Welch Point overlooks the newly conserved property. (Photo: Chuck Sutherland)

The Land Trust for Tennessee, in partnership with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, has achieved the permanent protection of 2,600 acres in the Cumberland Plateau’s Scott’s Gulf region.

The newly conserved property, located in White and Van Buren counties, connects to an existing area of contiguous protected lands totaling over 45,000 acres. This area includes the popular Fall Creek Falls State Park, currently at 26,000 acres; the 8,000-acre Bledsoe State Forest;the 10,000-acre Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness;and, one of my favorite places in the Cumberland region, the 1,100-acre Virgin Falls State Natural Area.

“We are pleased to add this new acreage to the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness WMA,” saidTWRA Director Ed Carter.“The land will provide needed conservation to several federally listed species and provide new recreational opportunity for outdoor enthusiasts.”

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The scenic Caney Fork River flows through Scott’s Gulf. (Photo: Chuck Sutherland)

The state of Tennessee purchased the land from Bobby and Joy Cunningham; the deal officially closed July 6.

The Land Trust for Tennessee was instrumental in procuring additional funding and facilitating the deal, having worked with the Cunninghams and other family members since 2012, starting with three conservation easements on 9,500 acres in the region.

Bobby said that the priority for his family is that the land be available for public use for generations to come.

“This sale is made in honor of my father, the late Charles Robert Cunningham,” Bobby said. “He would be happy that so many visitors will now be able to use and enjoy this very special property.”

Glade Creek, in the nearby Bledsoe State Forest, is part of the region’s contiguous protected land. (Photo: Chuck Sutherland)

The rugged Scott’s Gulf region has been a favorite of mine since I was first introduced to Virgin Falls in the late 1980s. At that time, Virgin Falls was in the Bowater Pocket Wilderness, the adjacent land was still owned by Bridgestone-Firestone, and most people outside the local area hadn’t heard of the place. The state of Tennessee has worked with landowners and conservation organizations over the past decade to acquire land in the region to preserve its scenic beauty and biological resources, and to link together the aforementioned conserved properties.

The Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness, a TWRA wildlife management area, encompasses much of Scott’s Gulf and contains waterfalls, 26 miles of trails and overlooks of the Caney Fork River Gorge, along with public hunting access and primitive campgrounds. Virgin Falls, now a state natural area, is managed by Fall Creek Falls State Park.

The newly acquired property provides habitat for several rare and endangered species, including three federally listed species of bats, fish, mussels and plants.

The Land Trust for Tennessee is honored to work with the Cunninghams and TWRA on this crucial conservation purchase,” Land Trust President and CEO Liz McLaurin said. “It is inspiring to see this private land become accessible to citizens of today and tomorrow, and reassuring that this critical wildlife habitat corridor will remain intact.”

The Cunningham addition tracts, shown in purple. (Map: The Land Trust for Tennessee)

Additional funding for the purchase came from a Recovery Land Acquisition Grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a grant from the Open Space Institute’sSouthern Cumberland Land Protection Fund and a gift from an anonymous donor. The grants were awarded for the protection of habitat for the rare and endangered species found on the property.

“By connecting and linking some 60,000 acres of protected land, including the beloved Fall Creek Falls State Park, this project helps to ensure the integrity of large, intact forests and safeguards the many benefits for wildlife and people they provide,” Open Space Institute Executive Vice President Peter Howell said. “We salute The Land Trust for Tennessee and their partners for their commitment to protecting this extraordinary region-a true jewel in the Southeast.”

OSI’s Southern Cumberland Land Protection Fund contributed a $475,000 grant for the project. The fund, created with support from the Lyndhurst Foundation, the Benwood Foundation and the Merck Family Fund, has the mission of protecting wildlife habitat and biodiversity by preserving large forest tracts in landscapes critical to facilitating wildlife adaptation to changes in temperature and precipitation.

The success of this project represents a major accomplishment for land and natural resource conservation in Tennessee, and is a vital step in the long-term preservation of nature and outdoor recreational opportunities in this wild and scenic area of the Cumberland Plateau, officials said.

See more photos by Chuck Sutherland at flickr.com/photos/chucksutherland.

Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com. The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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