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Endangered Species law rescues a unique Tennessee plant

Characteristically, it was their essential utility in underpinning the nation’s material wealth that President Theodore Roosevelt would stress in promoting preservation of natural resources. But with aim of preserving “for our children’s children, as a priceless heritage, all the delicate beauty of the lesser and the majesty of the mightier forms of wildlife,” he also defended them for the beauty they evoke in our lives.
Refuting arguments that hold conservation to overlook “the practical standpoint” and hinder “better use,” Roosevelt declared (in 1903): “There is nothing more practical in the end than the preservation of beauty.”
He anticipated a point in the future when public opinion would demand our wildlife heritage, “the property of the unborn generations,” be protected in law. In 1973 under President Richard Nixon, the Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.
A charming wildflower native to Tennessee and found nowhere else in the world soon thereafter, in June 1976, became the first plant from our state to be listed for protection under that federal law.
The Tennessee coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis) was then known to survive in only three locations, in cedar glades with limestone soil, in Tennessee’s central basin.
The Federal Register, on Aug. 12, 2010, gave an informative description of the process by which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, jointly with our state’s Division of Natural Areas in the Department of Environment and Conservation, brought it back from the brink of extinction.
Its main threats to survival were “habitat loss due to residential and recreational development and succession of cedar glade communities where the species occurred.”
Agencies planted new colonies in protected areas on state lands and fenced some colonies. They provided seed sources from the original populations through the Missouri Botanical Garden, and seedlings, under a special permit, through licensed nurseries. They set criteria for determining when the plant would be judged to be recovered and self-sustaining.
Extensive botanical monitoring found that point to be in 2010 when Echinacea tennesseensis had grown to 36 stable colonies numbering almost 48,000 individual flowering plants and more than 700,000 plants in total. It was removed from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife in October 2011.
This lovely flower tracks the sun’s diurnal cycle. Different from its cousin species whose petals extend horizontally or skirt downward around the stem, Tennessee coneflower keeps its bright purple ray petals turned upward, welcoming the sun.
It has thrived in the Jonesborough arboretum, where a large population can be seen along the driveway, testimony to nature’s resilience, gift to the nation through the Endangered Species law.