Coal Creek Farm: A Private-Lands Model for Savanna Restoration on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee

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The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative is a unit of Austin Peay State University's Center of Excellence for Field Biology and Department of Biology in Clarksville, Tennessee.


if only the plants could talk

Ecological restoration can be tricky. How often should a landowner burn and at what time of year? How many trees should be removed and which ones? Should seeds be brought in or is there an existing seed source on site? Can cattle be used to help manage restored grasslands effectively, and if so how?  Which ecosystem are we trying to restore, anyway?

The answers to these questions are not as elusive as we might think. We can watch carefully for improved populations of Northern Bobwhite, turkey, deer, or butterflies as indicators of various habitat qualities.  We can focus on improving a particular aspect of the habitat, such as high-quality forage for cattle.  However, when we want to restore a functioning ecosystem, with a full (or nearly full) complement of species native to our site, plants will provide the most reliable indicators of success.  Yet, beyond a few dominant species, when it comes to restoring healthy ecosystems plant communities are often the last to be considered in land management and restoration.

By surveying the full array of plant species present, we can assess the inherent restoration potential of the site, which will, in turn, inform the methods needed to accomplish restoration and management. By focusing on the plants, we're able to identify the "low-hanging fruit" for restoration (the areas that are most efficient and cost-effective to restore). This will help maximize potential habitat for a much wider array of organisms such as other grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs, which form the base of the food chain for many types of insects, some of which are adapted to individual host plant species.  Grasses, wildflower seeds, and insects then attract  song birds shorebirds, small mammals and amphibians, which in turn become prey for raptors, medium to large mammals, snakes and other reptiles.  Not surprisingly, most attempts at restoration are prescribed by foresters, wildlife biologists, and others whose expertise may be lacking in botany or plant ecology, or who may come from a tradition of conducting wildlife habitat projects without consulting botanical experts. 

The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative seeks to change this approach to ecological restoration by bringing the “plant perspective” to our understanding of southern ecosystems.

Land management also can be costly. Time and again, we have seen recommendations to plant dozens of acres in native, warm-season grasses, when a whole suite of native grassland plants exists on the site.  In other cases, grasslands often can be more effectively "restored" by thinning and burning nearby woodlands with a healthy grassland seed bank rather than by planting new seeds.  

Wouldn't it be good to know if there are desired species present on the land that can be enhanced by certain management practices before spending a lot of money preparing and planting the site? Foresters may know most trees, wildlife biologists may know common plants beneficial to wildlife, and land managers may know plants frequently encountered on the farm, but there are so many other species on any given property that provide clues to proper land management that are often overlooked. To find these species and to understand how their presence and abundance can serve as indicators for how and how not to manage the land, it is essential to bring in a team with the proper expertise in this arena.

It's time to bring in the botanists....

Each species tells a unique story

Each plant species at Coal Creek Farm has a certain niche, or particular space and conditions it needs to thrive. Each species also has a unique story. By "reading the stories" of hundreds of species a clear picture can emerge that tells what a given landscape has been through in the past and where it is capable of going in the future.

Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) provides a great example of how a species occupies a certain niche and how its presence reveals a deeper, more complicated story. It only grows in older forests in moist, shaded ravines, generally preferring north-facing slopes. It cannot tolerate substantial logging which opens up forests to excessive sunlight, drying the soil and allowing tree saplings and shrubs to flourish. In this sense, ginseng is what ecologists call a "forest conservative species." Ecologists can assign ginseng (and any other plant species) a score, or "coefficient of conservatism," that is a measure of a plant's fidelity to high-quality, intact habitat. Species that need natural conditions that are essentially as they were 300 years ago and that cannot tolerate altered habitat would get a score of 10. Plants like ginseng that need high-quality habitat but can tolerate some slight habitat alterations (e.g. selective timber harvest) might get a score of 8 or 9. Ginseng's story is straightforward. Its presence indicates that the forest in which it grows has been intact for probably greater than 75-100 years. It also indicates that the soil is healthy and has a rich humus layer (lots of organic matter such as leaf mold) and that the soil is fairly "sweet" or nutrient-rich. Ginseng often grows with a lot of "sang pointers" or other plants that almost always grow in association with it. Typical "sang pointers" include Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa), Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), and Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). You can almost always bet that these plants will occur under a canopy of Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), Beech (Fagus grandifolia), Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Yellow Buckeye (Aesculus flava), and Basswood (Tilia heterophylla). Such an assemblage of species can only develop in stable, moist forests that have been relatively intact for a long time.       

