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Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Ellington Agricultural Center
440 Hogan Road
Nashville, TN 37220
(615) 781-6500
Collins River Prairie Restoration

Straddling the riverine border of Warren and White Counties on the Cumberland Plateau of middle Tennessee, Rock Island State Park is one of Tennessee’s most scenic and rugged state parks. At the heart of the park flows the Caney Fork River, which through millennia carved out the park’s spectacular limestone gorge and today still thunders over the park’s main attraction, Great Falls. Each year, the site draws tens of thousands of hikers, fishermen, whitewater kayakers, and other outdoor enthusiasts from around the globe.

The same extreme gradient that contributes to the park’s reputation as the ultimate outdoor playground is also credited with the area’s long industrial history, with settlers first attempting to harness the river’s energy to power lumber, grain and textile mills, and eventually an early hydroelectric energy plant. Great Falls Dam was completed in 1916. Today it remains in operation as the only Tennessee Valley Authority hydroelectric facility in the Cumberland River watershed.

The co-occurrence of a state park and a hydroelectric facility might first seem at odds with contemporary notions of natural resource conservation, but the powerline rights-of-way (ROW) that cut across the park’s tamer uplands have long been known to harbor a number sun-loving native plant species and various pollinators who depend on them. This unique jurisdictional overlap also recently presented an opportunity for the managing agencies to combine resources to both enhance habitat for native species as well as improve outdoor recreational experiences for nature lovers visiting the park.

The origins of Collins River Prairie in a TVA ROW

Beginning in 2016, Rock Island State Park and TVA began the process of improving one section of the ROW corridor to benefit native pollinators. Named for the Caney Fork tributary that rounds the peninsula at the grassland restoration site, the Collins River Prairie now encompasses more than 13 acres that was once dominated by a low-diversity, non-native plant community.

“A pretty significant portion of the park’s land base is actually power right-of-way,” said Damon Graham, Manager of Rock Island State Park. “With that in mind, we could see a need to incorporate these tracts into our overall resource management strategy for the park. Our goal is to preserve and protect these areas for future generations while also providing safe quality outdoor experiences for park visitors. So restoring these power lines to what was perhaps their natural state seemed like a good opportunity to make improvements to land that we otherwise weren’t utilizing for visitors or improving for native species. Now we are doing both.”

Adam Dattilo, Botanist with Tennessee Valley Authority who helped coordinate the project agrees. “People don’t often think about it, but transmission line rights-of-way often support rare plant species and pollinators at disproportionately high rates compared to surrounding habitats. They can be really important habitat. Given the visibility of the ROW in the park, we thought it would be a great site to demonstrate the potential ROWs have for conserving pollinating insects.”

Your license plate dollars at work

To help fund the restoration, Rock Island State Park pursued and was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Conservation’s Iris Fund, which is funded by the sale of the Tennessee State Parks license plate and is administered by TDEC’s Division of Natural Areas. Additionally, TVA’s Right of Way group was awarded a $15,000 grant to restore pollinator habitat under power lines at the site and has thus far contributed more than $13,000 in native seed and signage at Rock Island.

To ensure the restoration was implemented properly, TVA enlisted the expertise of Quail Forever, an organization that specializes in habitat restorations for pollinator species in addition to their well-known work in advocacy and habitat improvement for upland game birds. Quail forever developed the project’s work plan, helped procure seed, and regularly advised site managers on implementation methods as the project progressed.

Partnership grows to include three more organizations

“Quail Forever is very excited to be able to be part of such a great project and partnership,” said Josh Turner, Senior Farm Bill Biologist with Quail Forever. “QF is known as the Habitat Organization and helping to create good quality habitat is our mission.”

The partnership eventually grew to also include input from the US Department of Agriculture on soil analysis, as well as the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which donated the use of a specialized, native seed no-till drill which was utilized in planting the custom seed mix.

Operations to restore the powerlines first began in 2016 when non-native pines and other woody species were removed from the site by hand. Subsequent iterations of management included enlisting the services of a local contractor for numerous rounds of bush-hogging and applications of herbicide to remove exotic, invasive plant species, and later, seeding to control erosion during the winter months.

Finally in spring 2019, the site was planted with a mix of more than 30 species of native grasses, milkweeds, sunflowers, mints and various other native plants to attract and sustain pollinators. Currently, the restoration project appears to be progressing well with numerous plant species blooming throughout the growing season and a diversity of bees, moths and butterflies observed frequenting the prairie. “The initial response we’re seeing at the Collins River Prairie is really encouraging ,” says Dattilo. “This is a great example of how important partnerships are to meeting conservation goals.”

Diverse prairie to become a unique hiking attraction

At the park, visitors have been intrigued by the project as it has progressed and are excited to see how it turns out, according Graham. The park plans to build an informational kiosk to explain the benefits of native plant species and pollinators to park visitors. “We’re also looking at maybe constructing a hiking trail through the prairie,” Graham said. “This would offer hikers a completely different experience than any other trail in the park.”

Going forward, the site will also be subject to the additional maintenance of mowing and spot treating for invasive weeds until the Collins River Prairie is fully established. Ultimately, this a project where everyone benefits, from park guests to the local business hired to get the work done.

“From the history, to the landscape, to the native species that can be found here, Rock Island is a special place,” said Graham. “We’re glad to be able to work with TVA and our other partners to restore these areas. It’s a long time coming, but it’s a job worth doing.”

View or download a photo-illustrated version of this Collins River article.

Article by Jason Miller, Natural Areas Program Administrator, Division of Natural Areas, TN Dept. of Environment and Conservation

Photo by Adam Datillo, TVA

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