A Proposal to Develop the:
Gone are the gamboling herds of buffalo grazing on the seemingly endless savannas of the Cumberland Plateau. More than 150 years of fire suppression and landscape change have erased this once vast ecosystem. Their loss has profoundly impacted biodiversity in the region, with the red-cockaded woodpecker vanishing by 1989 and many species of songbirds, pollinators, reptiles (e.g. pine snake), small mammals, and plants have declined drastically. Of 40 rare plant species that were known to occur on the Plateau surface in the 1970s, 50% have disappeared completely from the Plateau because their savanna habitat has disappeared. How can the Cumberland Plateau, one of the biologically richest regions in the temperate Northern Hemisphere, be losing biodiversity so quickly, with many more at risk?
You Can’t Protect What You Don’t Understand!
For the entire 20th century and much of the 21st, the nearly all conservation organizations and most university ecologists have subscribed to the idea that the Cumberland Plateau should be forested. Such a characterization has been applied to both the deep gorges as well as the flat Plateau surface. This view has clouded the past half-century of conservation decision-making with immeasurably adverse trickle-down effects. All of the public lands designated during this period have been forested lands of the gorges and mountainous sections of the Plateau. Additionally, until the past few years nearly all of the academic research, recreation, and notoriety has gone to the forests of the Plateau.
While much conservation progress has made with protecting a few hundred thousand acres of the Plateau landscape, somehow we’ve still failed to realize the implications of “putting all our eggs in the forest conservation basket.” Somehow in the 100 years following the Civil Warsthe savannas that once covered hundreds of thousands of acres of the Plateau surface have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Today most exist as barely recognizable fragments along roadsides and in powerline corridors.
Aside from a couple of projects at Catoosa Wildlife Management Area and Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness, the concept of escalating efforts to restore savannas on a broad scale across the Plateau on both public and private properties is happening too slowly. At this rate, the biodiversity that needs these savannas will not be able to catch up until savannas restoration efforts are dramatically increased both in terms of the amount of acreage being restored and in the speed with which these efforts take place. Yet, these expeditious efforts are hampered by a general lack of awareness by the conservation community, the public, environmental advocacy groups, political leaders, and conservation funders.
which harbor a small percentage of the species in greatest need of conservation.
Conservationist, landowner, and philanthropist, George Lindemann, is taking on a leadership role and is restoring hundreds of acres of shortleaf pine-post oak savanna on his 5,000-acre Coal Creek Farm near Crossville, Tennessee. George has made a profound impact on Tennessee conservation in the past decade, spearheading efforts to establish the new 1,000-acre Soak Creek Scenic River. For his leadership, the Tennessee Wildlife Federation named him the 2017 Tennessee Conservationist of the Year. Now, adding to his love of protecting streams, he has a vision of restoring thousands of acres of pine-oak savanna on the Cumberland Plateau, savannas that not only benefit biodiversity but can draw outdoor enthusiasts of all types from nearby cities such as Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville, and Atlanta. Investments in conservation and outdoor infrastructure are urgently needed, but conservation efforts on the Cumberland Plateau are hampered by a widespread lack of awareness of its grassland nature. The flat Plateau surface has suffered for nearly a century now under the paradigm that it should be a dense forest. This is not supported by history or science, but somehow this story has largely remained untold both as a part of Tennessee’s cultural history and its conservation history.
The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI), based out of Austin Peay State University’s Center of Excellence for Field Biology - a regional leader in the Mid-South in training new field biologists and conservationists, proposes to establish the George Lindemann Graduate Fellowship in Cumberland Plateau Savanna Ecology. This would provide funding to recruit two talented graduate students to work on savanna restoration research and to coordinate an education/outreach campaign to reach the general public, political leaders, regional corporations.
History & Science Have Been Ignored by Conservation Organizations & University Professors: Some of the leading conservation organizations are still promoting forests and woodlands as the natural habitat for the Plateau surface in spite of the fact that early historical documentation from the region indicates savannas and prairies were abundant. This is evident in recent conservation reports such as Cumberland Voices authored by the Land Trust for Tennessee in collaboration with the University of the South. Long-range conservation planning efforts such as The Nature Conservancy’s focus on resiliency assigns higher values to forested landscapes in spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of rare species on the Plateau need savannas, not closed forests. The savannas are not referenced even once in the Cumberland Voices report. We are in need of a new, original conservation plan that is driven by science and historical data and that addresses the needs specifically of the Plateau surface.
Public Bias Toward Forest Conservation is Enormous: There are some very large public lands on the Cumberland Plateau with plateau-surface lands that could be restored to tens of thousands of acres of savanna, but public perceptions will have to change in order for this to become popular at places such as Fall Creek Falls State Park, Savage Gulf State Natural Area, and Big South Fork National Recreation Area.
