Story and photos by Kirsten Delamarter
The land in rural Henry County had everything that Eugene Lacefield was looking for.
It was an interesting plot complete with woods, hills and hollows, the last farm on a dead-end road.
So, he and his wife Mary Margaret Lowe purchased the land in 1978.
Over the next few decades, they perfected their eco-friendly farmhouse. They spent afternoons picnicking next to Drennon Creek and evenings sitting on the porch, watching the sunset.
“As the years went by, we were growing more and more fond of this land — hiking it and building trails and enjoying it,” Lacefield said.
And it occurred to them, Lowe chimed in, that other people might enjoy it, too.
Last year, Lowe and Lacefield decided to donate 338 of their 350 acres to the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves, which will protect the land and use it to restore federally endangered species. Soon, the land will be dedicated as Drennon Creek State Nature Preserve and enjoy the highest level of conservation in the Commonwealth for protecting rare species.
The donation has also earned Lowe and Lacefield the 2019 Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund Stewardship Award. The KHLCF Board presents the annual award to individuals who exemplify responsible natural areas management.
A donation like this doesn’t come along very often, said Zeb Weese, executive director of the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves (KNP). What makes Lowe and Lacefield’s land unique, he said, is its potential for restoring Braun’s rockcress, a federally endangered species.
Restoration is an important part of saving a species from extinction and removing its endangered status.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Braun’s rockcress, or Boechera perstellata, as endangered in 1995, and Nature Preserves botanists and managers have been working ever since to delist one of the Commonwealth’s rarest plants.
Identifiable by its lanceolate leaves and the small white or lavender flowers produced in mid- to late-spring, Braun’s rockcress is only found in three Kentucky counties — Franklin, Henry and Owen — and two counties in Tennessee. The couple’s property is located near the world’s northernmost population of Braun’s rockcress.
Braun’s rockcress is sun intolerant and highly vulnerable to competition from other plants, but it is often found along the steep slopes that lead to the Kentucky River and its tributaries. Drennon Creek is one such tributary.
Weese said KNP will first focus on planting Braun’s rockcress on the donated property and managing invasive competitors so the endangered species can thrive. Once a healthy and sustainable population has been established, KNP will explore making the land accessible to the public with hiking trails and other amenities.
The site also has potential for restoration of another federally endangered plant, globed bladderpod (Physaria globosa), and several rare mussel species.
The Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves, within the Energy and Environment Cabinet, owns more than 19,000 acres protected as nature preserves across the Commonwealth. The office’s foremost mission to protect land recognized for its natural significance including, Weese said, protecting rare species. But it also works to conserve land for “passive” recreational activities like hiking and bird watching, he said.
“We want folks to enjoy nature,” Weese said.
Lacefield and Lowe, who have already created hiking trails on their property for private use, have offered to perform day-to-day maintenance of the property as volunteer stewards of the land after it officially becomes a nature preserve.
For Lowe and Lacefield, who have backgrounds in education and have always cared deeply about the environment, the decision to donate the land was rooted in a desire to do something that would benefit everyone who would use it. They are excited about the restoration potential of the donation but even more so about its potential for promoting outdoor recreation.
“We were amazed … that two people could offer and provide a state nature preserve for all of Kentucky and surrounding peoples to come visit,” Lacefield said.
They hope eventually to see picnic tables at Drennon Creek State Nature Preserve, as well as a small shelter and informational kiosks.
The couple also hopes that their donation encourages others to think about ways they can make a difference.
“Every person can be involved with improving, protecting and conserving the environment,” Lowe said.