TTU biologists helping to create habitat conservation plans to marry environment, economic development

Think economic development and environmental protection aren’t compatible?

The work of a Tennessee Tech University biology professor and several of his colleagues might make you think again.

Hayden Mattingly, an associate professor of biology at TTU, is leading the Cumberland Plateau area Scientific Advisory Committee on a grant provided by Section 6 funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In that role, he is responsible for offering expert scientific advice and guidance about the species and land use of a given area to ultimately help maximize its resources and development plans.

Several others in the department — Sean Blomquist, postdoctoral associate; Trisha Johnson, research specialist; and Rebecca Anderson, research technician — are also members of the Cumberland Plateau development team charged with helping to create habitat conservation plans for forest and water resources in the Cumberland Plateau area. Other development team representatives are from the Nature Conservancy and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“A habitat conservation plan is a means to protect natural resources and encourage economic growth through a collaborative process of sustainable planning and development,” Mattingly said.

According to the Federal Endangered Species Act, harm to threatened and endangered species and their habitat is prohibited. (An endangered species is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range; a threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.)

Landowners — private, corporations, state or local governments, tribes or other non-federal entities — who are interested in any activity that might incidentally harm endangered or threatened wildlife on their property are required to obtain a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that provides protection from violating the Endangered Species Act.

To obtain a permit, the landowner must develop a habitat conservation plan to offset any harmful effects of the proposed activity — and that’s where the expert knowledge of Mattingly and his colleagues comes into play.

“The HCP process allows development to proceed consistent with conserving endangered or threatened species,” Mattingly said.
The premise of the agreement, he explained, is that the landowner “will be able to conduct otherwise legal activities that could result in harm to a federally protected endangered species. To conduct these activities, however, the landowner must have a plan that specifies projected harm and what actions will be taken to minimize or mitigate that amount of harm.”

That plan is the HCP, and the two being developed right now for forest and water resources in the Cumberland Plateau cover an area that includes all or portions of Cumberland, Morgan and Scott counties, as well as portions of Anderson, Campbell and Roane counties. Permit applicants include participating city and county governments and state natural resource agencies.

It’s estimated that the HCP development process will take five years.

“We’re just past the midpoint of a five-year effort,” Mattingly said. “The forest resources HCP is projected to be completed by 2009, and the water resources HCP will follow close behind in 2010.”

With an HCP that has been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, resources can be used and planned activities can proceed as long as harm to the threatened or endangered species is avoided, minimized or mitigated.

“A major component of any HCP is the need for scientific support regarding knowledge of the threatened or endangered species and how the covered activities will affect them,” Mattingly said.

“The development of the forest resources and water resources HCPs is a significant asset to the Upper Cumberland community and to TTU,” he continued. “Those two HCPs will provide a framework of protection for this region’s exceptional biodiversity, and TTU will be able to take pride in its leading efforts to provide scientific support for them.”

Those habitat conservation plans could also serve as a model for future HCPs in Tennessee and surrounding states.

“The Cumberland Plateau and Cumberland Mountain regions provide a wealth of rich biodiversity. There are species native to this area that are found nowhere else in the world. Conserving biological diversity while simultaneously supporting economic development is a reasonable step toward a sustainable future for our growing area,” Mattingly concluded.

For more information about the two Cumberland Plateau HCPs, go online to www.cumberlandhcp.org.

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