The Paint Rock River watershed in southeastern Tennessee may soon become America’s newest national wildlife refuge.

The Paint Rock River watershed, which flows through Alabama and Tennessee, was highlighted for action in 2012 as part of the Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors Report, an initiative to conserve outdoor spaces that power the nation’s economy, shape culture and build outdoor traditions.

The proposed Paint Rock River National Wildlife Refuge would protect up to 25,120 acres within the Tennessee portion of the Paint Rock River watershed in Franklin County, Tenn., outside of Winchester.

Southeast U.S. Fish and Wildlife Region Director Cynthia Dohner is expected to make a decision by the end of June about the draft land protection plan and environmental documents for the proposed Paint Rock River National Wildlife Refuge. The draft will then move on to Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. Ashe is expected to make a decision by the end of August.

Once authorized, the proposed area would be designated as a conservation partnership area (CPA). The authorization of a CPA does not grant the service jurisdiction or control over lands within the CPA, and it does not automatically make lands within the CPA part of the national wildlife refuge system. Lands do not become part of the refuge system until the service buys them or they are placed under an agreement that provides for their management as part of the refuge system.

“If the draft plan is approved, the regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agency can begin land negotiations and outreach with land owners,” said Rob Hurt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and assistant manager at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, which is helping coordinate the effort.

Priority lands within the potential wildlife refuge in a remote section of Franklin County have been identified. However, landowner interest is unknown at this time because the project has not been approved, Hurt said.

“We are not looking to authorize eminent domain or condemn land, which has been one of the concerns from the public,” Hurt said. “We want to be a good neighbor, and we do not want to take land from anyone-that is not our objective as an agency. We simply want to do what we can for conservation purposes.”

One of the most biologically diverse freshwater watersheds in the world, the Paint Rock River and its tributaries (Larkin Fork, Estill Fork and Hurricane Creek) support a diverse array of aquatic life that includes some 100 species of fish and about 45 different mussel species.

“The Paint Rock River watershed is one of the only places in the Southeast region with a fairly intact, contiguous hardwood forest that has not been developed and hasn’t changed much over the eons,” Hurt said. “From a satellite image, the area really stands out as a big green blob of forest.”

The large expanse of forest cover has helped protect the Paint Rock River watershed, and according to Hurt, the proposed wildlife refuge would play an important role in protecting the watershed and wildlife for the future.

Key species and habitats of conservation concern for the Paint Rock River include the Alabama lampmussel, fine-rayed pigtoe, pale lilliput, pink mucket, rough pigtoe, shiny pigtoe, slabside pearlymussel, Anthony’s riversnail, palezone shiner, snail darter, gray bat, Indiana bat, American Hart’s tongue fern, Morefield’s leather flower, Price’s potato bean, Hine’s emerald dragonfly, cerulean warbler and other neotropical migratory birds, bottomland hardwoods, canebrake, and cave and karst systems.

Two areas within the Paint Rock River watershed in Tennessee are currently protected through the state: Bear Hollow Mountain Wildlife Management Area, also managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency; and the Walls of Jericho State Natural Area, managed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. However, the Paint Rock River watershed itself remains largely unprotected.

“The establishment of a wildlife refuge in the Paint Rock River watershed would help protect, maintain and improve water quality issues downstream for aquatic life and human consumption and recreational use,” Hurt said. “Since 1997, we have tracked land ownership patterns through satellite imagery, and we have seen large tracts of land subdivided across the state. Our agency expects this trend to continue, which is why we feel this place is an important place to try to get a handle on.

“How this plays out really depends on the willingness of land owners and where we are able to acquire land,” he said. “If existing landowners have an interest in conservation, then the agency would encourage them to reach out to us in the creation of the wildlife refuge.”

For more information about the Paint Rock River National Wildlife Refuge, click here.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist whose writing interests include conservation, outdoor travel and living history in the southeastern United States. Visit her blog at

Updated @ 6:07 a.m. on 6/24/13 to correct a factual error: Two areas within the Paint Rock River watershed are currently protected by the state, not three, as originally reported.