By John Mura
Office of the Secretary
Frankfort, Ky. – The desk is cleaned out and 18 years of mementos boxed. As Donald S. Dott Jr., the longest-serving director of the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission (“KSNPC”) heads out the door, he has no regrets as he relinquishes stewardship of Kentucky’s natural wonders.
After 31 years in state service, the self-described “tall, skinny guy,” and “adrenaline junkie” retired July 29. Under his stewardship, the state’s protected lands have grown into 63 preserves with 27,897 acres across the Commonwealth.
“We have some really outstanding areas, no question about it,” Dott said.
The Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission purchased these spaces for the protection and preservation of the natural areas that contained rare plant and animal species or relatively undisturbed natural communities that are becoming increasingly threatened throughout the Commonwealth.
Dott, 59, said that biologists systematically search the state to find new species and more populations of known rarities and areas suitable for purchase as a preserve.
“The first purpose of a nature preserve is for biodiversity,” Dott said. “It’s not for camping and that sort of stuff. So you got to keep out the ATVs and the horses and unauthorized uses like that. That’s one challenge. The second, biggest challenge, really, is non-native species, invasive species, of which seem to pop up more and more all the time.”
An avid outdoorsman who still downhill skis and has taken hang-gliding lessons, Dott first responded to the allure of nature growing up in Hikes Point, in Louisville. Dott said his favorite moments were spent turning over rocks in a nearby creek. “If you got really lucky, you’d find a snake,” he said.
After spending four years at Ballard High School, Dott was accepted into the University of Kentucky, where he graduated in 1978 with a degree in political science. A law degree from George Washington University followed. Always, he said, he wanted to do environmental work.
He clerked for U.S. Magistrate George J. Long in Louisville and then spent nine months in private practice before being hired, on April 1, 1985, as an attorney in the enforcement office of the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet. Thirteen years later, when an opening occurred, he was hired as director of KSNPC.
The job has grown more difficult since 2007, he said, with reduced budgets and increased competition for specialty license plates revenue. The Heritage Land Conservation Fund’s three specialty plates, currently featuring a cardinal, a bobcat and a Kentucky Warbler, used to bring in substantial revenue that went to land purchases, he said. But an explosion of vanity and other specialty plates siphoned off much of that money.
While acknowledging that there is much more work to be done, he is gratified with what his team has accomplished. “It’s said so often it sounds trite, but it has been a privilege to work with the biologists and support staff at the Commission,” Dott said. “I doubt you will find in state government a staff more dedicated and enthusiastic about the work they do. And as many will tell you, ‘they live it and breathe it.’ I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather have made my career.”
He leaves with the gratitude of the cabinet. “I want to thank Don for the years of leadership he has provided in the protection of Kentucky’s unique landscapes,” Secretary Charles Snavely said. “We wish him the best in whatever his future brings.”
So what comes next? “The word ‘nothing’ comes to mind,” other than paying more attention to his 30-acre home in Waddy, Ky., Dott said with a laugh. “But I can’t do nothing for very long.”
Boredom will eventually drive him back to what has been a decades-long pursuit – protecting Kentucky’s natural heritage for the generations that follow, he said.
He is planning to continue his work with the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust or doing fundraising for the Kentucky Land Trusts Coalition, of which he is chairman.
“There’s all kinds of conservation work to be done,” he said.