up on bear den mountain

When asked to first visit the Coal Creek Farm in August 2017, Dr. Dwayne Estes, Executive Director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI) was busy studying the landscape with a careful eye, almost like that of a forensic investigator.  While owner George Lindemann navigated the ATV down a dizzying maze of trails, Estes scanned the landscape for clues. With each passing second, he processed the visual data as they passed scene after scene on the side of Bear Den Mountain.

Estes relied on his knowledge of the Cumberland Plateau's natural history (the modern, historical, and pre-historical landscape and ecology) as well as its cultural history. His understanding of natural history included familiarity with how the vegetation has changed through time, from the last Ice Age 18,000 years ago through the past 13,500 years of human settlement to the present day. This change has been fueled by natural and human-set fires, climate change, droughts, and the coming and going of different large animals or megafauna (like the extinct mastodon). He knew well the region's cultural history and how the land has changed since the time it was part of the territory of the Cherokee Nation, through the various phases of settlement by Anglo-Americans and the change that has ensued in a post-industrial society. Different factors, such as widespread fire suppression, logging, exploitation of the native pines for turpentine and tar, the introduction of mechanized machinery (which obliterated thousands of wetlands shortly after World War II), and the end of open range for cattle grazing all affected the landscape dramatically. In his mind flashed historical maps and he imagined the voices of early explorers and settlers of long ago, their eloquent quotes about the historical landscape whispering on the wind. Dwayne incorporated all of this as he also watched for clues that would reveal changes that have happened more recently during the past century, such as evidence of logging history, presence of old homesites or fencerows, and erosion scars on the land. Most importantly, however, he was searching for indicators of what the land could look like in the future with the right management and restoration applied. 

Chinese Bush Clover (Lespedeza cuneata) is native to the grasslands of China but is an extremely aggressive, fire-adapted, invasive species in the southeastern U.S. If left unchecked, this species has the potential to be very problematic in open habitats. Non-native species like this are given a score of 0 on a scale of 0-10.

As George and Dwayne bounced down the trail, Dwayne keyed in on dozens of species of plants. To the untrained eye, a mountainside covering several hundred acres can appear to be one continuous mass of green, but to a trained botanist, there are hundreds of plant species, each occupying a specific set of conditions. Using the 0-10 scoring system described above, Dwayne noticed an abundance of Chinese Bush Clover (Lespedeza cuneataCOC=0) in the trails. This species was introduced long ago from the grasslands of China and as such it is perfectly at home in grassy disturbed areas in the southeastern U.S. The problem, however, is that it is so well adapted and has no natural competitors that it can grow and out-compete nearly everything around it, making it extremely invasive. He quickly noticed other non-native and invasive species in the paths, including Johnson Grass (Sorghum halepense, COC=0) and Bermuda Grass (Cynodon dactylon, COC=0). The presence of these invasive species tell a story, one of a strong history of disturbance.

Growing with the Chinese Bush Clover, he also spotted Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia, COC=1) and Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus, COC=3). In areas that are highly disturbed or altered from their original state (e.g. bulldozed areas, trails, roadbeds, barn lots, crop fields, cattle pastures, etc.), many of the native species like these would be naturally weedy and would have COC scores ranging from 1-3. These species were the disturbance-adapted weeds that existed in our region before Asiatic and European weeds were introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As they passed through a small woodlot, they observed forests of white oak (Quercus alba, COC=5), red maple (Acer rubrum, COC=4), pignut hickory (Carya glabraCOC=6), and black gum (Nyssa sylvatica, COC=4). All of these are examples of common and widespread species that make up dominant components of many forests of the Cumberland Plateau. They grow in a variety of soil types (moist to dry, acidic to neutral pH) and geologies, varying amounts of shade and competition, at various elevations, and they can tolerate a wide range of man-made and natural disturbances. These species dominate forests that are now widespread on the Cumberland Plateau and form what ecologists call the "matrix" vegetation. Dwayne quickly assigned these "matrix" species scores ranging from 4-6, indicating that they are not weedy and not highly conservative, but are sort of in the middle.

