Little Tennessee River Valley

Acre for acre the Little Tennessee River Valley has a richer combined natural and cultural history than any other area of its size in the nation. Draining the highest rainfall area in the East, the waters flowing from the Nantahala, Cowee Mountains and Highlands Plateau form a magnificent river meandering across broad alluvial plains that have been farmed for thousands of years. Historically the center of the mountain Cherokee, the Little Tennessee represents one of modern America’s greatest conservation opportunities.

A Threatened Cultural Landscape with Exceptional Natural Heritage

The Little Tennessee River is one of the state’s most pristine waterways, containing a multitude of rare ecological communities. The mountains surrounding the valley are cloaked by the most diverse temperate hardwood forests on earth. This “Noah’s Ark” of Blue Ridge rivers is threatened as historic farmlands and headwater forests are converted to residential subdivisions. Over the past 25 years urban areas more than doubled in the area and farmland has declined by over 28%.

Biological Diversity

This Little Tennessee River valley is globally significant because, out – side of the tropics, it is where the most species–rich river system (the Tennessee) intertwines with the richest deciduous forests on earth. The 25-mile reach of free-flowing river below Franklin is the aquatic biodiversity “hotspot” of the south – ern Blue Ridge and is home to over half the freshwater fish and mussel species in the State. Also more than half of Western North Carolina’s rare plants are found in the valley which is home to a rare assemblage of federally listed aquatic, amphibian, reptile, mammal, and plant species.

Cultural Heritage

The Little Tennessee retains the most intact archeological landscape of the Cherokee. Ancient Cowee was the main commercial & diplomatic center of the southern Blue Ridge in the 18th century when first British and then Colonial ambitions clashed with the native people for control of this region. Today the Cowee/West’s Mill Historic District includes a 1400-year span of historic structures unequaled in North Carolina. Mountain farmsteads still dot the valley, the home of the Fox – fire movement.

Economic Significance

A traditional rural economy based upon forest & farm production is transitioning to an economy dependent upon quality of life measures such as access to clean water, stunning views, open space and a rural lifestyle. Recreation, tourism & service industries are growing as is the construction industry for retirees, seasonal residents, and others tied to economic activities emanating from growing metropolitan areas within 120 miles of the valley.

Since 1999 the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee has led in the protection of 5,300 acres and 35 miles of river frontage on the Little Tennessee, in collaboration with two national partners -The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund. During that time with $2.5 million of private funds, LTLT has leveraged $19.4 million of public funds, $880,000 of Cherokee Tribal funds, and over $5.61 million of donated interests in land to total over $27.5 million of land value conserved along the Little Tennessee River. In other words, this extraordinary river corridor conservation effort has leveraged $11 in conservation land value for every $1 of private funds available. In addition LTLT has conserved another 1,000 acres of land on tributary streams and headwater forests in the valley.

Fifty-four aquatic and terrestrial natural areas are located in the Little Tennessee River Valley, twenty of which have national significance. These habitats are priorities in the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP), a comprehensive plan developed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and many partners to help conserve the state’s wildlife and their habitats.

Leave Your Legacy

There are few ways that you can leave a greater legacy than through land conservation. Please consider a tax-deductible gift to preserve the magnificent landscape of the Little Tennessee valley. Each donation brings us one step closer to conserving this veritable Noah’s Ark for our great-grandchildren and beyond.


Land Trust for the Little Tennessee
PO Box 1148, Franklin, NC 28744
828-524-2711 x 204