top of page

Advocating for Forestry Reform and Forest Conservation on the Cumberland Plateau

From the 1970's through the early 2000's, large areas of timber industry land on the southern Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee were converted from native hardwood to pine plantations.   The TN Division of Forestry, the Tennessee Forestry Association and the School of Forestry at the University of Tennesse all promoted this forestry activity.  The Landscape Analysis Lab (LAL) at Sewanee provided the first scientific assessment of this land-use change.  By shining a spotlight on its backyard, Sewanee revealed the widespread, unsustainable land-use practises that were occurring on the Plateau and highlighted their ecological consequences.  The Landscape Analysis Lab, created in 1999, involved many faculty from a wide variety of departments at Sewanee (both science and non-science).    It was the first PC-based GIS research center in the state of TN. During its run, it brought over $1 million in large and small grants and generated a broad array of faculty/ student publications.  

LAL GIS-based research changed the way scientists, conservation organizations and state government all thought about the Cumberland Plateau.  This research highlighted the importance of the Plateau's biologically diverse forests and helped to precipitate major changes in forestry practices within the region. The work of the LAL demonstrated the important role that liberal arts colleges could play in providing environmental leadership to their region.  During these years (1999-2006) Sewanee and the LAL was the little mouse that roared in TN, through its research and then advocacy, LAL faculty and staff helped to elevate the apparency of the Cumberland Plateau causing it go from relative obsurity to become a major focus of conservation concern within the United States.

Engaging the TN Division of Forestry and State Legislature

LAL scientists testified in state and congressional hearings. As Landscape Lab Director, Evans was invited on four separate occasions to speak to Tennessee Senate and House committees that oversee forestry issues and gave invited presentations to the Tennessee Forestry Commission and the Tennessee Conservation Commission. 

Engaging Conservation Organizations

Advocacy by national conservation organizations (TNC NRDC, WWF) based on LAL 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.   

Engaging the Press

The LAL research had a positive impact on forest conservation and policy reform in Tennessee.   Part of this impact resulted from the large amount of media attention that the work received. LAL research was featured in over 200 national and state news stories including front page stories in the Wall St J, Washington Post, NYT, LA TImes, etc. and featured on the NPT News Hour and CNN.  

Engaging the Timber Industry

Ironically, it was Charlie Cheston, University Forester at Sewanee, who promoted pine conversion for the Bowater corp in the 1950's.  Evans represented Sewanee at a major summit meeting with the forest industry and environmental groups in Manhattan that led to an historic agreement ending the practice of hardwood conversion to pine on the Cumberland Plateau and eventually elsewhere in the southeastern United States.

Engaging the Governor

Meetings that Evans had with TN Governor Bredesen in, contributed to the Governor's decision to renounce pine conversion as an unsustainable practice in the state.   Based on LAL research, Governor Bredesen condemned clearcutting on the Plateau and the unsustainable conversion of native forests to pine monocultures.  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!   

Engaging Local Government


Profs Brockett, Gottfried and Evans hosted a regional conference designed to facilitate efforts by Plateau public officials to evaluate existing policies and practices and propose new policies that would help promote environmentally-sensitive economic growth and biodiversity conservation for the Plateau.  


  • Evans, J.P.  2006. Assessing forest loss on the Cumberland Plateau:  implications for forest policy reform in Tennessee.   Paper published in the Proceedings of the 11th Symposium on the Natural History of Lower Tennessee and Cumberland River Valleys  (Hamilton, S.W. and A.N. Barrass editors).  The Center of Excellence for Field Biology, Austin Peay State University, TN. pp 3- 14.

National Media Coverage:

  • New Orleans Times-Picayune (Oct. 8, 2013):  Tennessee’s fragile Cumberland Plateau ecosystem threatened by human interaction, scientists say.

  • The ACS Green Times (Aug 2010)  Mighty oaks from tiny acorns:  Sewanee’s Landscape Analysis Lab and Environmental Institute

  • Business Tennessee Magazine (July 2006):  Political notes:  Knock, knock …How a confluence of Bowater, Bredesen and Brad M. Kelley could benefit the Cumberland Plateau.

  • UPI  (June 6, 2006):  “Timber harvesters ignore streamside areas.”

  • LAL Plateau Case Study included in: Making Maps : A Visual Guide to Map Design for GIS  (2006) by John Krygier,  Denis Wood.