Until about 10-15 years ago, many of Tennessee's leading ecologists, botanists, and wildlife biologists held tight to the notion that much of the surface of the Cumberland Plateau should look like the oak-hickory forests through which George and Dwayne were zooming on the ATV. It was not until the late 1990s and early 2000s that a select few individuals with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) realized that this picture of a heavily forested Cumberland Plateau surface just didn't jive with the historical record for the area. Buried historical data point to the occurrence of vast pine-oak savannas, small prairies, and boggy glades in the area in the late 1700s through mid-1800s. Such historical descriptions like the one below help to set the scene of a more open, romantic landscape:

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There's no doubt there were forests and woodlands that were common on the Plateau surface, but there's also no doubt that there were grasslands. Eloquent quotes like that of Joseph Killebrew in 1874 attest to their presence and beauty. The Plateau was once home to four primary types of grassland communities: (1) shortleaf pine-post oak savannas, (2) small prairies, (3) open bogs and wet meadows, (4) flood-maintained riverscour barrens, and (5) rocky grasslands associated with sandstone glades and outcrops.

While the common matrix species that form the forests are still present and common, the same cannot be said for the wildflowers and grasses. These largely disappeared as savannas became fire suppressed and succeeded to forests or were cleared for crop fields or cattle pastures. As George and Dwayne continued to bounce across the mountainside, Dwayne spotted a bank above the trail that supported numerous species that were once common components of the historical savannas. These "matrix species" (the equivalent to the white oak and red maple of the forests) made up the bulk of the biomass in the historical savannas of the Cumberland Plateau and included: Silky Oat Grass (Danthonia sericea, COC=4), Elliott's Bluestem (Andropogon gyrans, COC=5), Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis, COC=5), Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata, COC=6), and Bushy Aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum, COC=6).

   Bushy Aster ( Symphyotrichum dumosum ) is a common species of the Cumberland Plateau savannas.

Bushy Aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum) is a common species of the Cumberland Plateau savannas.

George quickly turned left and headed downhill and as Dwayne was taking it all in, he spotted something that caught his eye. "Whoa, there it is!" George jammed on the brakes and they hopped out as Dwayne bounded over to the edge of the trail next to several clumps of large grasses. "Big Bluestem...Indian Grass...Little Bluestem!" Dwayne exclaimed. These species have COC values in the range of 6-7 and depend on certain conditions, such as open habitat, intact soil, and periodic natural disturbances (e.g. fire and grazing). These were the species Dwayne had been watching for since they left George's house a couple of miles back down the trail.  Excitedly, Dwayne hopped here and there remarking about "Round-leaved Boneset" and "Shortleaf Pine." Dwayne explained that they were looking at species that once abounded in the Cumberland Plateau savannas. Those conditions are largely absent today from the Cumberland Plateau and these species have declined rapidly as a result, except in utility corridors where open conditions remain. 

"There is hope here!" Dwayne thought to himself. Those conservative savanna species do not have the ability to spread or "seed-in" very easily unlike many of our weedier natives, which would get a score of 1-5.  Their presence indicates that they have persisted for the past several decades, perhaps barely surviving and in low numbers. Often, in such scenarios, these savanna species will remain in a vegetative state and are hardly recognizable except to the trained eye. For example, Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) may persist only as a clump of leaves in the understory of an open woodland, incapable of growing tall and flowering due to a lack of light. It is also likely that seeds of many savanna species remain in the soil and when the mountainside was logged in 2006, the right combination of conditions caused the seeds to germinate.

The small mountainside "savanna remnant" itself provides an important clue. Here and there young Shortleaf Pines (Pinus echinata) were growing vigorously and were already producing cones. The presence of these young pines, which have rebounded following logging and burning, along with the presence of other savanna grasses and wildflowers, show evidence that the mountainside has the necessary ingredients to be restored to shortleaf pine-oak savanna.


