We’re just hours away from the start of Memorial Day weekend and all the outdoor fun that brings. It seemed like an appropriate time to turn the spotlight on the people who are working to protect and conserve Kentucky’s natural heritage. Enjoy an excerpt and photos from the beautifully illustrated Kentucky’s Last Great Places by Thomas Barnes:
Kentucky’s natural biological wealth and beauty have drawn the attention of people for centuries. The state is home to eleven rare ecological communities, two of which are rare globally. The bluegrass savanna, unique to central Kentucky, is now functionally extinct, having succumbed to horse farms, agriculture, and urban development. All that remains are a few groves of the old bur or chinquapin oaks, blue ash, and shellbark hickory. The best remnant savanna is a two hundred acre tract in Harrison County, but it has been heavily grazed and the understory is dominated almost completely by exotic plants, that is, plants not native to Kentucky.
More than 80 percent of the state’s wetlands have been destroyed, and two wetland types—the bottomland hardwood forest and the stream-head seeps—are highly threatened. The Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission estimates that only 1 percent of our state’s bottomland hardwoods remain. Unfortunately, most of these forests have been heavily logged or adversely affected by agriculture or development that results in hydrological changes. These communities, once dominated by oaks, are now dominated by early-successional species such as red maple and tulip poplar, and their understories are usually dominated by exotic plants, including bedstraw, Japanese stilt grass, multiflora rose, and common chickweed.
Seeps occur where groundwater more or less permanently percolated through sandy or gravelly soil to the surface. Both acid and calcareous seeps are found in the state; each is characterized by the pH of the water that moves through it. There are probably fewer than two dozen high-quality seeps left in the state, mostly in the Cumberland Plateau and Mountains.
More than two million acres of tallgrass prairies and barrens have been reduced to less than twelve hundred acres (about .05 percent) in scattered remnants. Those that remain are usually found on land that is unsuitable for either agriculture or development, often on steep slopes, rock outcrops, or poor soils.
The flora and fauna of Kentucky’s forests, though diverse, are in conditions ranging from almost pristine to pitiful. Less than fifteen thousand acres of older growth or unmanaged forests remain in the state, about 0.1 percent of Kentucky’s thirteen million forested acres.
In the state’s natural areas, the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission thus far has discovered about 20,700 acres (approximately 0.08 percent of the state’s land area) of high quality land that could be classified ecologically as in a “pre-European” condition that deserves significant protection. Of this, only about 2,600 acres (or about 0.01 percent of the state) are actually protected.
Time is of the essence in protecting Kentucky’s remaining natural areas. More than one-third of the state still needs to be inventoried for rare species and communities. In the most recent inventory efforts, Nature Preserves did not find even one tract of older-growth forest in the ten counties they surveyed. Several barrens and glades were found, but most of these were too small to justify protection efforts. During this same period, two mature, diverse forest tracts on Pine Mountain and a near-old-growth tract in Jackson County became victims of the chain saw. And in the period between finding and actually purchasing Blanton Forest in Harlan County, approximately fifteen acres of the forest’s old-growth succumbed to an unethical timber company. The message is quite clear: the time to protect our remaining high-quality natural areas is now.