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You are here: Home / News & Events / America the Beautiful Challenge Grant Adds Value to Hellbender Working Lands for Wildlife Partnership

America the Beautiful Challenge Grant Adds Value to Hellbender Working Lands for Wildlife Partnership

The recently awarded grant will increase economic opportunities for farmers who plant riparian buffers in hellbender priority watersheds.
America the Beautiful Challenge Grant Adds Value to Hellbender Working Lands for Wildlife Partnership

A new riparian buffer planted in commercially profitable tree species. Copyright Stroud Water Research Center

On November 14, staff for the Hellbender Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership received some exciting news. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation had just announced the awarding of $141.3 million in funding through the America the Beautiful Challenge (ATBC) grant program, and theirs was one of the proposals that had been accepted. ATBC grants are intended to support projects that restore and protect wildlife habitat and ecosystems through collaborative efforts that also support communities and local economies. It seems that the Hellbender WLFW team’s proposal fit the bill.

The ambitious proposal, entitled “Reforesting Aquatic Corridors of Southern Appalachia through Agroforestry,” was developed in collaboration with the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech, with support from several additional partners. Morgan Harris, Private Lands Biologist (PLB) team lead for the Hellbender WLFW program, originally came up with the concept and took the lead in writing the proposal. “In short,” he says, “our goal is to catalyze riparian reforestation efforts on agricultural land in key portions of the hellbender’s range by promoting multifunctional riparian areas that increase the financial resilience of agricultural producers while boosting overall ecosystem health.”

The program will achieve that goal through implementing three main objectives. The first is to establish demonstration sites for multifunctional riparian agroforestry systems. At these sites, the area from the stream to the top of the bank will be planted with native trees and shrubs, including pollinator plants, to reduce runoff and bank erosion into the stream. From the top of the bank to however far the producer wishes to plant, the buffers will be planted with crop producing trees and shrubs. These could include fruit and nut trees, traditional medicinal plants, flowers for floral cuttings and even targeted tree species for timber. 

“Part of the planning process for the demonstration sites will be actually determining which crops would be best suited for these different riparian systems,” Morgan explains. “We will only use native species or improved cultivars. Think pawpaw, elderberry, native hazelnuts, cherries. We’re also looking at the possibility that farmers could grow certain trees from which they could harvest live stakes to sell to local nurseries. If the buffers include a herbaceous area, that could be composed of floral cuttings or just the native warm season grasses that farmers typically harvest for hay. There are so many possibilities but we will have to do a lot of work to figure out what species will produce the best results for each producer’s individual situation.”

The second objective is to use their research to develop cropping system catalogs that producers can use to figure out what species would be best to plant on their operations. The catalogs will be region-specific and will be developed with other grant partners including several state Agricultural Extension offices and the nonprofit groups Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and Appalachian Sustainable Development. They will include economic data on the different crops, estimates of labor costs and suggestions for where to find help with labor locally, size and scale considerations, projected per-unit gross and net income, and other information a producer would need to consider when thinking about starting a new farming operation. 

“Even more than the demonstration plots, the catalogs are the big deliverable that will make this whole project sustainable into the future,” says Morgan. “The demonstration sites will be important for helping interested producers envision what’s possible, but the catalogs will help them figure out how to get there.”

Once the demonstration sites and catalogs have been developed, the final objective will be to conduct workshops to introduce local producers to the opportunities presented by agroforestry and demonstrate how these systems can be installed and managed both for stream bank protection and economic benefit. Morgan hopes to be able to conduct two to four workshops at each site, each of which will hopefully draw an audience of 15 producers or more. “If even one or two producers leave each of these workshops wanting to try out riparian agroforestry, that could create a snowball effect across their communities and eventually entire watersheds. We’ll be starting small, but this effort has the potential to both restore aquatic ecosystems and generate economic returns for farmers at a meaningful scale across the region.”

How does this effort fit in with the Hellbender WLFW partnership? “The whole project is really to support Hellbender WLFW,” Morgan says. The WLFW model is built around producing win-win conservation outcomes for farmers and wildlife. Increasing the potential economic benefit of riparian buffers creates a stronger incentive for restoring and protecting streams, which improves hellbender habitat. While the partnership does plan to target landowners in Hellbender WLFW priority watersheds, the hope is that riparian agroforestry will ultimately become a self-sustaining industry for farmers across the Appalachian region.

“It’s obviously a pretty lofty goal, but we’re literally taking the first steps toward propping up a whole new industry in the region, with the sole purpose of improving aquatic habitat,” he explains. “We love working with conservation-minded producers, but altruism isn’t strictly required in order for this to have a big impact. Some farmers may only be interested in it for its commercial potential, but the net effect is that hellbenders and other aquatic species will benefit from it. Developing a regional economic driver that is inherently good for wildlife is the true definition of a win-win outcome.”

The grant will run for three years. It will cover parts of five states (TN, VA, NC, GA and AL), and may be expanded to cover key habitats in OH or WV as well. “I know there will be a lot of challenges,” Morgan admits. “Doing something so big as trying to prop up an industry is not easy. There will be so many elements we’ll have to think through. It’s going to take a lot of reliance on our partners and their expertise to create something that will be long lasting. It’s a big goal but we’re just going to take it one step at a time and see what we can accomplish.”