Conservation groups finalize acquisition of Fern Lake

Published 4:00 am Friday, October 13, 2023

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By Jordan Brooks

The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund announced recently that the purchase of Fern Lake and adjoining property has been finalized.

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Fern Lake is visible from the Pinnacle Overlook at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and spans 712 acres on the Kentucky-Tennessee border near Middlesboro. Not only does this property have significance to the community going back generations, but Fern Lake also provides potable water for Middlesboro.

“In 2004, Congress pledged by law to protect Middlesboro’s water supply,” said Ralph Knoll, senior project coordinator for The Conservation Fund. “The Conservation Fund is happy to help the National Park Service fulfill that promise. A healthy and protected Fern Lake will forever provide residents and visitors clean water and outdoor recreation, while supporting important wildlife habitat.”

According to David Phemister, state director for TNC in Kentucky, the total cost of this acquisition was $6,078,037.04. Organizers received money from the James Graham Brown Foundation in Louisville, as well as other donors.

“It has been under private ownership for decades,” said Phemister. “So, it is big news that it will be open again when we transfer the property to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.”

Phemister said that the plan is for the National Park Service to buy the land from the two organizations in the upcoming coming months and eventually open the lake and adjoined property up to the public. There is no estimated time on when it will be open, and no word about what activities will be permitted.

Long time supporters have pushed to ensure the Fern Lake property, encompassed by the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, was merged with the park to ensure it would never be developed.

“The purchase means this iconic property is on its way to permanent protection with the Park. This is important for The Nature Conservancy’s conservation efforts because the property provides a key link between other existing protected properties – the Park and the Cumberland Forest Project Ataya property, which spans 100,000 acres in Kentucky and Tennessee. These connected, protected lands are critical for the Appalachian Mountains, which provide habitat to many fish and wildlife species and serve as an important migratory corridor as the climate changes,” said Phemister. “The Appalachian Mountains are also important to people, who rely on the region for their livelihoods, clean air, clean water, and recreation opportunities.”

At 253,000 acres, the Cumberland Forest Project, one of TNC’s largest conservation efforts in the eastern United States, protects sweeping forest landscapes that were once two parcels, one in southwestern Virginia and one along the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Safeguarding this vast stretch of forest tackles climate change in two ways, by storing millions of tons of carbon dioxide and by connecting a migratory corridor that scientists believe could be one of North America’s most important “escape routes” as plant and animal species shift their ranges to cooler climates.

Connecting Fern Lake to this property will ensure species that are federally endangered are sheltered and are able to migrate.

“The protection of Fern Lake and the surrounding watershed is a huge win for Tennessee, Kentucky and the region,” said Gabby Lynch, director of protection for TNC in Tennessee. “Fern Lake is a jewel worth saving within the larger Appalachian region, a region that continues to grow in its importance for clean air, clean water, connected wildlife habitats and other benefits to people.”