OK, so the ingredients are present at Coal Creek Farm, now what?

To imagine what Coal Creek Farm can become with the right kind of management, all one has to do is look to two other sites: Catoosa Wildlife Management Area and the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness. Both are examples of sites that supported extensive savannas 150 years ago. Through the past century the shortleaf pine was largely eliminated, fires that kept the savannas open declined or ceased, and the open grassy savannas rapidly developed into shaded, closed-canopy forests--the grassy ground layer replaced by leaf litter. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the forests were logged and then a series of prescribed fires were used to control the regrowth of shrubs and saplings. With several well-timed fires, these sites have been transformed to beautiful, verdant savannas and have seen a 10-fold increase in the diversity of native wildflowers and grasses. 

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Savanna restoration at Catoosa Wildlife Management Area, Cumberland Co., TN showing before and after pictures from the same site (Photo credit: Andy Vanderyacht, University of Tennessee, Center for Native Grasslands Management). Photo on the left shows typical upland closed-canopy oak-hickory forest. Such modern forests of the Plateau surface were historically open shortleaf pine-post oak savanna in many cases. Decades of fire suppression have led to these forests becoming closed-in and the species of plants and animals that depend on open conditions have declined or disappeared entirely. Photo on the right shows the same site after selective removal of trees via logging, followed by several prescribed fires. After restoration, the number of plant species increased from about 30 wildflowers and grasses on the forest floor (left) to more than 320 in the open savannas (right). A testament to the success of this project is that many conservative plant species have returned. As a result, the proper habitat structure and food sources for wildlife have returned and animals that were in decline, including grassland birds and small mammals, are making a profound come-back, and insect diversity has exploded in these savannas. 


Research at Bridgestone-Firestone wilderness has shown that following canopy-thinning, prescribed burning on a 3-4 year or greater rotation results in a very brushy site with few grassland species. In fact, such sites are mostly a tangle of oak and maple sprouts, blackberries, and greenbriers. Sites that are burned on a 1-2 year rotation (especially when supplemented by hack-and-squirt herbicide application) are developing rapidly into some of the best savannas in the Southeast. Catoosa and Bridgestone-Firestone are now serving as a model for other conservation projects across the southeastern U.S. 

At Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness, savanna restoration has been very successful. Sites that are being burned at a frequency of every 1-2 years are much less brushy than those burned at longer fire-return intervals (4+ years), resulting in better habitat and structure for conservative plants. Savannas are ideal for providing mixed structure that suits a wide variety of species. Where groves of trees and shrubs are more densely arranged, species that need edge habitat and shrubs (e.g. Northern Bobwhite) thrive, but in wide prairie-like openings species that need open treeless and less shrubby grasslands support a different assortment of grassland-dependent species (e.g. Grasshopper Sparrow).  

The restorations at Catoosa and Bridgestone are showing tremendous signs of success. The primary sign that things are going in the right direction can be seen in the plants of the open savanna. For the first time in decades, highly conservative species are returning to these savannas that have either been suppressed in the seedbank for decades or are just now dispersing back into these newly restored sites from other populations since they finally have suitable habitat again.


some of the conservative Species are coming back!

but some will never return without deliberate reintroduction...

Species such as the Orange-Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris, COC=8) and American Bluehearts (Buchnera americana, COC=9) have returned to Bridgestone-Firestone in sites that are burned every 1-2 years. They are indicators that things are going in the right direction. 

The federally-endangered American Chaffseed (Schwalbea americana, COC=10) and the endangered Green Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia oreophila, COC=10) are two species that disappeared from the Cumberland Plateau in the early 20th century as the last high-quality savannas slipped away. Unfortunately, these highly conservative species will likely never return to the Plateau on their own because the original virgin savannas that they needed have disappeared. These species, due to their sensitivity, are among the first to disappear with habitat alteration. There is hope, however, that these species can return to the Tennessee portion of the Cumberland Plateau through deliberate restoration efforts.


"if you build it, they will come..."

There is truth to the quote from the 1989 film, "Field of Dreams," that "if you build it, they will come...."

