KNOXVILLE — Gov. Phil Bredesen formally enacted Thursday what he called the largest land conservation initiative in Tennessee since the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dedicated in 1940.
The land deal will preserve 127,000 woodland acres on the northern Cumberland Plateau, about 45 miles northwest of Knoxville. It will add to Frozen Head State Park and link it to the Royal Blue and Sundquist wildlife management areas across four counties.
That's about half the size of Tennessee's contribution to the 520,000-acre Smokies national park straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, but still significant.
The $135 million initiative will "create a swath of protected forest land for protection and public enjoyment that totals about 200 square miles,'' Bredesen said as he signed documents completing the deal in a ceremony in World's Fair Park.
"This is really a great day for Tennessee,'' he said.
The area is twice the size of Knoxville and considered one of the most biologically rich regions in the world. It is home to rare birds and other wildlife. Elk have been reintroduced nearby.
"It is the kind of place that once lost, we can never get back,'' said Scott Davis, director of the Tennessee chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
Just two years ago, most of these rolling hills were on the verge of being sold by timber companies for the value of their wood or development potential.
The state stepped in with the help of the Nature Conservancy and two conservation-oriented forest investment companies — Lyme Timber Co. of New Hampshire and Conservation Forestry LLC of Massachusetts.
Trees had been marked for cutting less than 100 yards from the entrance to Frozen Head, said Jim Fyke, state environment and conservation commissioner. Without this land deal, "Frozen Head's future could have been much different.'' Now those trees will be preserved.
Some 10,000 acres, including Love and Bird mountains, will be permanently added to Frozen Head. Conservation easements on 42,000 additional acres will ensure the land can never be developed and will be accessible to the public, though it remains in private hands.
And timber rights secured on 75,000 acres already owned by the state in the Sundquist Wildlife Management Area will give the state control to ensure sustainable forest practices, including limits on clearcutting and boundaries around streams.
Some oppose the deal
"I got three more years and I invite you to bring me one more big one before I leave here,'' he said. "And we will see if we can make that happen, too.''