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Conservation and Inspiration in the Tennessee River Basin

An article from the Tennessee River Basin Network's third annual meeting, highlighting the work being done in one of America's most biologically diverse watersheds.
Conservation and Inspiration in the Tennessee River Basin

Cumberland Plateau to the west of Lookout Mountain. Image credit Bill Dennison

Conservation and Inspiration in the Tennessee River Basin

This summer, conservationists, biologists, environmental leaders and other partners from across the Appalachian region gathered in Chattanooga, Tennessee inspired by a single goal: conserving the Tennessee River and its rich aquatic biodiversity.

Hosted by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the third annual Tennessee River Basin (TRB) Network meeting not only brought partners together; it underscored the fragile nature of this biologically rich landscape.

The Tennessee River watershed holds more than 230 species of fish and 100 species of mussels -- more species of both groups than any other U.S. watershed. But with 57 of the fish species considered at risk, at least 15 on the federal endangered or threatened list, and more than 47 mussel species also at risk, the network has a lot of work ahead.

“While we have the most biodiverse watershed in the nation, we also have the highest number of imperiled species of any large basin in North America,” said Shannon O’Quinn, TVA aquatic biologist and event organizer. “This is one reason why this network partnership is needed now more than ever before.”

The TRB Network is a joint effort organized by TVA, with strong support by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) and The Nature Conservancy. Partnership groups include federal agencies and tribal nations, state Agencies and regional partnerships, and non-governmental organizations and local community groups.

Gillian Bee, a landscape conservation fellow with the Appalachian LCC who helped facilitate the meeting with O’Quinn, said the August meeting marked a critical jumping off point for the partnership.

“I think the Network is ready to realize its collaborative potential,” Bee said. “We’ve come a long way in the past three years and there has been some amazing work by these organizations and individuals to protect and conserve lands and waters within the Tennessee River Basin. The August meeting provided a solid foundation to take some important next steps.”

During the past three years, the Network has identified and focused on several shared goals and priorities, namely conserving and restoring aquatic resources (particularly areas of high biological diversity); improving the quality of water resources; increasing stewardship through communication, education, awareness and engagement; and improving data access and sharing.

Pandy English, chief for the Biodiversity Division of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, says it is amazing to see the “many approaches that different members have on the same issues. Participation in the TRB Network provides inspiration and new ways of seeing old problems that one day may be solved with creative collaboration from diverse viewpoints.”

Bee said Appalachian LCC staff have helped facilitate development of the Network by hosting quarterly webinars to sharing information, planning meetings, supporting individual work groups and providing a web-based platform to share news and resources and coordinate conservation efforts.

To aid on-the-ground conservation and coordination efforts, Bee and others also have developed a visual tool called the Conservation Action Map. More than just a repository for information about scattered conservation actions, the Conservation Action Map provides a strong basis for community organizing to align conservation efforts to support work on priorities that are often beyond the scope and scale that is achievable by any individual partner.

This concept is of keen interest to Kendra Briechle of The Conservation Fund’s Conservation Leadership Network. Briechle’s organizing role has taken on a degree of urgency at this critical point in the development and evolution of the TRB Network. The Conservation Fund facilitated the August meeting, helping the participants bridge mutual interests and promote the connections between science and management of the river and communications and outreach to residents, businesses and visitors.

“The Network participants are committed to collaborating across disciplines for the health of the Tennessee River Basin and all who rely on it,” Briechle said. She said next steps for the partnership include refining its mission and purpose, improving communications, and leveraging relationships.

While tools like the Conservation Action Map and further organizing to solidify priorities and roles help move the TRB Network forward, FWS Chesapeake Bay Coordinator Mike

Slattery says lessons learned from other large-landscape conservation partnerships in the country provide some insight from the past. Slattery, who provided the keynote address at the Chattanooga meeting. said the TRB Network exemplifies many of the qualities of the Chesapeake Bay Program, established in the late 1970s and early 1980s to address pollution and environmental degradation of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Today the program is a world-renowned example of collective effort to restore large, complex ecological systems.

After running through iconic photos of the Chesapeake’s various landscapes, ecosystems and wildlife species, Slattery urged the TRB Network partnership to see beyond simply “designating reserves and cleaning up pollution” to viewing the landscape as a whole more than just the sum of its parts -- a mosaic of natural places, working lands, and urban environments all supporting the needs of nature and people.

“This requires us to usher in a fundamentally new way of thinking about the practice of conservation, beginning with our our agencies, organizations and communities of practice,” Slattery said. “We need to develop new and different ways of making the connections between landscapes, resources, values and people.”

Successful landscape partnerships have a few elements in common, he said, adding that “a unity of purpose is at the heart of each of them.” These elements include:

● Put relationships first

● Develop a single, shared story line

● Collaborate to design the partnership framework and operating systems by which things will get done

● Pool funding resources to grow the pot for all

● Decide who does what best, and tackle tasks together, by relying on complementary strengths.

“Inspiration is important,” Slattery concluded. “Sustaining the level of inspiration you may feel in the early stages of a network like yours is critical to healthy partner relations, and because relationship - connectedness - is really the secret to all effective partnerships.”

For more information, visit the Tennessee River Basin Network website at http://applcc.org/projects/trb

-FWS-

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