How a Mix of Funders Helped Unlock Millions for Climate-Conscious Conservation in the South

photo: Anton Foltin/shutterstock

photo: Anton Foltin/shutterstock

The Southern Cumberland Plateau is a rugged landscape of ancient rock and hardwood forest in the Appalachian Mountains that’s home to an extraordinary number of plant and animal species. It’s also considered a resilient landscape, meaning even as the climate changes, the plateau can provide sturdy refuge for a wide range of plants and animals. 

That makes it a critical and time-sensitive site for conservation efforts, sitting right at the intersection of land protection and climate change.

In an impressive case study of funders and stakeholders aligning to secure an environmental win, a coalition of regional and national foundations and a climate-savvy conservation nonprofit mobilized $36 million in private and public funds. The ongoing effort has protected more than 30,000 acres in the Southern Cumberlands, and it all unfolded in the conservative state of Tennessee. 

“The pace of conservation has more than doubled in the region, largely because of the philanthropic funds that have been the impetus for other significant public and private investment,” said Peter Howell, executive vice president of Conservation Capital and Research Programs at the Open Space Institute, the nonprofit that’s facilitating the effort.

A group of foundations with varied priorities first seeded the intensified conservation effort with $6 million, which then led to an additional $30 million in Tennessee state funds, federal funds, and other private donations. 

The pooled effort is a different kind of story than a lot of headline-grabbing land protection wins, which frequently involve a wealthy outdoor enthusiast buying up a big chunk of land. The campaign also provides some insights into how environmentalists are securing common ground with a mix of donors and stakeholders, even in a tough political landscape. 


The biggest national player involved in the effort is the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which has carved out a philanthropic niche around the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and wildlife habitat. Land use in the context of climate, overall, has been a big focus for philanthropy, including keeping landscapes intact as a way to sequester carbon, and protecting critical areas as climate impacts worsen. Last week, nine foundations, including Doris Duke, pledged $459 million to support forests and indigenous land rights as a way to mitigate climate change.

Doris Duke has funded a $12 million effort housed at Open Space Institute to protect climate-resilient landscapes, as part of a larger foundation initiative. It’s also funded some of the recent research on better land management to support emissions reductions and climate resilience, science that plays a big part in OSI’s conservation efforts.

“This science ultimately is designed to identify places that, when all hell breaks loose, and when climate change really starts to ravage our landscapes, these natural strongholds that we’ve helped to protect, they’re still going to be around,” Howell said. “They’re places that will either retain biodiversity or attract biodiversity.”


In the Southern Cumberlands effort, DDCF provided seed funding of $1.7 million, but regional funders are also playing a major role, Howell said, pooling $4.2 million. 

One important local leader in the process is the Lyndhurst Foundation, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based funder that’s mainly focused on community and quality of life, but with an interest in natural resources. Another Tennessee funder that’s been involved is the Benwood Foundation, also prioritizing Chattanooga. And the Merck Family Fund contributed, serving mostly environmental and climate change interests, with a focus on the Southern Appalachians.

The initial $6 million paved the way for about $25 million in matching federal and state funds, plus additional foundation, individual and land donations. 

Here, regional funders that don’t necessarily prioritize environmental work partnered up with national climate and conservation dollars and then leveraged public funds, which could serve as a model for similar protections elsewhere, according to OSI. 

Climate resilience is a major driver of OSI’s efforts to protect the Southern Cumberlands, but it’s been able to avoid the contentious climate debate by emphasizing co-benefits that varied stakeholders can get behind. The many sources of funding form “some complicated Venn diagrams.” Some of the same topological qualities that make the area resilient to climate change, for example, also make it a prime spot for hiking.

“You can’t stress enough the recreational component,” said Joel Houser, OSI southeast field coordinator. “Climate is not necessarily a bipartisan issue, but outdoor recreation is, conservation is. So that was a good hook to bring in a lot of diverse groups to support these projects.”

It’s encouraging to see any kind of collective effort to protect the environment and brace for climate change, especially in a red state. But can this approach eventually lead to broader support for other forms of climate action? Hard to say, but resiliency and land offer one way to start the conversation, Howell said.

“I wish that people could just see climate change as the foundation of everything they do, such that if we don’t address this issue, we won’t have places to recreate, we won’t have clean water,” he said. “But we’re not there yet. The lesson I take away is this notion of co-benefits. The idea that there’s such rich intersections between climate and other values we care about.”