In Appalachia, a massive forest is conserved, but mining can still proceed beneath its roots

Aerial image overlooking the Highland property area of The Nature Conservancy’s Cumberland Forest Project. (Cameron Davidson/Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)

A massive land acquisition by the Nature Conservancy has created a block of forestland in the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfields that may be disturbed by an activity typical of the region but atypical of conservation sites: mining.

Early Monday morning, the global environmental nonprofit announced it had added 153,000 acres in Virginia known as Highlands-Lonesome Pine to its Cumberland Forest Project. When combined with an existing 100,000 acres of forest in Kentucky and Tennessee, the total footprint of the site amounts to a quarter-million acres, larger than Shenandoah National Park.

Unlike Shenandoah, however, mining is likely to occur within the forest’s borders, since the Nature Conservancy only owns the surface rights to the acreage. Rights to mine the coal and oil that lie beneath the land will continue to be held by companies including EnerVest, which is headquartered in Texas but operates an office in Abingdon, and West Virginia-based Natural Resource Partners.

The Nature Conservancy has acquired a quarter-million acres of forest land in the heart of the Central Appalachians. The total land area of the Cumberland Forest Project is bigger than the Shenandoah National Park and includes 100,000 acres spanning Kentucky and Tennessee and another 153,000 acres in Southwest Virginia.

Brad Kreps, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Project in southwestern Virginia, said that he expects that mining will only occur on “a small percentage of the properties,” given declines in the use of coal as an energy source.

The Nature Conservancy will receive payments from mine operators as compensation for damages to the land, as well as royalties on any coal produced. Those revenues will then be channeled toward site restoration efforts and local organizations engaged in developing a local nature-based economy.

As the surface owner, furthermore, the conservancy will have the right to designate how any mined lands should be reclaimed once mining has ceased.

“Since the long-term restoration of the forest is one of our highest priorities, we’re going to be interested in designating post-mining land uses that are focused on restoring native forests,” said Kreps.

The acquisition of large parcels of land with divided rights is new for the conservancy and indicates the priority the group places on preserving natural spaces in the coalfields of Central Appalachia, which are bisected by the Clinch River, a global hotspot of biodiversity. The Clinch is home to about 50 species of mussel, including 20 that are federally recognized as endangered. Researchers have also found that the Appalachians may serve as a key corridor for species migrating north and east as the climate warms.

Financial support for the acquisition of the property, which was purchased from an investment fund managed by the Forestland Group, came from not only philanthropic sources but also equity investments by limited partners. A press release from the conservancy called traditional funding models “insufficient” for a project of this size.

The project is expected to generate revenues through activities such as sustainable timber harvesting, carbon offset sales and recreational leases.

While the conservancy intends to manage the Cumberland Forest Project as a working forest, it also plans to permanently protect habitats through conservation and open-space easements and agreements for forest carbon management.