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TrekEast Blog 39: Bluegrass and the Kentucky River

The Domestic Side of Wildness

June 2-9, 2011

Photos courtesy of Fayette Alliance, Bob Davis, and Larry Master. 

Most conservationists agree that we will not save enough wild country until we have sustainable economies – that ultimately ecological integrity and economic health are inseparable. Yet TrekEast so far has been much more about protecting big wild cores and the links between them than about promoting sustainable uses of the buffer lands around ecological reserves.  In Kentucky, we have purposefully paid more heed to the economic part of the conservation equation.  How could we not, after a visit with the great farmer/poet pair Wendell & Tanya Berry?

Following a few days on southeast Kentucky’s Pine Mountain then a hike north through Daniel Boone National Forest, I came to Lexington to spend time with family and meet Wildlands Network and other conservation colleagues.  Wildlands executive director Margo McKnight and star volunteer and photographer Hannah Goodman arranged a series of meetings and outings, to help us better understand Kentucky’s conservation landscape.  Here I offer but the scantest sketch of the rich portrait painted for us by conservation friends in Kentucky.

On National Trails Day, Wildlands folks joined Kentucky RIVERKEEPER ( for a rally at Clays Ferry, on the Kentucky River outside Lexington, to celebrate, a new blue trail along this major river.  Local and national officials publicly recognized the recreation and environmental importance of this Kentucky River trail; and we christened it by kayaking down to the Kentucky Palisades.  (Meanwhile, back home on the Adirondack Coast, Bill McKibben spoke before a crowd of hikers and conservationists on behalf of Champlain Area Trails and the Champlain Valley Conservation Partnership; see

Marc Evans and Hugh Archer of Kentucky Natural Lands Trust ( affirmed that the Kentucky River is an important wildlife corridor through central Kentucky.  They also confirmed that Pine Mountain is a key biological corridor, for bears and elk and other wide-ranging species.  Conservation efforts there go well; however,  the roads cutting across and along it remain obstacles to wildlife movement.  Hugh and Marc are working on a wildlife habitat connection southwest of there that is in such a remote part of the Kentucky mountains, it is known as “South America.” 

Piecing together the wildlife corridor requires patient resolve, sometimes in the face of back-woods characters who seem quick to reach for their guns.  KNLT is also working to restore connections between the Bernheim Forest near Frankfort and Fort Knox.  Meanwhile, The Nature Conservancy and smaller land trusts like Woods & Waters are working to restore connections along the Kentucky River.  Marc and Hugh said that Kentucky’s Department of Transportation has so far been unhelpful in conservation efforts, plowing ahead with road construction projects and failing to provide safe wildlife passages.  As in many states, then, educating transportation officials is a top priority for reconnecting Nature through Kentucky.

Wendell Berry, possibly America’s best-loved agrarian writer and certainly one of Kentucky’s most eloquent voices, and his wife Tanya, an equal partner in their literary and agricultural endeavors, kindly hosted Margo and me for coffee and conversation.  Wendell reminded me, as he has before, that wilderness protection will not succeed unless conservationists also support improved practices on farm and forestry lands.  Wendell & Tanya are not unduly optimistic about the future – Wendell has been warning for decades of the catastrophic course agribusiness has taken – but they do find hope in the growing number of small, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms and worst first horse logging operations on private lands (which technique selects out the weaker trees and leaves the biggest to grow).  Wendell & Tanya also pointed out that “scruffy” hedgerows and big woodlots on farms can provide habitat connections for some species.  Margo noted that in Florida and other states with major agricultural land-holdings, getting conservation easements on farms and ranches is one of the best things we can do for panthers, bears, and other wide-ranging species.

Before we bid them a grateful farewell, we asked Wendell to tell us a bit about his recent civil disobedience action in protest against land-scalping for coal (“mountain-top removal” being the current euphemism for strip-mining).  Wendell and other brave Kentuckians for the Commonwealth occupied the governor’s office until their objections would be heard over the desecration of eastern Kentucky mountains, streams, and communities.  Wendell said the protest was well received by many, even by some government staff on the premises, and they were sent food and blankets by supporters wishing them a comfortable few days in the capitol.  The action generated talk all over Kentucky and beyond about the state’s dangerous dependence on coal extraction.

As a former resident and frequent visitor to Kentucky (my folks having stayed long after I returned north), I wish to add my small voice to Wendell’s in opposition to strip-mining in Appalachia.  In my opinion, “mountain-top removal” is a sin on the part of the big corporations that send in their monstrous machines to scrape away the good green earth.  Large-scale mining of coal is economically short-sighted, ecologically ruinous, and climatically disastrous.

In the Bluegrass region of central Kentucky, though, the immediate threat is not so much mining as sprawl.  Exurban development in the pastoral Bluegrass has chewed up tens of thousands of acres of prime farmland and lesser but significant amounts of forest, and has sullied most creeks in the area. Bluegrass is an exotic species. it should be admitted, but is much better for the land than is pavement. 

