Protecting the Pride of the Cumberland
74,000 acres protected and opened to access built a springboard to a huge block of public land
This December will mark 20 years since elk reclaimed one of the last best places they roamed in the East. They helped ignite an explosion of public lands and habitat conservation that continues to this day.
In 2000, RMEF volunteers braved 2,100 miles of icy roads to haul 50 elk from Alberta to the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. Released onto the 50,000-acre Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area (WMA), those elk were the first to set hoof in the state in 150 years. More soon followed.
Then in 2002, International Paper announced plans to sell 74,000 acres of forests, streams and mountains bordering Royal Blue to the north and the Frozen Head WMA to the south. The core of the elk restoration zone was suddenly in jeopardy of being broken up and posted No Trespassing.
A bold conservation vision quickly emerged. It would require vast funding, but had the potential to create the state’s second largest block of public land. Elk were a key rallying point, as were a pair of tiny songbirds—3-ounce cerulean and golden-winged warblers. Like elk, they traveled 2,000 miles to get there, but they do that every spring, returning from Venezuela and Colombia to nest in the largest intact forest in the East. In fact, ceruleans gather in Royal Blue at the highest densities found on earth, the one place they’ve held steady as overall populations have plunged 75 percent over the past 50 years.
RMEF played an integral role in brokering the deal—with newly restored elk drawing enthusiastic support from the hunting community—and contributed $100,000. The Nature Conservancy secured $2.7 million from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. And the Conservation Fund, which spearheaded the project, gave almost $10 million to see it to completion in 2003.
Yet the greatest heart-per-dollar might have come from Oliver Springs Elementary School. Students raised $900 to ensure their wild playground would always be there, beckoning kids to explore a place where they might hear an elk bugle. That herd has since grown to more than 400, large enough to launch the state’s first elk hunting season in 2009 just as those same students were old enough to apply for a youth elk permit.
The herd’s primary haunt is the 74,000-acre block that RMEF helped protect. Combined with the Royal Blue and Frozen Head, it became the North Cumberland WMA, which added another 40,000 acres in 2008 after the state acquired more private timberlands. Then last year, another purchase pushed the WMA past 200,000 acres of public land.
“To have that much in a contiguous block is phenomenal for wildlife,” says state elk manager Brad Miller. “It affords us a superb opportunity to manage elk and other wildlife large and small on a broad scale, giving them the room they need to grow.”