Sustaining the Landscape:
A Comparison of Current and Desired Future Conditions of Forest Ecosystems in the North Cumberland Plateau

Virginia Dale, Dan Druckenbrod, and Lisa Olsen
Environmental Sciences Division
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Northern Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee exhibiting a matrix of hardwood forests, agricultural lands, and pine plantations.

Northern Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee exhibiting a matrix of hardwood forests, agricultural lands,
and pine plantations. Photo by Dan Druckenbrod © 2003


This project initiates an integrated-landscape conservation approach within the Northern Cumberlands Project Area in Tennessee and Kentucky. The mixed mesophytic forests within the Northern Cumberland Plateau are among the most diverse in North America; however, these forests have been impacted by and remain threatened from changes in land use across this landscape.  These impacts have led conservation organizations including The Nature Conservancy, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council to focus on the Cumberland Plateau. The integrated-landscape conservation approach developed in this project for the Northern Plateau can be characterized as a sequence of six conservation steps.  This project considers the first three of these steps in two, successive stages.  Stage 1 compares desired future conditions (DFCs) and current prevailing conditions (CPCs) at landscape-scale comparison utilizing remote sensing imagery, remnant forests, and descriptions of the extent of historical forest types within the Cumberland Plateau.  Subsequently, Stage 2 focuses on at-risk forest types identified in Stage 1 and assesses the gaps between DFCs and CPCs utilizing structural, compositional, or functional attributes of specific forest types.  The results from these first three steps will directly contribute to the final three steps of the integrated-landscape conservation approach by providing guidance for the generation of new market-based or policy initiatives in the Northern Cumberland Plateau.


Stage 1

  1. Define the desired future conditions (DFCs) of this landscape by incorporating both historical reconstructions of forest cover. These DFCs aim to maintain both the ecological integrity of the landscape and also the range of land uses.
  2. Analyze the current prevailing conditions (CPCs) on the landscape to assess current forest type distributions and land cover.
  3. Compare of the DFC and CPC realizations of the Northern Cumberland Plateau landscape and identify indicators of ecological integrity using landscape metrics.

Stage 2

  1. Determine DFCs at a finer resolution for the Northern Cumberland Plateau including measures of forest structure, composition, or function, particularly focusing on threatened forest types identified in Stage 1.
  2. Determine CPCs at a finer resolution utilizing land cover and environmental parameters.
  3. Compare of DFCs and CPCs and identify indicators of ecological integrity within forest types

ORNL Report

For more details on project approach, please download the following ORNL Report:
Druckenbrod, D.L. and V.H. Dale. 2004. Sustaining the landscape: a method for comparing current and desired future conditions of forest ecosystems in the North Cumberland Plateau and Mountains. ORNL/TM-2004/314. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN. 37 pages.

For a map of the project area click here:
North Cumberland Plateau project area map

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