Tusculum University professor working on biodiversity in the Appalachian Mountains

GREENEVILLE – A Tusculum University professor will spend 2021 researching opportunities to help preserve the rich biodiversity in the southern Appalachian Mountains through adoption of revised agricultural practices that will still meet the need for an increased food supply.

Through his study, Dr. Conor Keitzer, an assistant professor of environmental science, will prioritize areas for the implementation of agricultural conservation practices – or ACP – that can benefit terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity.

He will focus on the Upper Tennessee River Basin, which primarily covers East Tennessee but also includes Southwest Virginia, Western North Carolina and small amounts of Kentucky and Georgia. Dr. Keitzer calls the basin “a biodiversity hotspot in North America.” His goal is to identify win-win scenarios for biodiversity and agricultural conservation in the basin.

“The Southern Appalachian Mountains are home to an astounding diversity of plants and animals,” Dr. Keitzer said. “For example, Great Smoky Mountain National Park alone is home to over 200 bird species and over 1,700 flowering plants and trees. Not only are there numerous different species, but many of them are unique to this area.”

But he said unsustainable agricultural practices have resulted in widespread habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation. Dr. Keitzer said these practices can also prevent a river community’s complete recovery – even decades after grasslands and forests have returned.

At the same time, Dr. Keitzer recognizes the importance and necessity of agriculture to the region’s food supply, economy and way of life.

One key solution Dr. Keitzer identifies is widespread use of ACP, which can provide habitat for wildlife and reduce nutrient and sediment runoff from agricultural fields into nearby bodies of water. They can also improve soil health and increase crop production, he said. An example of an ACP is nutrient management, which ensures the correct amount of nutrients reach the right places at the right time.

Despite the promise of ACP, there are some uncertainties that limit their effectiveness for protection of biodiversity, Dr. Keitzer said.

“I will help to address these uncertainties to improve the effectiveness of ACP implementation in the Upper Tennessee River Basin,” he said. “I propose to link models of agricultural runoff to species distribution models for fish, amphibians and birds to simulate biodiversity improvements in realistic conservation scenarios.”

Dr. Keitzer will work on this ecological project while continuing to teach his classes in the spring and fall semesters. He recently received a grant from the Appalachian College Association to fund his activities in June and July.

Dr. Heather Henson-Ramsey, dean of the College of Science, Technology and Math, said Dr. Keitzer’s research is an important endeavor for the region and the university.

“We are fortunate to live, work and study in a part of the country that is replete with environmental assets, and it is vital that we protect them,” she said. “Dr. Keitzer’s research offers an opportunity to develop solutions that protect what makes this region so special while still providing methods for agriculture to continue to serve everyone’s needs. It demonstrates how Tusculum remains civically engaged and is able to utilize its expertise to benefit the communities we serve.”