Conservation Funders Still Don’t Get It: Public perception and the misguided approaches of past conservation efforts have directly influenced funders. Philanthropic foundations such as the Lyndhurst Foundation, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Open Spaces Institute have embraced this same forest-centric rationale so it is no wonder that the majority of dollars that go toward conservation of the Plateau are focused on forested areas such as dissected gorges. Aside from Catoosa, very little work or funding have been directed toward conservation of Plateau-surface lands.
Success at Coal Creek!
In June 2018, George Lindemann, a conservationist who owns the 5,000 acre Coal Creek Farm near Crossville, Tennessee, provided a donation to support the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative. These funds have been instrumental in furthering our understanding of Cumberland Plateau savanna biodiversity. During the study, almost 2,000 observations were been made recording 745 species. The goal to find 400 species of plants was surpassed with 500 species documented after five months (June-November), with another 150 now expected to be discovered in spring 2019 (March-June). One of the most exciting discoveries from our efforts was the discovery of a new species of grasshopper. The results of this biodiversity study will be published in 2019 and highlighted in a variety of outlets.
The Stage is Set for Looking at Big-Impact Questions at Coal Creek
The biodiversity survey conducted from June 2018 - May 2019 will inform restoration at Coal Creek Farm and elsewhere on the Cumberland Plateau. In particular, the role of canopy removal and prescribed fire are well understood and their use is unquestionably vital to grassland restoration. Less well known is the role cattle can play in the selective logging + fire + cattle grazing equation of savanna restoration. Cattle are an important component to Coal Creek Farm and to many other farms in the Cumberland Plateau. In 2019, work will focus on taking the results of the biodiversity survey and maximizing on-the-ground conservation work at Coal Creek. The following questions will be addressed by follow-up studies which will also have big implications for grassland restoration across the Cumberland Plateau:
Can frequently mowed open fields and meadows be mowed less frequently, thus saving time, money, and greatly benefitting biodiversity that is otherwise in steep decline?
Is it feasible to harvest seeds from local savanna remnants and use that seed to sow directly onto the ground (i.e. interseeding) of cool-season grass pastures dominated by orchard grass and to use this method to restore native grasslands without the use of herbicide or plowing?
Is the current thinning + fire + grazing approach helping or hurting restoration of shortleaf pine-oak savanna and savanna species (e.g. grassland birds, small mammals and reptiles, pollinators, and conservative plant species?)
Leadership is Key to Changing Perceptions of the Plateau
In just two short years, the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative has been preaching the need for an infusion of new philanthropic, corporate, and government funds into Cumberland Plateau Savanna restoration. SGI has garnered the support of the Washington D.C.-based BAND Foundation who over the past year-and-a-half has contributed $384,000 in core support to our young organization. Between the months of August-November 2018, SGI brought in $520,000 in government-funded grants to work on the Cumberland Plateau, including funding from Tennessee Valley Authority ($305,000), Tennessee Department of Transportation ($150,000), Big South Fork National Recreation Area ($55,000), Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation ($10,000). This funding comes on the heals of a $4.5 million grant that SGI co-wrote with American Bird Conservancy, Central Hardwoods Joint Venture, and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency that provides USDA dollars to restore up to 7,000 acres of grassland in central Tennessee and Kentucky, including areas just west of the Plateau. This funding provides a five-year SGI coordinator position. Now that SGI’s activities on the Cumberland Plateau are increasing, we find ourselves in need of a coordinator who can manage our Cumberland Plateau operations, including research and restoration at Coal Creek.
Research Needs of the Cumberland Plateau Savannas
Seed-collecting, local seed source development, and restoration of cool season-pastures
Volunteer Recruitment & Coordination
Public Education, Lobbying, Advocacy
The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative has partnered with the Society for Range Management with the goal of establishing rangeland as a land type in the eastern U.S., which would open up important new sources of conservation funding from the US Department of Agriculture under the US Farm Bill that is currently only available to farmers in Florida and states west of the Mississippi River.
was launched officially in January 2018 with the intent of increasing efforts to greatly escalate restoration, preservation, research, and education related to the “Forgotten Grasslands of the South.”
The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative is leading efforts to “chart a new course for Plateau conservation in the 21st century”
by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Later studies, in collaboration with the University of Tennessee, have shown that thinning dense forests followed by prescribed fire can restore shortleaf pine-post oak savannas to high quality in short time. There have been tremendous responses from savanna grasses and wildflowers that had been suppressed for 50-75 years. They’ve been there all along, existing underground by their dormant rootstocks or in the seedbank.
Wildlife and native plants are responding favorably, but reversing the loss of savanna biodiversity depends on our ability to do larger restorations (on the scale of 1,000-10,000 acres) and more frequent small-scale restorations (50-100 acres). Unfortunately, there are three major challenges that must be overcome for this to happen: