AMJV Partner Spotlight: The Nature Conservancy – Alleghany Highlands Program

Our AMJV partners are the backbone of bird conservation and healthy forest restoration throughout our region. To highlight some of the wonderful work they do, we will be spotlighting partners throughout the year, beginning with partners who work within our focal landscapes.

In the Appalachian Mountains of western Virginia lies a vast landscape of private and publicly-owned forestland that is a hotspot for biodiversity, provides ecosystem benefits, and serves as an important migratory pathway for predicted wildlife movement in response to climate change. Perhaps most commonly known for being a recreational oasis, this multi-county swath also provides habitat for many priority songbird species – such as the Golden-winged Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, and Wood Thrush – lending to its designation as the AMJV Virginia Highlands Focal Landscape, where many state, federal, and non-profit partners work together with private landowners to ensure the continued verdure of the landscape as well as the health of local residents and the multitude of wildlife that inhabit it.

The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Allegheny Highlands Program (AHP) – based in Lexington, VA and staffed by four conservation professionals – is one such partner working in the area. Their small local team is making a significant positive conservation impact in the focal landscape (and throughout Appalachia) by employing TNC’s successful Private Lands Conservation Program as well as collaborating with local partners to carry out research, monitoring, community organizing, and planning and implementation of forest restoration activities, such as prescribed fire, to bring back a dynamic, healthy forested landscape in the region.

View from an overlook in the Virginia Highlands Focal Landscape. Photo by Amanda Duren, AMJV/ABC

The majority of the AHP’s work is carried out on the Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, a nearly 9,000-acre contiguous forestland in the heart of the Allegheny Highlands. As described on TNC’s homepage for the preserve, it is known as “one of the largest and most ecologically significant private forests in the Central Appalachians” and protects headwater tributaries in the area while providing habitat for a diversity of wildlife. TNC kindly provides access to the preserve for researchers from other organizations, including AMJV and our partners, allowing a variety of conservation studies to occur there. In fact, their team recently assisted the AMJV and researchers from The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Appalachian Laboratory (UMCES AL) to deploy autonomous recording units, or ARUs, on public and private lands as part of a monitoring program to track bird populations within the focal landscape.

A picturesque scene of a forested mountain stream captured by UMCES AL researchers during recent bird monitoring fieldwork in the Virginia Highlands Focal Landscape. Photo by Emily Cohen, UMCES AL

The AHP team also manages nearby large tracts of land that were gifted to TNC by local property owners (such as the Seman’s Family and Mr. Fitz Gary) who desired to ensure the long-term protection of the farms and forests that they, often for generations, had cherished while contributing to the conservation success in this special area of the Appalachians. The team’s work crosses ownership boundaries as well; they collaborate with the USDA Forest Service, state agencies, and groups to carry out conservation endeavors on much of the 77,000-acre unfragmented, largely roadless forest block of public and private land that surrounds TNC’s preserves in the area.

Restoring a diversity of forest types on the Allegheny Highlands landscape is a priority focus of the AHP’s work. Historically, a patchwork of forest ages and structures existed across the region’s landscape due to intermittent natural disturbances, such as pests and pathogens, wind events, ice storms, and – arguably the most important disturbance – wildfires (as well as fires started by indigenous peoples). Perhaps surprisingly, as outlined in a TNC article about their management in the Allegheny Highlands, researchers compared fire-scar patterns on thousands of trees and discovered that fires occurred in the landscape on average every 3-9 years dating back to the mid-1600s. Furthermore, carbon dating of soil charcoal and pond sediment confirmed regular fire events during the last 10,000 years! These fires, not as extreme as the wildfires that make headlines today in the western United States, would range in severity, killing several mature trees in some areas while burning at a low intensity in others. In their wake, the fires left a heterogeneous matrix of closed-canopy, open-canopy, and young forests with lush herbaceous layers across the landscape that hosted a diverse array of plant and animal species. Put in simpler terms, “disturbance drives diversity,” says Blair Smyth, Director of the AHP.

Drone imagery showcasing the mosaic of forest structures created after three prescribed burns. Photo by James Davis, TNC

However, as explained in the group’s recent webinar: The Edge of Appalachia, regular disturbance events in the way of fires have been lacking since early in the 20th century. In the 1920s, state and federal agencies began snuffing out wildfires, which were burning more severely and with more frequency than normal in the Appalachians at the time – many being caused by sparks from developing railroad systems. The well-known Smokey Bear campaign was successful – some may say it was too successful – at removing nearly all wildfires from the landscape. The lack of regular fires over the last century allowed fuels (downed trees and leaf litter) to build up on the forest floor. Now, when a wildfire does occur, it is often severe and can threaten nearby residents in addition to the health of the forest it burns through with scorching intensity. Moreover, this lack of regular fire, “the great maintainer,” as described by Smyth, led to the less diverse, mainly closed-canopy forest landscape that we see today in the Allegheny Highlands.

Inside a controlled burn (right), fire has thinned out the sapling layer, allowing more sunlight on the forest floor which stimulates grasses, wildflowers, and young trees. Photo by Nikole Simmons, TNC

Closed-canopy forests consist of densely growing mature trees that restrict sunlight from reaching the forest floor. This lack of sunlight often results in thick understories of shade-tolerant shrubs or seedlings, with not much of an herbaceous layer to speak of. This type of forest provides great habitat for a variety of wildlife species, including forest interior dwelling birds, but not for all wildlife. Unlike the dense, shaded characteristics of closed-canopy forests, the structure of open-canopy forests is comprised of mature trees spaced widely apart, allowing desirable tree seedlings and herbaceous species to cover the sunlit forest floor, while young forests, commonly referred to as early successional habitats, are open herbaceous areas filled with grasses, forbs, shrubs, wildflowers, and perhaps young tree seedlings, with very few mature trees present. The diversity of shrubs and plants found in open-canopy and young forests provides much-needed food and cover for a multitude of wildlife species, including pollinators. Smyth conveys that “in order to maximize the diversity of both plants and animals, more open-canopy forests and young forests – forest types that are only created by disturbance – are needed throughout the landscape.”

New ferns and blooming trilliums after 4 controlled burns. Photo by Jean Lorber, TNC

The lack of regular fire events in the Allegheny Highlands is also compromising the future generations of mature, fire-adapted oak and pine forests that currently dominate the area’s landscape.  A great number of wildlife species of conservation concern have adapted to live with fire as part of the oak and pine ecosystems on which they depend; without fire-created habitats, some populations decline and can face extinction. Alarmingly, studies of tree seedlings in the forest understories show that without fire, the next generation of forestland – nearly 90% of future mature trees – will be made up of mainly maples and poplars, which aren’t nearly as ecologically significant as the oaks and pines they will replace. The seedlings of undesirable species have been able to outcompete oak and pine seedlings in the absence of fire because they thrive in the shade of closed-canopy forests. When fire is part of the ecosystem, oaks and pines, with their thick, fire-resistant bark, can out-compete the less desirable, thin-barked species. As explained by Jean Lorber, Conservation Scientist for the AHP in this video clip, “Oak seedlings focus their energy on developing strong root systems while maples concentrate their energy on growing aboveground. So, when fires burn through seedlings in an area, oak seedlings – due to their much larger root systems – are able to quickly resprout and surpass the maple seedlings, winning the race to the treetops” and their place in the next generation forest.

Oak seedlings flourishing after a prescribed fire. Photo by Amanda Duren, AMJV/ABC

The AHP team’s highly-trained staff, including Laurel Schablein, Program Conservation Coordinator, and Nikole Simmons, Restoration Coordinator, have been collaborating with multiple partners for over a decade to reintroduce disturbance to the landscape by way of prescribed fire (paired with timber stand thinning). The well-planned and controlled (not to mention technologically savvy – check out this video of a drone being used for ignition) prescribed fires are effective tools for restoring structural diversity across the landscape as well as managing invasive and undesirable species, thus increasing the chance that diverse forest types of oaks and pines – and the wildlife species that depend on them – don’t disappear from the region. As an added benefit, the prescribed fires reduce the amount of fuel on the forest floors, which can prevent severe, out-of-control wildfires from occurring in the future – fires that could scorch deeply into the forest floor, kill existing desirable trees, and put local residents and firefighters at great risk. The AHP’s prescribed fires to date have ranged in size from 150 acres, burned in 2008 during the program’s first cooperative burn, to 7,400 acres burned in 2022 – the largest TNC/USFS cooperative prescribed burn east of the Mississippi! Furthermore, TNC established an official multi-agency partnership, designed as a collaborative effort to re-establish fire on a significant portion of public lands in western Virginia, called the Central Appalachian Fire Learning Network (FLN). Through this network – which now spans lands in Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky – federal, state, and private land managers share knowledge and resources and work together to conduct regular burns on 130,000 acres of forest, carry out prescribed fire monitoring and research, and facilitate interagency fire training opportunities.

The Central Appalachians Fire Learning Network is a multi-agency partnership that spans multiple states and is a cooperative effort to re-establish fire on the landscape. Through the network, federal, state, and private land managers share knowledge and resources and work together to conduct regular burns, carry out prescribed fire monitoring and research, and facilitate interagency fire training opportunities.

The AHP team doesn’t stop with planning and implementing conservation practices; they also carry out intensive monitoring ventures for both plants and birds on TNC preserves and surrounding lands in order to continually build an understanding of how landscape-scale prescribed burning affects local flora and fauna over time. Monitoring helps the team to assess their work, making sure their goals were achieved as well as analyzing whether or not any management can be improved to achieve more of the desired results in the future. Sometimes this monitoring is carried out by the specialized use of drones, but the majority of the monitoring takes place by traversing the beautiful, though not always hospitable, terrain on foot. In 2011, Schablein and Simmons began a pre- and post-fire avian and vegetative monitoring effort, spending the past decade collecting data. This monitoring program spans 18,000 acres of land owned by TNC and the George Washington (GWNF)/Jefferson National Forests, making it one of the largest monitoring efforts east of the Mississippi. Results from this decade-long study, which show an increase in bird species and numbers of individuals as well as an increase in vegetative diversity since the 2011 burns, were recently published in the Journal of Forest and Ecology Management in collaboration with Dana Morin at Mississippi State University.

A spring-time forest canopy, leafing out after three prescribed burns. Photo by the U.S. Forest Service and courtesy of TNC

All of the forest restoration planning, implementation, and monitoring that the AHP accomplishes is undeniably impressive, but there’s more! They also actively participate in community conservation discussions, working with groups such as the GWNF Stakeholders Group – a partnership of stakeholders with diverse viewpoints, such as wilderness advocates and timber companies. The AHP helps groups to determine common goals, build public support, and collaborate in finding the best way forward to achieve more forest restoration across public lands in the Allegheny Highlands.

Folks that live in the western Virginia area – or those who stop by for a visit – should consider volunteering with the AHPhitting the area trails, and/or trying their hand at geocaching at Warm Springs Mountain Preserve. Regardless of the chosen activities, visitors should be sure to take in the beauty of the special place; recognize the hard work and generosity of donors that make much of TNC’s land protection possible; and appreciate the work and dedication that the staff of the AHP continuously pours into protecting and restoring TNC preserves and surrounding lands in what is such a biologically significant and picturesque region.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. Learn more about The Nature Conservancy’s work in Virginia at and follow us on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.