One of the reasons why plants serve as more reliable barometers of success than animals is that they form the foundation upon which species of animals and most ecosystem services (e.g. maintenance of water quality, prevention of topsoil erosion, carbon sequestration) depend. After all, plants form the base of the food chain, create the structure for diverse habitats, provide food for pollinators and birds (two groups in rapid decline nationwide), and fuels for fire.

Letting the plants guide restoration of the savannas ensures that all of the critical elements will be in place from the ground up. When efforts result in rare and highly conservative plants returning to a site, then land managers can be certain that necessary conditions are present to support imperiled grassland and shrubland birds, pollinators, other important animals, and critical ecosystem processes and services. In essence the landscape can be healed and reassembled.

    Red-Cockaded Woodpecker  is a species that was last seen in Tennessee in 1990. The second-to-last population was at Catoosa WMA in Cumberland Co., TN.  As the savannas succeeded to closed-canopy forests, this species lost the open conditions it requires and finally disappeared completely in the late 1980s. The last birds in Kentucky were moved to longleaf pine savannas of Georgia to avoid their loss. Numerous initiatives are now focused on attempting to reintroduce this beautiful woodpecker back to its native range, but thus far no efforts have been made to bring it back to Tennessee. Initiatives like that at Coal Creek Farm can help rescue this and other imperiled grassland species.  

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker is a species that was last seen in Tennessee in 1990. The second-to-last population was at Catoosa WMA in Cumberland Co., TN.  As the savannas succeeded to closed-canopy forests, this species lost the open conditions it requires and finally disappeared completely in the late 1980s. The last birds in Kentucky were moved to longleaf pine savannas of Georgia to avoid their loss. Numerous initiatives are now focused on attempting to reintroduce this beautiful woodpecker back to its native range, but thus far no efforts have been made to bring it back to Tennessee. Initiatives like that at Coal Creek Farm can help rescue this and other imperiled grassland species.  


George's Vision

Nearing the end of their visit, George and Dwayne climbed higher up the southeast flank of Bear Den Mountain to a lofty vantage point where they could see the entirety of Coal Creek Farm. Behind them, a few hundred feet further up, was the summit of the mountain (elevation 2,930 ft) and just beyond lay Grassy Cove, the largest sinkhole in North America. George pointed to the southeast as they peered down across the northern end of Walden's Ridge. Far in the distance loomed the Great Smoky Mountains that are sometimes be visible on clear days.

George pointed, "You see that area of dark green about two miles away, that's Soak Creek Gorge." A couple of years earlier George had given 1,000 acres of land valued at $6 million to the State of Tennessee to create the Soak Creek State Scenic River. He continued, "just this side of that lies another tract that I own that abuts the Soak Creek Canyon that is about 2,000 acres. Do you think that could be restored to savanna?" And then he added, "beyond Soak Creek is Piney River Falls Natural Area and a huge area of thousands of acres of timber land covering nearly 11,000 acres." His arm swung northward and as he pointed he said, "and over there lies 6,000 acres that borders the northeastern corner of my property and touches Grassy Cove." Dwayne could see the wheels turning in his head and was just trying to catch up and absorb the grandeur of the view spread before them.

George's vision materialized into words: "Wouldn't it be cool to think about a 20,000, perhaps 50,000 acre project that could connect existing public land units like Piney River Falls, Soak Creek State Scenic River, and the Cumberland Trail State Park by linking them to a large network of private lands under conservation easements."

Dwayne's mind was racing with excitement. Looking out on the rolling landscape, he recalled Ramsey's (1853) eloquent quote describing the scene below and how it once was a "vast upland prairie" with "gamboling herds of deer, elk, and buffalo...." A large tract such as George was dreaming about could one day support an incredible landscape that no one has witnessed in the past 150 years. Such a scene would have amazed the first settlers who reached the top of the Cumberland Plateau on their way west from Knoxville about 1800 along the Old Walton Road. It would have served as the hunting grounds for the Cherokee and other American Indian tribes. It would have provided habitat for hundreds of species and fodder to early livestock. Now all that has changed.