Central Kentucky was probably originally mostly hardwood forest, punctuated with big cane-breaks and grasslands that attracted large numbers of bison and elk.   Still, conservationists here agree that conserving farmlands is a top priority for Kentucky, along with restoring riparian buffers along streams, and keeping development within existing cities and towns.  The Fayette Alliance has shown that Lexington has thousands of acres available for in-fill for projects such as Artek,(pictured below right), rather than letting development eat up the county’s rich soils and pollute its precious waterways.  Conversations with Fayette Alliance director Knox van Nagell, farmland philanthropists Greg & Becky Goodman, and Wildlands Network supporter Dr. Tony Kearney underscored the importance of keeping intact central Kentucky’s farmlands.

How might big wild creatures get through a landscape largely devoted to agricultural production?  By following the Kentucky River and its tributaries, if we do our work well enough.  The Kentucky River, though fettered with dams and soiled by run-off from developed lands, remains something of a natural corridor through the heart of Kentucky.  The Rockcastle and Red Rivers and Elkhorn and Boone Creeks and other tributaries retain some of their original wildness, too.  Kentucky River preserves include such gems as Raven Run and Floracliff.

Transylvania University biology professor James Wagner was kind enough to lead a few of us on an outing into Floracliff, a preserve so special it is not generally open to the public.  An esteemed biology professor from a previous generation, Mary Wharton, used her modest salary through the decades to piece together this Nature preserve, where she took many of her photographs for her book on the Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky.  As Tom Butler explains in his inspiring book Wildlands Philanthropy, Dr. Wharton successfully saw to it that after her death her beloved preserve would be protected forever and available for scientific study and limited public visitation.  James took us to his research sites, pointed out various spiders and insects he has studied, and showed us the geological jewel of the preserve, a 50-foot cascade, where the plummeting creek, travertine rock, dark green moss, arcing magnolia branches and summer heat create an almost tropical rainforest feel.

Another thought-provoking meeting we wildlands folks had in Lexington was with Matthew & Nancy Sleeth of Blessed Earth, a Creation care group  Matthew & Nancy’s life story is fascinating.  It includes their departure from secure professional positions and a big house in coastal Maine (he a high-paid doctor, she an English teacher), to non-profit wages and a modest apartment in Lexington, where they work to awaken other people of faith to the wonders of God’s creation.   

Now, I come from long lines of ministers on both sides of my family, and I consider myself religious, though in a non-conventional, rather pantheistic way.  Still, it was humbling to talk with two faith-based conservationists who probably reach in an average week more people than most conservation groups reach in a whole year.  Other conservation leaders, including Al Fritsch, a Kentuckian and Jesuit priest (who gave a beautiful sermon at my mother’s memorial service) and founder of Appalachia – Science in the Public Interest, have for decades been showing the complementarity of religion and the environment; but the Sleeths seem to be taking this message to new audiences.  Matthew and Nancy have both published widely acclaimed Creation care books such as: The Gospel According to the Earth,  Serve God Save the Planet, Hope For Creation Guidebook, and both speak before big full churches.  As we told them, TrekEast is in part an effort to broaden our outreach, to go beyond preaching to the converted; but we are surely not yet standing before congregations of thousands!  

I’m still not sure just what lessons to take from this revelatory meeting, but I think they include this:  Those of us who love wild Nature, whether we think of it in terms of evolution or Creation or both, need to have the courage to talk with people of all faiths.  If we are to have a prayer of seeing all our fellow large mammals safely through the next century, we must seek the help of ministers, church-goers, choir singers, farmers, foresters, hunters, animal welfare proponents, birders, bankers, business-people, and anyone else who will listen, truly listen. 

Although some is already lost forever and most of the rest is imperiled, we can still save much of Kentucky’s and the country’s and the continent’s natural heritage.  If we expand and reconnect wildlife habitats, keep new development within existing towns and cities, and make farming and forestry and other human uses outside the protected lands compatible and sustainable, our grandchildren may chance upon the glory of wildflowers blooming beneath the emerging spring leaves of an old-growth forest canopy, or a wolf pack devouring the last morsels from an old bison, or a young elk narrowly shaking off the pursuit of pouncing panther, or streams so clean you can see brook trout at the bottom of cool pools, or a family of otters sliding down the banks …

How to help:  Educate yourself on the dangers of coal mining.  Support and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth; read PLUNDERING APPALACHIA; watch the two new movies, Carbon Nation and The Last Mountain.   Consume less energy.  Educate yourself also on the harmfulness of large-scale agribusiness.  Read FATAL HARVEST, and Wendell Berry’s books, particularly The Unsettling of America and The Gift of Good Land.  Contribute also to the Kentucky Riverkeeper, for clean waterways; Fayette Alliance, for reigning in sprawl; and Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, for acquiring and conserving key habitat linkages across the state.

For the Wild,



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