The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Preserving our heritage: Foothills Land Conservancy reaches 135,000-acre milestone

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456915 10150749976200572 259742799 oA view of some of the land preserved by Foothills Land Conservancy on the Cumberland Plateau.   Courtesy Foothills Land Conservancy

Foothills Land Conservancy preserves land and multiple habitats across seven states

Foothills Land Conservancy rang in the new year with the preservation of 250 undeveloped acres along the Little Pigeon River in a rapidly growing area of Sevier County in East Tennessee.

The deal was finalized in late 2020 — a fitting end to the Blount County conservancy’s 35th year.

Foothills Land Conservancy has protected about 135,000 acres in seven states, including 95,000 acres in East Tennessee, since its inception in 1985. For comparison’s sake, that’s nearly a third of the protected land that encompass the 500,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of that land has been acquired since 2006, when former state Sen. Bill Clabough became executive director.

“We’ve been really growing and expanding,” Clabough said late last year from the conservancy headquarters on the century-old Harris family farm in Rockford. 

The farm itself is under a conservation easement, one of several ways the conservancy preserves and protects natural and agricultural lands.

“When you do good work you don’t have to do a lot of advertising,” said Clabough, 69, a likable former country store owner and Wildwood native whose political public service came to an end in 2005 when the moderate Republican incumbent was defeated by a firebrand conservative in the Senate GOP primary. 

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Clabough said of his primary defeat.

He doesn’t miss politics one bit, he said, and much prefers his latest iteration of public service — his current nonpartisan role in the preservation of natural landscapes, ecologically valuable areas and farmland throughout East Tennessee and the Southeast.

There were fewer than 20 easements covering about 2,500 acres when Clabough took the helm of the FLC some 15 years ago, succeeding former executive director Randy Brown. The conservancy’s offices then were in a bleak building in downtown Maryville overlooking polluted Pistol Creek.

In 2020 alone, FLC preserved about 3,340 acres in Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Alabama. Its main method for preserving land is through conservation easements, a legal contract with property owners that stipulates what can and cannot occur on the property. In many instances, landowners continue to live on the land, and some incentives, such as a reduction in property taxes, can also encourage owners to put their land in a protected easement. 

In some cases, the land under easement is donated to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency or similar state agencies for management, and protected property often adjoins or is in close proximity to existing state or federal natural areas.

One example of this is the 1,000-acre Fourman tract in Roane County atop Walden Ridge. It borders the 11,000-acre Mount Roosevelt State Wildlife Management Area and protects a migration corridor for raptors, warblers and butterflies. Foothills Land Conservancy acquired the property in 2017, placed it under a conservation easement and transferred the property in late 2019 to TWRA for management.

Portions of White’s and Piney creeks flow through the property; both streams have been identified as a “high priority” for protection by the state. The two waterways are considered “fully supporting” of native aquatic plant and animal species, and 13 threatened or endangered aquatic species, including darters and dace, are present within the Fourman tract.

“The work we’ve done on the Plateau has been monumental,” Clabough said.

Closer to the Smokies, the Sevier County tract finalized last year and announced in January is home to wood ducks and eastern towhees, both species of concern. The property contains a range of natural landscapes, including wetlands, woods and riparian areas.

It could be said that FLC has protected habitat for virtually every species in Tennessee — from highlands to bottomlands and from black bears to birds — and that all-in approach to conservation is key to its mission.

“There are so many ways of looking at milestones and highlights over the years,” said FLC marketing and development director Elise Eustace. “The diversity, though, is the common thread,” she said, both in terms of species and topography.

The conservancy has even preserved a 37-acre tract of woodland in metropolitan Atlanta and an abandoned granite pit and its tailings in North Georgia. In Loudon County, the conservancy has helped preserve natural lands surrounding an active quarry. In western Kentucky, FLC protected 700 acres of prime farmland.

“It has been a nice surprise for me — the diversity of the land, but also the diversity of the people we work with who want to see protected land, who want those watersheds protected. We’ve established great friendships all over the Southeast,” Clabough said.

Speaking from the current office in a Rockford farmhouse situated among 300 acres — Gail Harris permanently passed on the land to FLC in 2017 after it had been in a conservation easement since 2009 — Clabough is quick to give credit for the conservancy’s growth and success to its 13-member board of directors.

“The board has been very gracious,” he said, in approving the crucial staff additions of Eustace, and two staff biologists, Matthew Moore and Shelby Lyn Sanders.

The biologists are able to inventory and assay existing and potential FLC land for preservation values, taking special note of plant and animal communities and noteworthy streams and rivers that may border the property or run through it. The properties are visited every year to update, as needed, baseline ecological data.

Clabough also credits the 2018 Farm Bill with streamlining the conservation easement process and promoting conservation partnerships and tax incentives for land preservation.

“Those things have allowed us to do a phenomenal job from my perspective,” Clabough said.

So what motivates people to put their land in conservation easements or donate the land outright to the conservancy?

It’s rooted in respect for the natural heritage of the United States and an appreciation of the benefits of rural and open spaces to society and their role in mitigating climate change and species loss, Clabough said. Farmland preservation is also important for obvious reasons, and again, it’s part of the national heritage of all Americans. It’s also important to educate people about agriculture and the sources of local food.

For instance, Clabough said, the conservancy has a tract under easement in Wears Valley.

“One hundred years from now, some family will be going to the Smokies, and a kid is going to say: ‘Mama, is that a real cow standing in that field?’”

For more information, visit www.foothillsland.org.

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