A Natural Commonwealth

by Greg Abernathy, KNLT Assistant Director

Kentucky is a place of great natural beauty defined by both its cultural and natural heritage. This commonwealth of lush forests and flowing rivers sustains and inspires, yet has been exploited for nearly two centuries. Kentucky’s resiliency, as well as the world’s, is dependent upon functioning natural systems that can withstand threats through adaption and change. Protecting and sustainably managing our wildlands is essential to fostering this resiliency.

Geologic forces have sculpted and shaped Kentucky, giving rise to a diverse living landscape. Eastern Kentucky is part of the Appalachian Mountains. These mountains are home to the mixed mesophytic forest, one of the most diverse temperate forests found on the planet, and are a major wildlife corridor through Eastern North America. Central Kentucky is comprised of rolling grasslands and knobs with oak-hickory forests. Much of this area is underlain by a vast subterranean world of sinkholes and caves. In far Western Kentucky swamps and sloughs drain into the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, forming part of the fourth largest watershed on the planet.

American black bears, cerulean warblers, monarch butterflies, and painted trilliums, as well as over 19,400 other species of plants and animals live in the diverse habitats found throughout Kentucky. Some of these species are endemic and found nowhere else on the planet. Kentucky is nationally recognized for the diversity of fish, mussel, and crayfish species found in the state’s 90,000 miles of streams. The state is also part of the southeastern United States, a global hotspot for salamander diversity.

Kentucky has a nearly 12,000-year history of human activity. Over the last 200 years these activities have begun to severely impact biodiversity as human populations expanded, and as an economy based on natural resource extraction evolved. Habitat conversion has fragmented the forests, eliminated nearly all of the prairies, and degraded most of the remaining wetlands. Invasive species are outcompeting native species. Land, air, and water pollutants are further impacting the habitats that remain. Combined with climate change, these threats have imperiled much of the state’s biodiversity – one out of every 26 species in Kentucky is considered on the brink of extirpation or extinction.

Globally, species populations are declining at an even more alarming rate. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report documented a 52 percent decline in mammal populations worldwide over the last 40 years. The factors driving this startling decline are habitat loss and degradation, species exploitation, and climate change. This report follows decades of conservation assessments that have recommended protection of wildlands and large landscapes.

Conservation biologists have long advocated for large landscape conservation. Over 20 years ago, the Wildlands Project called for protection of half of North America to stave off a mass extinction crisis. More recently E.O. Wilson, a prominent conservationist and evolutionary biologist, has made a plea for setting aside 50 percent of the planet for conservation. Large landscape conservation strategies, such as these, recognize the essential need for sound science and urgency for action. In addition, these strategies include the important role of private landowners and the sustainable stewardship of their lands, as well as public lands.

Large protected areas of wildlands are an essential part of the biological and economic resiliency. Biologically, they offer critical habitat and migratory routes to the species that form the planet’s web of life. Diverse and intact habitat is essential for species survival in a period of shifting climate. Additionally, wildlands represent a wealth of natural capital and are essential to both economic and human health, a fact too often overlooked and neglected.

In Kentucky, investment in land conservation is relatively low. Only seven percent of the state is protected in some way, less than all surrounding states. These lands have wide-ranging stewardship approaches ranging from biodiversity protection to multiple use management. Longstanding state government conservation funding was just recently redirected, leaving little state funding for land conservation and illustrating the importance of public-private partnerships.

Several ongoing large landscape efforts are taking place throughout the state. The largest conservation effort in the state’s history, the Pine Mountain Wildlife Corridor, intends to protect the 125-mile long forested mountain stretching through southeastern Kentucky. Along the Green River in Western Kentucky, conservation efforts aim to protect this nationally recognized aquatic biological treasure. Efforts to connect Fort Knox and Bernheim Forest intend to safeguard and enhance important large forest tracts and riparian corridors within the Knobs Region.

Kentucky is a reflection of the world, a place of amazing biodiversity under escalating pressure from natural resource extraction and urbanization. Wildlands, and their resiliency, are critically important to sustaining healthy local, regional, and global communities, and are an essential part of a transformational economy. In this interconnected living world, local conservation has global significance. We must intensify efforts to protect our land, air, and water. Having lost so much already, it is essential that we protect and steward what remains.

This piece was originally written for inclusion in a publication created by The Institute for Healthy Air, Water & Soil for the Royal visit to Louisville in March 2015.

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Read about the Royal visit and our unique opportunity to discuss our work on Pine Mountain with Prince Charles: KNLT & the Royal Visit