Grassland at the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The Southern Grasslands Institute at Austin Peay State University has received a $495,000 grant to study the establishment of grasslands across millions of acres on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama.
The grant will be used to “prioritize the habitat needs for at least 185 species of conservation concern that need or prefer more open ecosystems” on 14 million acres, according to the institute, which advocates for a return to grasslands across nearly half of the Cumberland Plateau, which is largely forested.
There continues to be dispute within the scientific community about whether the lands were once grassland, or should be restored to grassland — a process that would require razing long-established forests across large swathes of public and private lands in middle and east Tennessee.
A plan by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency last year to raze thousands of acres of forest on the publicly-owned Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Area drew considerable pushback from local residents and a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
TWRA officials said then that the plan was intended to create grassland habitat for dozens of species including the Northern Bobwhite quail, a game bird whose populations have plummeted in Tennessee.
Local residents, hunters, hikers and tourism officials and said they were kept in the dark on plans to dramatically transform the landscape that has served as a backdrop to the community for generations and draws thousands of visitors each year.
The grant is one of 55 distributed by the National Fish and Wildlife Federation toward conservation efforts across the nation.
The grant will be used for a mapping project to identify potential areas to create or return to grasslands in Tennessee and elsewhere. It will also be used to convene a diverse group of stakeholders, a news release said.
“We are ready to go big,” said Dr. Dwayne Estes, executive director and co-founder of the grasslands institute. “We chose the 14 million-acre Cumberland Plateau which has a rich legacy of conservation action that has preserved hundreds of thousands of acres of vital forest habitat.”
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