Southwest Virginia is home to one of the most wild and diverse natural areas in the country, the Clinch River Basin. An upcoming grant funding opportunity hopes to find people who come up with the best ideas to create more 'nature based economic growth.'
The Clinch River is one of the most biodiverse waterways in all of North America, running through several counties in southwestern Virginia. “What we have found, says Shannon Blevins, is that “many technology professionals are drawn to this area like ours. They can close up their laptop at five or six o’clock and get right on the river or get on the trail.”
Blevins is Vice Chancellor of the Office of Economic Development and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Virginia at Wise. They’re partnering with the Nature Conservancy to reclaim former coal mining areas for fun and profit. The quarter million-acre region, comprising three states, is one of the most ambitious efforts the group has ever taken on, says Clinch Valley Program Director Brad Kreps.
“We’ve essentially established a partnership with the university to work together, to develop a local grant program that will solicit project proposals from local communities. It could be private businesses. It could be local community development projects that a town has, or a locality has, but the idea would be that the grant program would provide funding to help support these local projects.”
In other words, you provide the idea and plans for a project and you could get financial support to get your dream off the ground.
The pandemic has demonstrated that people can work remotely, more seamlessly than we might have imagined. And that opens the door to people moving to places they might not have thought of before. Blevins says a big plus, is the region’s robust broadband, which actually covers some of mountain trails. “Some people don’t realize that. Not all the trails but many of them. So that's why I think it's a great place, for folks that can bring their jobs and they can choose wherever they want to live. This is a perfect place.”
Brad Kreps says, “The reason that we're so excited about doing conservation work at a larger scale in the Appalachians is because we have identified the Appalachian Mountains from Alabama to Canada as being one of the most important and potentially resilient, natural systems anywhere in North America.” And that, "conserving the Appalachians and working with people to protect the mountains and forests of the region is at the top of the list of priorities that the nature Conservancy has for North America.”
“The Cumberland forest project represents for us a big investment in that larger goal to protect, the Appalachian mountains from the South all the way to Canada, and to try to preserve a connected network of conservation lands across that whole mountain chain.”
A request for grant proposals from people who want to start nature-based businesses, will go out early next year. You don't have to live in the region to apply, but you would have to, if your grant proposal is chosen to be funded.
The Cumberland Forest Project is an impact investment fund managed by TNC, which in 2019 acquired a quarter-million acres in the coalfields of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. With a total land area bigger than the Shenandoah National Park, the Cumberland Forest Project includes 100,000 acres spanning Kentucky and Tennessee, and another 153,000 acres in Virginia. The Virginia property is located in portions of Wise, Dickenson, Buchanan, and Russell Counties.