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At-risk aquatic species protection funding available

Joining dozens of outdoor enthusiasts over the weekend, Ronnie Stacy, 60, of Vansant, VA casts his line over Laurel Creek just north of Laurel Bloomery in Johnson County, TN last Saturday morning. Stacy has been fishing in the area for decades with no shortage of favored spots along the creek. Fishing is just one of many natural amenities to be enjoyed in the region. File Photo by Tamas Mondovics

By Meg Dickens
Staff Writer

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is encouraging people to help improve life for aquatic at-risk species in eastern Tennessee, focusing on the Cherokee National Forest and private land within three miles of the forest boundary. NRCS and the US Forest Service plan to invest more than $1.3 million in habitats within 34 high-priority catchments. Johnson County is home to two key priority areas of interest, Shady Valley and Laurel Bloomery.

“Anyone who has land can get money to improve the habitat within the creek and work to protect it,” explained Johnson County District Conservationist Jason Hughes. “I’m looking forward to working with people.”

Johnson County’s two main species authorities plan to focus on are the hellbender and brook trout. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Hellbender Salamander is the largest in the nation, growing up to 29 inches long. Brook Trout are known as indicator fish because they show the relative overall quality of the water they live in. Both Hellbenders and Brook Trout live in “shallow, fast-flowing, rocky streams” like Gentry Creek, which Hughes mentioned as the targeted habitat in Laurel Bloomery.

Those interested in helping will help improve the aquatic habitat through creek bank work, preventing erosion, and channel stabilization. A cleaner habitat can lead to a chain reaction of improvement throughout the ecosystem, and other species will benefit besides the targeted. US Forest Service Hydrologist Allison Reddington explained that this project has benefits for the community as well. Locals can expect better flood resiliency and benefits to drinking water utilities.

For more information or to sign up for the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership for Aquatic Habitat for At-Risk Species in Eastern Tennessee Project, contact Johnson County Natural Resources Conservation Service District Conservationist Jason Hughes at (423) 727-9744 ext. 3 or [email protected] Hughes reports one person has already signed up to participate.

Anyone outside of Johnson County that is interested should contact their local USDA service center. Participating counties include Polk, McMinn, Monroe, Blount, Washington, Unicoi, Carter, Johnson, and Sullivan counties. The application deadline is Friday, March 26, 2021. See more details on the USDA website.