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Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Ellington Agricultural Center
440 Hogan Road
Nashville, TN 37220
(615) 781-6500
The Formation of a Plant Conservation Alliance in Tennessee

There has been a growing need for more collaborative efforts to save our native at-risk plants from local extinction. The loss or degradation of habitat from threats like rapid population growth and development, spread of invasive species, incompatible land uses, and climate change are real and increasing. Conservation professionals are stressed and lack sufficient resources to assess, monitor, plan, protect, manage, and conserve all of our native at-risk plant species.

Nonetheless, there appears to be broad interest in and growing support of conserving our native flora. The real challenge is to harness this diffuse interest and energy into a unified network and focus it on prioritized projects to conserve our most at-risk plant species before they go extinct.

Planting the seed for a new network

On 9 October 2015, a seed was planted to form a cohesive network that will support efforts to conserve at-risk plants in Tennessee. On that day, David Lincicome and Andrea Bishop (Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation [TDEC] Division of Natural Areas) attended the second annual Kentucky Botanical Symposium in Lexington, KY. They heard Jennifer Ceska, the Conservation Coordinator for the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, give the Keynote Address entitled, “Conservation Networks – Project Driven Programs for Plants.” The presentation inspired them to form a plant conservation alliance in Tennessee.

Just two months later on 9 December 2015 the Tennessee Rare Plant Scientific Advisory Committee met at Cumberland Mountain State Park to review the state’s rare plant list. TDEC has lead responsibility for plant conservation in the state and must coordinate a review of the rare plant list every three years.

At this meeting Jennifer Ceska, Mincy Moffet (Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources), Matt Richards (Atlanta Botanical Garden), and Jenny Cruse-Sanders (State Botanical Garden of Georgia) were invited to give presentations to the committee providing an overview of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance (PCA) and how the PCA interacts with the Dept. of Natural Resources, which has lead responsibility for plant conservation in Georgia. The purpose was to gauge interest in forming an alliance in Tennessee. The group consensus was that a PCA would be beneficial to plant conservation in the Tennessee.

Plant Conservation Alliances across the Southeast

The first Southeastern Partners in Plant Conservation (SePPCon) meeting was held at the Atlanta Botanical Garden on 1-3 November 2016. The purpose of the gathering was to bring together government agencies, land managers, botanical gardens, university programs, and botanical experts to share experiences and expertise in rare plant conservation and to support regional efforts for at-risk and listed plant species in the Southeastern U.S. The meeting was attended by nearly 160 people from throughout the Southeast, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

A workshop on forming local alliances was offered by the Georgia PCA to provide networking expertise, skills, and models to be used to promote cooperative conservation. Breakout groups for the following states were mentored by Georgia PCA members: AL, FL, KY, NC, SC, TN, and the U.S. Virgin Islands & Puerto Rico. Several of these states or territories have since formed a PCA. Likewise, the ten native plant experts and citizen scientists from Tennessee who attended the meeting/workshop agreed to form an alliance in their state.

The Tennessee Plant Conservation Alliance takes root

Finally, on 19 January 2017, 25 native plant enthusiasts from across Tennessee met at Cheekwood Botanical Garden to found a Plant Conservation Alliance. With the guidance of Matt Richards representing the GA PCA, the committee members discussed the structure of the proposed alliance, then voted to form the Tennessee Plant Conservation Alliance (TPCA).

The TPCA is a statewide network of private and public entities that agree to work together to leverage expertise and resources for a common goal of conserving the state’s native plants and their habitats. In close coordination with the TDEC, the Alliance will prioritize native plant species and plant communities for conservation projects. The Alliance will be project driven and focus on preventing plant extinctions in the state, working through a statewide network of conservation professionals and specially trained volunteers.

TN-AL-GA: The plant biodiversity triangle

On 18-19 May 2017, in the first joint meeting of the TN, AL, and GA PCAs, over 65 native plant enthusiasts met at Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center just outside Chattanooga. This was a worthy location because it is close to the junction of the three states' borders and within a hotspot for botanical diversity and natural communities.

According to the Biota of North America Program (BONAP), this region has over 1,200 native vascular plant species including several endemic species. This diversity is reflected in the number of documented plant species within the border counties of the three states. For example, the Alabama Plant Atlas notes that 1,140 species occur in Jackson County and, according to the University of Tennessee Knoxville Herbarium, Franklin and Marion counties each have over 1,120 native species, which account for approximately 47 percent of Tennessee’s native flora! In Georgia, the Cumberland Plateau is the smallest ecoregion occupying portions of just three counties: Chattooga, Dade, and Walker. Nevertheless, this area is also known to support over 1,000 native vascular plant species. Within this region there are also dozens of plant species of conservation concern.

Plant priorities in Tennessee

During the final session of the meeting the Tennessee participants kicked off the TPCA organization by selecting the first list of plant conservation projects. This list includes thirteen projects with short to long-range goals and includes a mix of on-the-ground conservation as well as planning and outreach related projects. The TPCA Steering Committee selected David Lincicome as the committee chair.

The botanists also took the opportunity to hike the slopes of Lookout Mountain to check on the status of the threatened Large-flowered Skullcap on nearby public lands. This was a prime example of botanists coming together, sharing their expertise and assisting with completion of an on-the-ground plant conservation monitoring project.

On 1 August 2018 Austin Peay State University (APSU) hired the first TPCA Coordinator, Cooper Breeden, to facilitate communication among members (including volunteers) and implementation of alliance activities. The coordinator is positioned within the Department of Biology, and in future may also support related activities of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI), also located at APSU.

Glimpsing a bright future for plant conservation

The nationally recognized Georgia PCA, established in 1995, has proven to be a highly successful model for rare plant conservation in the Southeast and beyond, inspiring formation of the Alabama PCA in 2009. Now Tennessee’s PCA has high hopes to be as successful as GA and AL in implementing plant conservation projects across the state and preventing any local extinctions of our native plants.

With a coordinator in place, we expect activities of the Alliance to pick up pace during the last quarter of 2018 and carry forward into 2019 and the first meeting of the TPCA Plant Technical Team. The team will work closely with TDEC to assess and prioritize at-risk plant species and natural communities for future TPCA conservation efforts. These efforts will directly support Tennessee’s State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) implementation and preparation for the next revision of the SWAP. Through focused collaboration and the sharing of expertise and resources at all levels, the future for plant conservation in Tennessee looks brighter than ever.

View or download an illustrated TPCA factsheet with photos.

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