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Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Ellington Agricultural Center
440 Hogan Road
Nashville, TN 37220
(615) 781-6500
Attracted to Beauty in the Tennessee River Basin

“We’re all attracted to beauty.” So begins the trailer for a film more than five years in the making. Now, thanks to the enthusiastic support of 76 people who saw the work-in-progress at a meeting held in August 2017, this stunning film will soon be completed. A project of the nonprofit Freshwaters Illustrated, the Hidden Rivers trailer can be viewed here.

Who were these 76 people, and why did this film mean so much to them? They were representatives from 46 organizations gathered at the Tennessee River Basin Network’s third annual meeting. The Tennessee River Basin Network (TRBN) is a collaborative group of organizations that wish to focus their expertise in communications, science, and habitat management to better conserve the aquatic biodiversity of Tennessee River Basin streams.

A rainforest of aquatic biodiversity

Gillian Bee, Coordinator of the Network, explains that “people don’t realize what we have here in the Basin. The aquatic biodiversity is so high, we have a ‘rainforest of aquatic biodiversity’ in our backyards, and most people don’t even know it exists!” Hidden for the most part below the water’s surface, close to 300 fish species and about 50 mussel species (down from 100 originally), as well as plentiful varieties of snails, crayfish, turtles, and salamanders find homes in the Tennessee River Basin.

As noted by the director of the Tennessee Aquarium (also a TRBN partner) in one of the videos from TRBN’s “Videos around the Basin” resource, more than one-quarter of vertebrates live in freshwater around the world. More astoundingly, the Southeast harbors almost half of the nation’s freshwater fish species!

This high level of biodiversity arises because the Appalachian headwaters of Tennessee River Basin streams are very old and never glaciated. This long history, combined with the varied geology of the region, has allowed a unique system to develop that is in many respects resilient to climate fluctuations such as drought.

Making a positive impact

The TRBN, which held its first meeting in 2015, has already made quite a positive impact for conservation. Reacting to the enthusiastic reception of Hidden Rivers by TRBN participants who recognized the value of the film to share the wonder of the Tennessee River while galvanizing new partners, funding, and interest, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) decided to provide additional funding to the project. With support from the Lyndhurst Foundation as well,Hidden Rivers is now fully funded. Watch for it to begin hitting the film circuit in early 2019.

Moreover, from 2014 to 2016, TVA provided $2.6 million and remaining network partners provided an additional $2.5 million to implement habitat protection and improvement measures such as purchase of conservation easements, establishment of riparian stream buffers, removal of aquatic stream barriers, and creation of in-stream habitat and stream-bank restoration projects.

Shannon O’Quinn is a Water Resource Specialist for TVA and serves on the TRBN Steering Committee. O’Quinn notes that founding TRBN participants saw the need for a network to share information about the many projects by numerous partners that are ongoing throughout the Valley. “We are doing a lot of good things, and people don’t hear about that either.”

The urgency of even more good work

By establishing Network awards, TRBN recognizes the good work of its partners in two categories: education & outreach and science & implementation. At their 2018 annual meeting, TRBN recognized the Powell River Blueway Trail for excellence in public outreach through partnerships and the Little River Chapter of Trout Unlimited for its exceptional work in mobilizing volunteers to improve cold water fisheries, focusing on the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout.

“All agencies have little pots of money,” says O’Quinn, “but we saw the Network as an opportunity to partner, share resources, implement projects together, and above all, leverage funding to expand the size of the pie available for aquatic conservation in the region. With more people working together, we can bring more attention and more resources to solve larger problems.”

According to TRBN’s own Tennessee River Basin report card, issued in 2016, more work is definitely needed: the Basin received an overall score of C for “moderately healthy.” Despite the level of ongoing conservation work, mussel dies offs still happen, and in many places outmoded dams or simple road culverts still interrupt stream flow, while streamside land uses deposit silt that smothers hard bottom habitats. In some places, habitat has improved so that it’s now good enough to reestablish populations of rare species. However, O’Quinn says “there may now be only a few places left where we can capture those species to raise and reintroduce them.”

For example, the Sicklefin redhorse is a freshwater fish that can grow to 25 inches long and is a candidate for listing as a federally endangered species, its range having been reduced from almost all Blue Ridge streams of the Hiwassee and Little Tennessee River basins to limited portions of its historic range. Conservation Fisheries, another TRBN partner, has a state-of-the-art propagation facility, where it is currently working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others to propagate the Sicklefin and reintroduce it into currently unoccupied habitat within its historic range.

The TRBN vision

TRBN Coordinator Bee summarizes the current state of the Network: Participants have designated a Steering Committee that is in the midst of formulating a mission, vision, and strategies along with a more formal governance structure. “TRBN covers 7 states (TN, AL, GA, MS, KY, VA, NC),” says Bee, “and the Network can provide a forum to improve our overall effectiveness in three areas:

  • increasing awareness about the Basin’s extraordinary aquatic resources;
  • connecting people and organizations to share the who, what, and where of ongoing conservation efforts; and
  • increasing the tools and resources available to conservation practitioners.

“We are working to create ownership among the people of the region so they are willing to protect these resources in the future,” continues Bee.

O’Quinn adds, “We all recognize the importance of Pacific salmon, the rainforest, the Chesapeake Bay, and pollinators. Yet, we have something just as special right here in our own backyard. People need to understand that! We also want to get the word out nationally to help bring additional funding resources to the region.”

The next steps identified by TRBN participants in 2018 are to identify the specific groups that need to hear TRBN’s message and how best to reach them. In the meantime, do your part and watch for the release of Hidden Rivers. If you have read to the end of this story, you will definitely love the film!

View of download an illustrated TRBN factsheet with photos.

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