Let’s Talk About The Extra Benefits Of Conserving Nature

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Let’s Talk About The Extra Benefits Of Conserving Nature

Every day, we are assembling a strong body of knowledge that validates the powerful role nature plays for people and the planet. Nature nourishes our physical and mental health, provides resilience in the face of a changing climate, secures healthy air, water, and soils, and safeguards plants and animals key to the intricate web of life.

And conserving nature yields additional benefits. This includes preserving snapshots of those who came before us—prehistoric humans, Indigenous cultures, Native Americans, European settlers—and how they used the land and water. In our family it is a frequent topic of conversation as my wife, Tracy, shares a deep passion for nature and history; hers fueled by an early childhood spent on a historic farm in rural Virginia and mine spent surrounded by horses and barn on five acres within Nashville’s city limits.

Today, Tracy and I are the proud stewards of two historic farms, in Virginia and Tennessee, where we are committed to researching, preserving and sharing stories about the legacies of these properties. For example, Old Town, our Tennessee farmhouse, was built in 1846 adjacent four earthen temple mounds representing the prehistoric architecture of the Mississippian cultures inhabiting these very lands a thousand years ago.

Tracy and I also share an affiliation with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an international conservation organization that pursues a mission to “conserve the lands and water on which all life depends.” As Vice Chair of TNC’s global board, and through Tracy’s role as a trustee with TNC’s Tennessee program, we witness first-hand the thoughtful way that TNC tackles its mission in the states where we live and around the world. And we are heartened that TNC recognizes when opportunities to conserve nature and preserve history and culture intertwine.

It makes sense because for thousands of years those Indigenous Peoples who preceded us considered, and still consider, places with abundant water, rich soils, vast forests, and diverse plant and animal life as sacred. These places remain sacred today, not only to tribal nations, but to all of us, and TNC is working to protect and celebrate them.

Finding historic and cultural remnants of our past is especially common in the Southeast, where indigenous people found food, water, and shelter in the region’s systems of karsts, caves, springs, forests, and other natural features. At our home, Old Town, the palisaded 12-acre town center and pyramidal temple mounds were positioned in 1200 AD on high ground, at the junction of a river for commerce and a spring-fed stream for fresh water, with fertile bottomland to grow maize and other crops.

Similarly, TNC finds confirmation of this fact at its newest preserve in Tennessee, the Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain.

In 2018 Bridgestone Americas, Inc. donated 5,763 acres to be included in TNC’s system of Tennessee nature preserves. Located in the heart of the Cumberland Plateau, the Reserve is part of a 60,000-acre landscape comprised of public and private lands dedicated to safeguarding many types of forests, a river, and hundreds of species. At the Reserve, Bridgestone Americas had already protected a rock house containing prehistoric art, petroglyphs and engravings, and erected fencing around the site in consultation with University of Tennessee scholars who ensured the process didn’t compromise archaeological artifacts.

More recently, thanks to private philanthropic support, TNC is partnering with scientists representing different areas of expertise to compile a comprehensive inventory of the Reserve, including in those places difficult to access. With their findings and counsel, TNC will identify and preserve additional artifacts, from an old grist mill and other remnants of its economic past to historic comb graves once common in Tennessee during the 1800s.  

Elsewhere in Tennessee, TNC worked in partnership with local, state, federal, tribal, and non-profit entities on a project spanning two decades, called Bridging the Smokies. This has resulted in permanently protecting and connecting key portions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cherokee National Forest’s south zone, State of Tennessee wildlife management area lands and the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina. Bridging the Smokies also includes, and now safeguards, lands identified as “hallowed ground” by the Overhill Cherokees who once inhabited settlements located on the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, the Carolinas and Georgia.

In the course of its extensive bat conservation project, TNC has also discovered an incredible diversity of historic and cultural resources that have become a focus for at least two comprehensive University of Tennessee masters’ theses. TNC has incorporated these cultural artifacts into a conservation strategy that includes installing gates at three Tennessee caves, with more projects planned for the future.

I am glad to see that TNC is mindful of stewarding cultural features on its nature preserves when doing so aligns with advancing their mission. Unfortunately, too often, sites are looted and vandalized, lost to research and interpretation forever. In fact, my friends at TNC’s Tennessee program are focusing more of their attention on protecting and researching cultural resources to better understand the past and current connections between people and nature that can shape conservation actions in the future.

The people of ancient civilizations lived and worked in harmony with nature, and as we consider how to address the growing pressures our modern civilizations are putting on the natural world, we can learn from those who came before us.

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