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A group of children runs through shallow water with a net in the foreground.
Information icon Collecting fish in the North Toe River. Photo by Gary Peeples, USFWS.

Conserving the Tennessee River Basin: it takes a village

For Shannon O’Quinn, a watershed specialist at the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Tennessee River provides much more than a livelihood. “It is a special place to my family,” he says. “It is where we live and play and work to ensure the river stays healthy for people and wildlife.”

Considering that the Tennessee River Basin is one of the most biologically diverse watersheds in North America, that’s a critically important job. Winding its way through roughly 650 miles and encompassing over 41,000 square miles, the Basin is home to 270 species of fish and over 100 species of mussels. For comparison, the state of Wisconsin, which includes portions of the Upper Mississippi River, Lake Superior, and Lake Michigan is only home to 160 fish species. In China, there are only 60 species of mussels. In Europe, just 12.

About twenty people of varying age groups look for mussels in a shallow river.
Families connect with the Tennessee River during an event to observe mussels and their host fish. Photo by USFWS.

Nearly as diverse as the wildlife within the Basin are the people and organizations working to conserve it. During the last several years, the Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperative – a coalition of scientists and resource managers from federal, state, NGO and academic institutions – has worked with this thriving conservation community with the goal of continuing momentum in this biological hotspot. The Tennessee River Basin Network unites nearly 40 federal, state and local organizations working within the Basin to identify common goals; determine specific actions to achieve those goals; and share resources and lessons learned along the way to protect the landscape that unites them.

“We cannot be successful implementing watershed improvements on our own,” O’Quinn says. “To truly succeed, we and other partners have to pool together and share our experience and resources.”

Two people in chest waders look through a lense into the water for mussels.
Searching for mussels in North Carolina’s South Toe River. Photo by Gary Peeples, USFWS.

To help connect and inspire conservation organizations throughout the Basin, the Network has developed two tools to improve collaboration and help partners focus on shared priorities. A Conservation Action Map showcases where conservation actions are being implemented in the Basin and who is involved in various projects. More than a map, it’s a vehicle to show and tell the story of concurrent efforts in the watershed, and to enhance the efficiency of the Network’s collective action by sharing information, reducing duplication, and creating and strengthening partnerships.

The Network also recently unveiled a film inventory showcasing the ecology, threats, conservation efforts, and sense of pride in the Tennessee River Basin. The collection encompasses more than 40 videos from partners that showcase the conservation work taking place in the region and provides a means of engaging the broader public on the many values of nature the River Basin provides to communities. These short videos range from projects improving conditions for Eastern brook trout and hellbenders to challenges presented by droughts and increasing demand for freshwater. Both the Conservation Action Map and film inventory are found on the Network’s website, housed within the Appalachian LCC Web Portal.

“The Network is providing an opportunity for partners and stakeholders throughout this large and diverse region to talk to one another more regularly,” O’Quinn says. “This helps build relationships and forge action that can only make all of our efforts that much stronger for protecting and improving the health of the Tennessee River.”

It takes a village to protect a hotspot of biodiversity and keep a unique place healthy for people to work, play, and live. And the more that village can work together, the greater the chances of success.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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