a model for private lands conservation on the plateau

While small- to moderate-scale savanna restoration projects in the range of tens to a few thousand acres have proven successful on state lands such as Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness and Catoosa WMA, respectively, the reality is that these projects are a mere "drop in the bucket" compared to the hundreds of thousands of acres of savanna that once dominated the Plateau landscape. One would think that with the tens of thousands of acres of public lands on the Cumberland Plateau surface (Fall Creek Falls State Park, Savage Gulf State Natural Area, Big South Fork National Recreation Area) that there would be ample opportunity to restore savannas on a massive scale. Unfortunately, major barriers exist that impede such efforts, including a lack of financial resources, staffing limitations, and bureaucratic hurdles (such as the "paralysis of analysis" plague and certain environmental regulations). Perhaps most significant is the issue of potential backlash by the general public and certain environmental advocacy groups who adhere to the false notion that "all forests are good" and that we should preserve forests wherever possible, especially large blocks on existing state and federal lands.   

   Until conservation priorities change, large public lands on the Cumberland Plateau surface, such as Savage Gulf State Natural Area (above) that are suitable for savanna restoration will continue to be off-limits. In the meantime, large private tracts present a real opportunity to lead the way in restoring the Cumberland Plateau savanna ecosystem by incorporating economic incentives, such as well-managed selective timber harvests and carefully-guided cattle grazing.

Until conservation priorities change, large public lands on the Cumberland Plateau surface, such as Savage Gulf State Natural Area (above) that are suitable for savanna restoration will continue to be off-limits. In the meantime, large private tracts present a real opportunity to lead the way in restoring the Cumberland Plateau savanna ecosystem by incorporating economic incentives, such as well-managed selective timber harvests and carefully-guided cattle grazing.

 The historical Cumberland Plateau Savanna ecosystem once extended from se. KY to nw. AL along the surface of the Plateau. It covered hundreds of thousands of acres and was dominated by shortleaf pine-post oak-little bluestem with wet swales, meadows, and rocky sandstone glades embedded throughout. Today, 95-99% of this ecosystem has disappeared, primarily due to fire suppression, end of open range for cattle grazing, and conversion of wet grasslands to farm ponds.

The historical Cumberland Plateau Savanna ecosystem once extended from se. KY to nw. AL along the surface of the Plateau. It covered hundreds of thousands of acres and was dominated by shortleaf pine-post oak-little bluestem with wet swales, meadows, and rocky sandstone glades embedded throughout. Today, 95-99% of this ecosystem has disappeared, primarily due to fire suppression, end of open range for cattle grazing, and conversion of wet grasslands to farm ponds.

Until conservationists find a way to scale-up savanna restoration on a massive scale in the next few years, we will continue to see grassland species (e.g. northern bobwhite, prairie warbler, native bees) slip into oblivion. Northern bobwhite's existing population is projected to decline by half by 2029 and that population will halve again by 2036. Time is limited.

Continued inaction and "paralysis by analysis" will doom the most precious elements of biodiversity that need our action. The situation is dire and an awakening was needed 25 years ago. Now is the time for an urgent paradigm shift in the conservation community--a paradigm shift that emphasizes native grasslands as a major component of the Cumberland Plateau Ecoregion. If we wait another 25 years, it will be too late.

In the meantime, while we wait for state and federal government agencies to chart a new course, there are opportunities for visionary private landowners like George Lindemann to lead large-scale savanna restoration and conservation efforts. If such efforts are to be wide-reaching and successful to a variety of landowners, big and small, they should incorporate financial incentives or offsets to make such efforts more appealing and feasible economically. Where ecologically appropriate, pairing restoration efforts with timber harvests, reduced or altered mowing (saving money on time and fuel), and carefully managed cattle grazing, can provide the impetus private landowners need to make a big difference quickly. Of course, state or federal grants should be used where possible to amplify these efforts.  

