Private Sector Plays Vital Role in Buffering Little River Canyon National Preserve

Little River Canyon. Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources photo.

The battle against encroaching development hasn’t been won at Alabama’s Little River Canyon National Preserve, but the campaign has taken a promising turn. Congress authorized an expansion and The Nature Conservancy and its partners have gotten the land acquisition process well underway.

Although you’ve seen scant attention of the Little River Canyon National Preserve in the national print and broadcast media -- or in this webzine, we sheepishly admit -- the nearly 14,000-acre preserve in northeastern Alabama deserves recognition as one of America’s scenic-ecological treasures. The 30-mile long Little River, which flows clean, free, and fast atop Lookout Mountain at the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau, has carved one of the most impressive canyons in the eastern United States. The canyon is up to 600 feet deep in places, and the canyon rims, sandstone cliffs and bluffs, rapids, pools, cascades, waterfalls, and other scenic features of this rugged landscape are set against a backdrop of rugged forested uplands that were – at least until recently -- spared the degrading sort of development that has plagued so much of Southern Appalachia’s landscape. The Little River Canyon area is much more ecologically valuable than most people realize, too, being home to rare or regionally unique species such as the endangered green pitcher plant, Kral's water-plantain, the Pigeon Mountain salamander, and the endangered blue shiner.

Congress, via Public Law 102-427, established Little River Canyon National Preserve on October 24, 1992, to protect its scenic, ecological, and cultural resources and to provide high-quality outdoor recreation opportunities for a large regional population (Atlanta, Birmingham, and Chattanooga are all within 110 miles or so). The protected area is a long, narrow corridor situated along the axis of the river and extending in a north-south trending direction. On the north, and situated within the preserve boundaries, is the ca. 5,000-acre DeSoto State Park. Anchoring the southern end is the 167-acre Canyon Mouth Park.

Though facilities development has been relatively meager for so large and popular an area, there is a wide assortment of outdoor recreational activities. The nearly 200,000 people who visited in 2008 had their choice of auto touring and sightseeing, bird watching and nature photography, picnicking, swimming, fishing, kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, bicycling, berry picking, primitive camping (three backcountry campgrounds), hunting, ATV riding (permit required), rock climbing, and more.

The 11 mile-long scenic drive along the canyon offers good “windshield touring” as well as seven overlooks, some picnic areas, trailheads, and related attractions. Much of the outdoor recreational activity takes place at or near the Canyon Mouth Park, which is popular with picnickers and swimmers (but no longer has a campground) and at the DeSoto State Park, which offers an extensive backcountry area for hiking, horseback riding, camping, ATV-riding, hunting, trapping, and related activities. (Being a national preserve-designated unit, Little River permits many activities outside the normal bounds of national park recreation.)

Unfortunately, protecting Little River Canyon’s resources has been a long-standing problem. When Congress established the preserve back in 1992, the authorized boundaries did not extend far enough to adequately protect the viewscape, provide room for infrastructure development, preserve wildlife habitat, and provide related benefits. This is primarily because an original provision for including 14,500 acres of privately-owned land within the preserve’s authorized boundaries was stripped from the bill to remove objections and clear the way for its passage. This left some of the preserve’s trails crossing private land, some stretches of the canyon rim completely exposed to development, and some sections of the scenic drive outside the preserve and ineligible for federal highway funds.

The result was predictable. Incompatible development continued to encroach on the preserve, especially on the east side. Stretches of the scenic drive unusable by larger RVs couldn’t be widened and improved. The nationally significant ecological diversity of the area lay vulnerable to serious deterioration. The National Park Service and its partner state agencies and NGOs became increasingly restive. Anyone could see that the critical buffering that wasn’t provided when the preserve was established had to be provided soon or it would be too late.

Earlier this year, help arrived in the form of Section 7103 of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which expanded the preserve’s authorized boundaries by approximately 1,656 acres and enabled acquisition by purchase from willing sellers or through donations

Rounding up the funding and arranging the land acquisitions remains problematic. The Park Service has estimated that the acquisitions will cost in the range of $9 million to $12 million, and since federal funding is not assured in the near run, and may take years to obtain, private funding must take up the slack. There is a sense of urgency. Absent quick action, critical land might be developed before it can be acquired for the preserve.

Against this background, it was very gratifying to see a recent announcement that The Nature Conservancy has spent $3.6 million to purchase a 2,186 - acre tract of land adjacent to the preserve from the Hancock Timber Resource Group and made plans to transfer the western portion of it (apparently around 650 acres) to the preserve and sell the rest of it to Forever Wild, Alabama’s state land preservation program. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources had been leasing the land for public hunting as part of the state’s Wildlife Management Area program.

Chris Oberholster, state director of The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, waxed enthusiastic while describing the newly-acquired property, the Little River Canyon National Preserve, and the partnership that made this exciting development possible:

This project is a significant milestone in our decades-long pursuit to protect one of the South’s most distinctive natural areas – Little River Canyon.…. We are grateful to the many public and private partners who helped make this acquisition possible, including the Lyndhurst Foundation, the Benwood Foundation and particularly Fred and Alice Stanback of North Carolina who provided critical and generous support for the project.”

The Hancock Timber Resource Group and The Nature Conservancy have a 20-year history of working together to protect ecologically significant lands. With this agreement, the two partners will have worked together to protect nearly 60,000 acres of sensitive lands across the United States.
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