Experts encourage Jessamine community to protect its rare plants, animals

gkocher1@herald-leader.comFebruary 23, 2014 

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    If you would like to learn more about Jessamine County's natural history group, call Mary Kozak at (859) 492-3115.

NICHOLASVILLE — With its limestone cliffs along the Kentucky River and secluded gorges, Jessamine County is a hot spot for rare plants and animals.

Now an effort is underway to enlist and encourage residents to take a more active role in protecting the county's flora and fauna.

During a recent meeting at the Jessamine County Public Library, about 30 people met to hear a botanist, a herpetologist and a forester talk about Jessamine's resources. The goal is to educate the public about the county's natural features and establish an ongoing stewardship program.

Julian Campbell, a consultant with Bluegrass Woodland Restoration Center, said there needed to be "more of a community of people working on conservation and natural history."

"You've got the science types and a lot of biologists who study things to death, and they can tell you the Latin names, and then you have people who would like to save the world," he said, "but if you can combine the knowledge and the communities, that's what we need."

The people who attended ranged in age from 20-something to 60-something. They heard Tara Littlefield, a botanist with the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, talk about rare plants. Kent Slusher of the Kentucky Division of Forestry told how to rid forests of invasive species, including bush honeysuckle. And John MacGregor of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources showed photographs of reptiles, frogs, salamanders and small mammals found in Jessamine.

The meeting was sponsored by Jessamine Fiscal Court and Jessamine County Kentucky River Task Force.

Jessamine County government has an interest in educating people about conservation because it owns 268 acres of Jessamine Creek Gorge. The county also owns Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park near the Kentucky River Palisades, the limestone cliffs that tower hundreds of feet above the river, and the Hickman Creek Nature and Conference Center, a secluded spot that is used for retreats. Campbell conducted biological inventories of those sites, said Mary Kozak, project director for county government.

During the past six months, Campbell has led some tours of the Jessamine Creek Gorge "so people would be more aware of what needs to be done, what's there right now and how it can be preserved," Kozak said.

Jessamine Creek Gorge near Wilmore is considered among the 10 most ecologically valuable areas in Kentucky. Its steep hills and rock ledges support 400 plant species, some of which are considered endangered.

It is also home to endangered bats. For that reason, the gorge is open to the public only on a limited basis so the bats and other sensitive species are not disturbed.

There are some privately owned tracts in Jessamine County that are remnants of wetlands and old woods with rare plants. Campbell mentioned one tract of old woods off U.S. 27 near the Kentucky River. In many instances, woods were cut for timber to the edge of the Palisades, but somehow this tract had survived.

Campbell outlined three purposes of the Jessamine group.

The first is to summarize features of the county in simple educational terms. He suggested the group might prepare a booklet and website describing the landscapes and watersheds, habitats and selected groups of plants and animals.

A second goal is to stimulate communication and cooperative planning for conservation of the more natural areas of the county.

Third, Campbell suggested establishing a regular program of educational meetings, field trips, stewardship events and general conservation planning.

The group might reach some consensus on what management practices to encourage among private landowners.

Some plants, such as running buffalo clover, need disturbance to stimulate their growth. Hundreds of years ago, bison were around to provide that function. Today, "perhaps we can use cattle to simulate the bison in some of these woods, not year-round, just on a seasonal basis," Campbell said.

Campbell, formerly a conservation scientist with the Kentucky Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said people needed to set priorities for the species they're trying to save.

"There're so many species out there. A politician won't listen to more than a sentence or two when you start to spout species at them," he said. "But if you at least — amongst the people that care — have a common language of the things we're trying to preserve," the discussion becomes more digestible and productive.

Campbell said the Jessamine group could be the template from which similar groups in other counties would organize. Eventually, perhaps a network of citizen-stewards could be developed in a 10-county area of the Inner Bluegrass.

In the meantime, Kozak was hopeful that a program could be established with Jessamine County Schools to interest students in the plants and animals of their home county.

"What we're hoping for is the awareness and to have people be stewards of the properties," Kozak said.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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