are avoided and other ecological impacts minimized. We have made these maps accessible online so that energy companies can use them in the earliest stages of siting projects.
A Deal for the Centuries
In July 2019, TNC announced the acquisition of 253,000 acres in the Central Appalachians. The Cumberland Forest Project is TNC’s largest-ever conservation effort in the eastern United States, protecting sweeping forest landscapes across two parcels, one in Southwest Virginia and one along the Kentucky and Tennessee border.
The project has its roots in the Clinch Valley, building on the program's successes and lessons learned in community based conservation, sustainable forestry, and carbon markets.
Safeguarding this vast stretch of forest tackles climate change on two fronts: by storing millions of tons of carbon dioxide and by connecting a migratory corridor that scientists believe could be one of North America’s most important “escape routes” as plant and animal species shift their ranges to cooler climates.
In August, 2019 TNC took another historic step with the announcement of the largest open space easement ever recorded in the Commonwealth. The partnership between TNC, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF), and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permanently protects 22,856 acres of forest land in Russell County in southwest Virginia.
The Clinch Highlands working forestry easement is unique not only for its size, but more importantly because of the many ways it supports the resiliency of the surrounding communities.
The 22,856 acres now protected in perpetuity through the 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.
The Clinch Highlands easement will conserve open space in the viewshed of the new Clinch River State Park, and will ensure sustainable forestry and the protection of headwater streams.
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 Cumberland Forest property for the long term.