The accompanying photos show scenes from the Cumberland Plateau during the mid-20th Century relevant to savanna restoration. Up until "open range" was outlawed in the early 1940s, cattle and other livestock roamed free, grazing about a rural countryside very much in the heart of Appalachia and still relatively untouched by significant development. Until that time, Plateau counties like Cumberland County were frequently among the top producers of cattle in the state. In fact, after the Civil War the area's rapidly-closing savannas and grassy woodlands supported much of the agricultural economy of the Plateau counties. To this day, place names on the Plateau, such as the town of Clarkrange in Fentress County serve as a testament to this rich "grasslandy" past. The town was so named because earlier in the 1800s it had served as a farmer named"Clark's" "cattle range," which was later shortened to "Clarkrange." That area to this day is one of the last areas where dying savanna remnants can still be found. Thus, the relationship between cattle and Plateau savannas is an important one that has a long history. That history reaches both our cultural history but is a part of the region's natural history as well, because before cattle grazed in the savannas there were bison and elk. Going forward in the future cattle should have a prominent, but carefully role in restoring the Plateau's savannas and open grassy woodlands. The quote below emphasizes the reciprocal relationship shared between grasslands of the Plateau and cattle grazing.

The interesting thing about savannas is that they have a grassy ground layer but also support trees that form an open to moderately open canopy. One hundred and fifty years ago, the savannas were dominated by Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata) but in the mid-1800s much of the shortleaf was depleted for timber, turpentine, and tar. Still to this day, place names like "Tar Kiln Ridge" or "Piney Grove" serve as a reminder of these long-gone savannas, though few today realize the significance behind those place names.


Over the last century-and-a-half, the pine savannas have largely shifted to hardwood forests that have become thick due to fire suppression and lack of grazing. Few shortleaf pines exist anymore and, as a fire-dependent species that needs recently-burned land to germinate and thrive, there are few areas where shortleaf is even reproducing.


In the latter half of the 20th Century, a major land grab was underway by large timber companies and large blocks of oak-hickory forest covering thousands of acres were clearcut and re-planted in Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda). Much of the recent conservation focus on the Plateau has been to slow the cutting of Plateau forests and conversion to pine plantations and in general large-scale clearcutting is deemed as ecologically destructive, ugly, and altogether bad. However, there might just be some hope.

Now that we realize that much of these areas now covered in Loblolly Pine plantations were once Shortleaf Pine savannas it offers renewed hope for the possibility of working with private landowners and timber companies to couple timber harvests with savanna restoration. When such efforts can be bolstered with addition of carefully guided cattle grazing as a management tool and the appropriate timed usage of prescribed fires, then high-quality savanna restoration is not only possible, but can proceed relatively rapidly based on proven case studies on large private ranches in the Pineywoods region of east Texas and local restoration at Catoosa and Bridgestone (though those examples are without cattle). 

While private lands conservation may occur at smaller scales of tens of acres to hundreds of acres due to the average size of Plateau private lands parcels, this model has the potential to be developed and conducted across dozens of sites throughout the Plateau. Thus, although individual projects may be small, the potential for real change over large areas is great on a cumulative scale. 

Restoration at Lindemann's Coal Creek Farm has the potential to serve as a conservation model for the rest of the Cumberland Plateau and many areas of the southeastern U.S., but that restoration must be informed by a sound ecological assessment.

   A lone longhunter atop Bear Den Mountain looking across the prairie that once covered Grassy Cove, Cumberland County, Tennessee ca. 1776.  Oil on canvas by Larry R. Richardson (2017).

A lone longhunter atop Bear Den Mountain looking across the prairie that once covered Grassy Cove, Cumberland County, Tennessee ca. 1776.  Oil on canvas by Larry R. Richardson (2017).

ecological survey of coal creek farm

   Coal Creek Farm management plan prepared by the University of Tennessee Center for Native Grasslands Management.

Coal Creek Farm management plan prepared by the University of Tennessee Center for Native Grasslands Management.

The University of Tennessee (UT) Center for Native Grasslands Management has mapped the 5,000-acre Coal Creek Farm and proposed management units. These units are not necessarily reflective of habitats or plant communities present on the ground and do not indicate potential ecological significance or restoration potential of each unit. For example, some community types of high conservation value are not accounted for by the UT map, such as sandstone glades, wet meadows, and seepage wetlands. Furthermore, specific areas most suitable for savanna restoration are not identified on the map. Other information such as locations for conservative or rare plants and special natural features (savanna remnants) are not included. Having a solid assessment and plan that incorporates these and other features is important to guide existing (e.g. the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation funded project to restore Shortleaf Pine and treat Hemlock trees) and future restoration and management to ensure conservation efforts are successful, efficient, and cost-effective. 

