October 16, 2017|By Claire Cooney

I grew up in the green, lush foothills of the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. As a child, I spent afternoons swimming and canoeing around the lake and playing games in the rolling fields nearby. We moved to Knoxville when I was in middle school, and my backyard became very different. I missed the abundance of nature I’d known previously.

Years later when I was advancing in my career, I came across The Conservation Fund and its proactive approach to protecting treasured outdoor spaces like the ones I loved from my childhood. This mission resonated deeply with me and I’m so fortunate that in my role as a fundraiser for the Fund’s Southeast region, I’m able to help our donors connect their passion for the outdoors with the projects we’re doing.

The Conservation Fund has a long history of work in the Volunteer State. Our Conservation Services team played a significant role in the development of Nashville’s metro area greenspace plan seven years ago, and we subsequently protected two of the plan’s largest parks, helping the city set aside crucial greenspace for its residents. More recently, we’ve protected several properties on the southern portion of the Cumberland Plateau, including a popular rock climbing spot called Denny Cove, portions of the Fiery Gizzard Trail, one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the U.S., and Sherwood Forest, a critically-important place that provides habitat for the painted disc snail, a species only known to live in this small region of the world. The Southeast’s unique Cumberland Plateau bisects Tennessee between Nashville and Knoxville and its unusual topography of deep, cavernous ravines, sloped, forested plains and steep cliffs provide a biologically diverse area. All of these features contribute to a host of animals using these different landforms for their habitat.

10 9 FieryGizzard Tennessee ClaireRobinette047Waterfall views while hiking Fiery Gizzard Trail. Photo by Claire Cooney.

The Fund has an innovative approach to conserving land, and we’re putting our model to work in our latest project in Tennessee—protecting nearly 14,800 acres in the northeastern region of the Cumberland Plateau called Skinner Mountain Forest. Skinner Mountain is a haven for several species of bats, freshwater mussels and migratory songbirds. The land also includes hardwood forests that are vital to the local forest based economy. Through a program of ours called the Working Forest Fund, we are working with the State of Tennessee’s Wildlife Resources Agency and are actively fundraising to secure the protection of the entire property.

10 9 Skinner Forest TN c David Johnston201704169 1Skinner Forest. Photo by David Johnston.


10 9 TWRA Indiana bat cluster in winterA cluster of endangered Indiana bats in Skinner Cave. Photo by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Through our Working Forest Fund program, and with the fervent support of donors, we use our working capital to purchase intact forestland on behalf of our partners, immediately saving it from development and other uses, while also allowing time for us to fundraise for the costs to permanently conserve the forestland through the conveyance of a working forest conservation easement or the land to our partners. (To learn more about our Working Forest Fund model, check out this blog post by Bethany Olmstead, the Fund’s Conservation Manager.)

Strong partnerships with other conservation organizations, local, state and federal government entities, but also importantly, private donors, are crucial to our success. The Skinner Mountain Forest project has given us a terrific opportunity to work with local foundations. It is a win-win—we are able to chip away at securing the needed funds, and the foundations are able to support local projects that matter to the people they serve.

10 9 Skinner Forest TN c David Johnston201704168 Skinner Forest. Photo by David Johnston.

I know not everyone has the chance to grow up with nature so close by like I did. In fact, more and more Americans are living in urban areas without access to greenspace or nature nearby. This makes the protection of our lands and waterways even more vital.  By protecting a pocket park in an urban community, we’re promising that there will be places for kids to safely play. By setting aside land from development, we are ensuring there is land for wildlife habitat. By addressing the loss of landscape-level forestland through our Working Forest Fund, we are equipping people in communities with jobs and recreation opportunities.

Financially supporting a conservation organization like the Fund is an important way to make lasting change in communities across America. I often have friends who ask me what a $100 or $500 gift can really do. It can do quite a bit—and maybe even more than you think. A gift today ensures that we have the time we need to save great places like Skinner Mountain Forest. We must act quickly to save amazing properties like Skinner Mountain as soon as they come on the marketplace and then we need time to put together the partnerships that ensure long-term protection, put in place a sustainable forest management plan, and await funding allocation for our state and federal partners. Our donors buy us that time. Supporting The Conservation Fund is an investment in a bright future for us all.