The land associated with Sewanee: the University of the South consists of an academic campus (382 acres) with adjacent commercial and residential areas (783 acres) that are embedded within and surrounded by diverse natural lands (11,838 acres). The term “Domain” is used interchangeably to describe both the entire 13,000 acres and the 11,800 acre natural land matrix (also referred to as the “Greater Domain”). What makes the landscape of the Domain such a unique educational asset for the study of the environment is the continuum that exists with the human-built environment extending into this natural environment context.
The size and complexity of land use on the Domain provides a unique opportunity to live and study where we wrestle with many of the environmental challenges that all communities face. Land-use planning, drinking water procurement, wastewater processing, food production, natural resource extraction, and biodiversity protection are all practiced on the Domain in microcosm. This juxtaposition of land use is leveraged by the Sewanee Integrated Program in the Environment to create innovative learning opportunities for all students.
The Greater Domain: Sewanee’s Natural Lands
The Sewanee Domain is located at the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau which extends down through Kentucky into Tennessee and Alabama. It is the westernmost portion of the Southern Appalachian region. The biologically rich hardwood forests of the Cumberland Plateau are considered to be among the highest conservation-value forests remaining in North America today. This is partly due to the fact that this region contains some of the largest remaining tracts of privately owned, contiguous temperate deciduous forest left on the continent.
These forest tracts represent critical neotropical migratory songbird habitat and serve as the headwaters to the most biologically diverse freshwater stream systems found in the temperate world. The Cumberland Plateau is considered a global hotspot for amphibian and terrestrial snail diversity and contains some of the most diverse plant communities in the eastern United States. The Sewanee Herbarium has catalogued over 1,100 species of vascular plants on the Domain.
The rich biodiversity of the Domain is a function of the large variety of habitats that can be found there. If you fly over the Domain, you will look down on a broad, flat-topped mountain dissected on all sides by steep-sided drainages or “coves”. The forest ecosystem associated with the cove is distinctly different from the upland forest found on top of the plateau. On north-facing slopes in the coves you will find towering forests of buckeyes and basswoods, carpeted in spring wildflowers, with streams that cascade over glorious waterfalls festooned with ferns and mosses. Some of these streams drop into gaping sinkholes that descend into a vast array of caverns inhabited by albino crayfish, bats and other cave specialists. On the south-facing slopes in the cove, you can explore sunny, limestone outcrops dotted with ancient cedar trees that will make you feel like you are on the Mediterranean coast.
In the upland forest on top of the Plateau, the trees do not grow as tall, and there is a distinct understory of blueberries, mountain laurel and azaleas. Slow moving streams on the plateau create swamp forest habitats characterized by a red maple - black gum canopy and fern understory. Some of the larger plateau streams have been dammed to create a system of Domain lakes that are inhabited by beavers, aquatic plants, and a variety of fish species. Shallow depressions in the sandstone substrate can create small natural pools of water in the forest to which marbled and spotted salamanders make their annual pilgrimage to breed each year. Sandstone outcrops along ridges and bluff-lines make for spectacular views and also provide a unique habitat for a variety of rare plants.
The southern Cumberland Plateau region is considered a nationally important hotspot of biological diversity. The Natural Resource Defense Council included our region as part of their “Biogem” designations. Recently, the Open Space Institute in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy selected the southern Cumberland Plateau (including the Domain) as the initial focus area in the launch of their Southeast Resilient Landscapes Fund. The landscape of the Domain is considered to be among the most resilient in the southeast in its future ability to maintain species diversity in the face of climate change. One of our two old-growth cove forest sites on the Domain, Dick Cove, is a registered with US National Park Service as a National Natural Landmark. Our other old-growth forest site, Shakerag Hollow, was the recent subject of the prize-winning book, The Forest Unseen by Biology Professor David Haskell.