Our approach is different from but complimentary to the existing UT Management Plan. It is a multifaceted hybrid approach with ecological restoration, management of working lands, and preservation of existing high-quality natural areas.


year 1 (2018)--Inventory & baseline data collection

For restoration to succeed in a successful, effective, and cost-efficient manner it is imperative to know what resources already exist on the property that need to be enhanced, reduced, eradicated, or restored. This can only be done by conducting thorough inventories of existing biodiversity (plants and animals). So, for Year 1, we will survey the extent of Coal Creek Farm, being sure to search each of the different management units delineated by the UTK Center for Native Grasslands Management. During six or more visits we will focus on completing the following objectives:

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Create Preliminary Map of Existing Ecological Communities in ArcGIS

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Photograph & Collect Baseline Data on Existing Ecological Communities

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Create a custom iNaturalist Project to document the Biodiversity of Coal Creek Farm

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Conduct Species Inventory in All Habitats to Build Comprehensive Plant List

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Document Invasive Species that are a concern for savanna restoration


Discover & Document Butterflies, Moths, Bees, Grasshoppers & Other Insect DIversity at Coal Creek Farm

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Conduct Species Inventory Via Numerous Bioblitzes in all Habitats at Coal Creek Farm


Document Birds & Mammals as part of Bioblitz

Document Reptiles & Amphibian DIversity during Bioblitz

Telling the Story: Outreach & Publicity

deliverables for year 1

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Article in The Tennessee Conservationist magazine or other popular formats

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Comprehensive iNaturalist Project


Work to tell the story of Cumberland Plateau Conservation via documentaries, interviews, social media, blogs

year 2 (2019)--development of restoration & management plan and collection of additional data to inform long-term management

For now, Year 2 is not figured into this budget, but the goals of Year 2 are given to show the next step for processing the data collected in Year 1 into a meaningful form that can then be used for on-the-ground management at Coal Creek Farm. There are two primary objectives slated for Year 2:

  1. to draft a detailed Restoration and Management Plan, which will include:
    • information about physical setting (e.g. geology, soils, climate)
    • summary of the natural history of the area (e.g. fire history, historical vegetation)
    • summary of relevant cultural history (e.g. how end of open range for cattle grazing and fire suppression impacted present)
    • map of all ecological communities identified on the property
    • map of significant natural features (old-growth trees, important natural communities)
    • full list of all species documented
    • maps showing rare species or species of conservation significance
    • strategy for conserving sensitive species
    • strategy for controlling or eradicating invasive plants
    • management plans tailored to different parts of the property in light of conservation goals, including burn plan, mowing plan, wetland restoration, etc. with emphasis on areas slated for savanna restoration
  2. to set up long-term monitoring plots that will be used to collect data needed to help guide on-the-ground restoration.
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Write a Detailed Strategic Restoration & Management Plan

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Map and Highlight Significant Natural Features & Areas

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Map Populations of Rare Species and Habitats and Prepare Strategy for Their Conservation

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Develop an Ecologically-Based Burn Plan

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Provide Detailed Site Overview to Set the Context for the Farm's Natural & Cultural History

Set-up Long-Term Monitoring of Reptiles & Amphibians to Assess Restoration Progress

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Prepare a Strategy for the Control & Eradication of Invasive Species


Set up Plots in Select Habitats Slated for Restoration


Collect Baseline Vegetation Data to Assess Restoration Progress 


Set-up Long-Term Monitoring of Birds & Mammals to Assess Restoration Progress



Continued Sampling for Insect Biodiversity 

deliverables for year 2

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Describe At Least One New Species

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Final Report and Restoration & Management Plan

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Prepare Manuscript for Publication in Scientific Journals


This proposal is for Year 1 (the period of April 2018-December 2018). 


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southeastern grasslands initiative

team members

Click here for details about each team member.