Cumberland Plateau Forest Conservation

The biologically rich hardwood forests of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee are considered by many organizations today (including the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resource Defense Council, and World Wildlife Fund) to be among the highest conservation-value forests remaining in North America.  The region contains some of the largest remaining tracts of privately-owned, contiguous temperate deciduous forest left on the continent and this forest contains some of the most diverse vascular plant communities in the eastern United States.  These forest tracts represent critical neotropical migratory songbird habitat and serve as the headwaters to the most biologically diverse, freshwater stream systems found in the world.  Partly due to its extensive distribution of vernal pools, the Cumberland Plateau is an area of amphibian diversity within the state. The drought-prone, sandy soils of the plateau surface have a low nutrient content that limits productivity, making the system highly sensitive to the nutrient removal effects of whole-tree harvesting and acid precipitation.

In the 1990s, the Cumberland Plateau was not on anybody's radar screen, yet it was experiencing some of the highest rates of deforestation in North America.

The southern Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee is the backyard and shared landscape of the University of the South.   Our lab at Sewanee made a long-term commitment to document the ecological consequences of land-use change on the Cumberland Plateau and communicate what we learned to provide a scientific basis for conservation planning and policy.   By shining a spotlight on our backyard, Sewanee changed the way the state and the nation perceived this landscape and in doing so successfully helped to promote its future conservation.

From 2000-2010, Jon Evans directed the Landscape Analysis Laboratory (LAL) which engaged an interdisciplinary team of faculty, staff and students to study land-use change on the Cumberland Plateau landscape for the first time.  Central to the Laboratory’s mission was its Geographical Information System (GIS), equipped with the hardware and software necessary for the processing and analysis of an extensive spatial data archive maintained for the Cumberland Plateau region.   

From 2000-2002, Jon Evans served as Principal Investigator on a grant from the U.S. EPA and US Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a Small Area Assessment Forestry Demonstration Project for the Southern Forest Resource Assessment (with D. Haskell Co-PI).  This project examined the ecological consequences of native hardwood conversion to pine plantations on the Cumberland Plateau and developed cost-effective, technologically accessible tools for monitoring forest change at a scale appropriate for local land-use decision-making.  This research provided some of the first spatial and temporal documentation of native forest loss due to the spread of pine plantations in the Southeast and its ecological consequences. 

Based on the science generated from LAL research, TN Governor Bredesen condemned clearcutting on the Plateau and the unsustainable conversion of native forests to pine monocultures.  Advocacy by national conservation organizations (TNC NRDC, WWF) based on our research led to major environmental reforms in the land-use behavior of industrial timber companies, not only on the Plateau but elsewhere in the SE US.   It was LAL research that served as the scientific basis for Gov Bredesen's establishment of a state conservation fund for the Plateau, whose first acquisition was Lost Cove in Sewanee.   The research also helped to launch major landscape-level conservation planning initiatives for the southern Cumberland Plateau region.

Dotted across the Plateau landscape are thousands of small vernal pools that require intact forest buffers to protect the rich diversity of amphibians that depend on them.  We have recently completed a project where we have identified all pools across the entire southern Cumberland Plateau landscape, assessed their protected status, and determined the integrity of their forest buffers in response to changing land-use practises within the region.