ABOVE: The commission works to teach children the mysteries of the great outdoors and to enjoy the untouched beauty of each Nature Preserve. They also work to conserve, protect and educate for proper conservation. Photos courtesy of KSNP.
By Joyce Bender
Kentucky State Nature Preserves
The Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission is celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer. They have been busy commemorating the occasion with guided hikes and lectures throughout the year to date.
In July of 1976, the statutes that arose from Senate Bill 155 went into effect and mandated the commission to, “secure for the people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of natural areas by establishing a system of nature preserves, protecting these areas and gathering and disseminating information regarding them, establishing and maintaining a registry of natural areas, and otherwise encouraging and assisting in the preservation of natural areas and features.” Commission staff past and present have diligently done their jobs with this as the agency’s marching orders.
With four executive directors since 1976, leading an organization with such an all-encompassing mission can be extremely daunting. Donald F. Harker, Jr. served as the first director, beginning in 1977. With an incredible vision to build capacity, he used several substantial grants to hire a number of field biologists to initiate inventories of the state. These surveys enabled the commission to lay the groundwork from which sprouted the nature preserve system and a rare species database.
Richard Hannan led the commission from 1982 until 1992. His tenure brought the first appropriation of funds from the General Assembly to purchase nature preserves. Prior to 1990, they had dedicated state park properties, cobbled together funds from various sources and matched Land and Water Conservation Fund grants with land donations to reach a total of 18 preserves.
Robert McCance was the third director, serving from 1993 until 1997. The Rare Plant Recognition Act was passed during his term and during that year the agency closed on the first tract at Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve, the state’s largest old growth forest. The nature license plate became available for purchase in 1995, providing the commission’s first regular funding for the acquisition of natural areas through the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund. These nature license plates can still be purchased today at county clerk’s offices across Kentucky to help continue land preservation.
Donald S. Dott, Jr. became the fourth director in 1998 and after eighteen years, has the distinction of being the longest-serving director to date. In 1998, the commission moved ahead with new technology by acquiring Geographic Information System capability. By 2001, the commission could finally say there were preserves from one end of the state to the other. In 2015, he successfully spearheaded efforts to get their highly regarded book, Kentucky’s Natural Heritage: An Illustrated Guide to Biodiversity (published in 2010) into every middle and high school, including Kentucky’s colleges and universities statewide.
“With 63 State Nature Preserves and an estimated 20,000 visitors annually, the commission is no longer the best kept secret in state government with visitors coming from across the country and even from foreign countries,” said Donald S. Dott. “Kentucky’s committed staff of biologists continue to search the state for the rarest of the rare and the finest examples of Kentucky’s natural landscape. Surprisingly to many folks, new species are still being discovered in Kentucky, and we plan to keep on working hard and discovering new things as we can.”
Some notable items that illustrate the breadth of their work includes protecting 63 state nature preserves and natural areas totaling over 28,000 acres and tracking 12,684 records of rare species, natural communities in the Natural Heritage Program database. Biologists continue to conduct rare species and natural community inventories, and the agency supports research that has resulted in finding species new to science and a few species that have not been seen for decades. The commission’s work has led to the federal listing of two plant species, one in 2013, the other in 2014, and the delisting of one in 2016. Many of these projects are the results of collaborations with state, federal and private conservation organizations, colleges and universities with whom they share common goals.
Looking ahead, land alterations and invasion of non-native species will continue to take their toll on natural areas and rare species habitat. The impacts from global climate change are still hard to assess and plan for. The commission is working with partners to consider appropriate responses to the potential changes coming to Kentucky. They are trying to predict where best to designate protected corridors for species movement as conditions change and animal and plant populations shift in response. We have taken on the study of hymenoptera (bees) and joined forces to aid the monarch butterfly as we assess the plight of pollinator decline. Outreach to the public always remains an important part of their mission. The need to ensure that all Kentuckians are aware of the great benefits derived from maintaining high quality natural areas across the Commonwealth is still a message that rights true and bright to each agency worker.