  • Appalachian Voice (Early Winter 2005):  Conservationists, industry reach historic agreement to protect forests on the Cumberland Plateau.

  • Associated Press Newswires (Oct 29, 2005):  “Impoverished plateau may be poised for population boom.”

Tennessee Media Coverage:

  • Tennessean (Nov. 19, 2011)  Land preservation effort melds ecology and economy

  • Chattanooga Times Free Press (Dec. 7, 2009):  “Daunting threat to save timber.”

  • Chattanooga Times Free Press (Nov. 6, 2009):  “Groups want to preserve more plateau land”

  • Chattanooga Times Free Press (Aug 20, 2007):  “Expanded Monteagle development faces natural, legal snags.”

  • Chattanooga Times Free Press (Nov. 29, 2006):  “Bowater land deal seen as first step.”

  • Chattanooga Times Free Press (Sept. 8, 2006):  “Growing pains on the Cumberland Plateau.”

  • Chattanooga Times Free Press (June 14, 2006):  “Bowater selling land near Savage Gulf.”

  • Chattanooga Times Free Press May 30, 2006):  “Study calls for better stream protection.”

  • Memphis Commercial Appeal (May 15, 2006):  Guest Column:  Logging bill chops into necessary protection.”

  • Chattanooga Times Free Press (Jan. 4, 2006):  “Tennesseans urged to explore.”

  • WPLN, Nashville Public Radio (Nov. 28, 2005):  Interview about Bowater land sale.

  • Tennessean (Nov 7, 2005 - Front page - headline story):  “Environmental groups fear timberland sale will alter plateau.”

  • Chattanooga Times Free Press (Nov 2, 2005):  “Timber transfer:  papermaker Bowater plan to sell land to contractors worries some who fear an environmental pact will be set aside.” 

  • Chattanooga Times Free Press (Oct 29, 2005):  “Cumberland Plateau meet spotlights development.”

  • McMinnville Southern Standard (Oct 29, 2005):  “ Cumberland Plateau probably poised for population boom.”

  • Tennessean (Oct 29, 2005):  “If Cumberland Plateau is state’s next “big thing,” region wants to be ready.



  • The Landscape Analysis Lab releases its report to the EPA and US Fish and Wildlife Service showing extensive loss of native forest due to pine conversion that occurred betwen 1981-2001.  Report also presents scientific analyses of the ecological consequences of this land-use activity.



  • LAL awarded an EPA STAR grant (R. Gottfried PI) to examine economic drivers of land-use change

  • Presentations to TN House and Senate committees and TN Forestry Commission

  • Meetings with Farm Bureau, TN Forestry Association

  • Media coverage in LA Times, Washington Post, NYT


  • Natural Resource Defense Council declares Plateau a Biogem

  • NRDC threatens action against Bowater

  • Meeting with NRDC and Bowater at Sewanee.  Bowater claims they had stopped converting.

  • Evans organizes letter to Governor Bredesen calling him to heed scientific data and protect the Plateau.  Letter co-signed by over 50 scientists from 15 universities and collegesthroughout Tennessee.  Lead signatures from E.O. Wilson and Sewanee faculty.

  • Governor flies over the Plateau

  • Evans meets with the Governor.  Governor promises to make the Plateau his top environmental priority


  • Governor annouces Cumberland Plateau Intiative and establishes Heritage Trust Fund for purchase of land on the Cumberland Plateau  (helped pay for Lost Cove in 2008)

  • Evans, Haskell, Smith and Hollingshead travel to Manhattan.  LAL provides key scientific data for the negotiations between NRDC and Bowater.  Bowater agrees to stop converting native hardwood to pine plantations

  • LAL hosts Plateau conferences to engage local governments in land-use planning  



  • TN Conservation Commission releases “Report on the Conservation Impacts of Forest Practices.”    Adopts  all of  LAL’s  recommendations.    


  • Governor Bredesen uses bully pulpit:  “This is not a pine state; it is a hardwood state.  I think any time you have monoculture you have enormous disease potential.  I’d like to see some of these areas move back to native Tennessee forest, which is a mixed hardwood forest.

  • State assists in the acquisition almost 150,000 acres on the Plateau -  including Lost Cove!


  • Former pine plantation lands around Fall Creek Falls and Savage Gulf acquired by state and will be restored to native forest



  • Sewanee and LTTN publish Cumberland Voices -- first landscape level conservation plan for the southern Cumberland Plateau

bottom of page