HAZELDELL — There is a spot in northern Pulaski County that is very rare, a wet meadow that is home to a splash of wildflowers and several threatened plants, including a tiny, carnivorous flower called the dwarf sundew.
Hazeldell Meadow is the only place in Kentucky where this particular species of sundew lives. What's more, the meadow itself is the only one of its kind in the state, according to The Nature Conservancy.
"We don't have anything else quite like this," said Barb Scott, wetlands program coordinator with the state Division of Water.
The site is an example of how public funding can be used to protect high-value natural areas. These days, however, conservation advocates are worried about a lack of money for such work.
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The current state budget took $8 million from the conservation fund, which gets money from environmental fines, the state's share of a tax on unmined minerals and the sale of nature license plates.
The legislature approved switching the money to other uses, leaving little for conservation purchases.
"That cut them down to the bone," said Lane Boldman, executive director of the Kentucky Conservation Committee.
Legislators also cut funding to maintain natural areas already set aside for protection.
As next year's legislative session approaches, the committee and other environmental groups are talking with legislators to try to make sure the fund doesn't get raided in the next state budget.
"This is one of our highest priorities," Boldman said.
The groups also would like to see the money from the sale of nature plates returned to the conservation fund.
Sales of the plates brought in $412,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014. The loss of that money has been a particular sore spot, because people paid extra for the plates with the expectation that the money would go to preserve land.
The conservation fund was set up in 1990 so the state could buy areas that provide habitat for rare or endangered species or spaces for migratory birds. It is the primary source of state money for such work. It has been used to protect more than 86,000 acres since 1995.
State agencies such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources receive money from the conservation fund, as well as counties and cities, colleges and conservation districts.
The Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission has received money from the fund for more projects than any other single agency, according to the fund's 2014 annual report.
The loss of assistance from the heritage conservation fund came on top of earlier cutbacks for the commission.
Joyce Bender said the branch of the commission she manages to take care of the state's 60-plus nature preserves used to have six employees and seasonal workers, but it is down to her and one other person.
The commission has had to close trails for lack of staff to keep them safe, Bender said, and someone grew marijuana in one preserve staffers hadn't been able to monitor as needed.
Boldman said agencies also are losing federal money because they don't have state money to match it. Conservation advocates said the cut in money to buy and maintain natural areas came as Kentucky already lagged most nearby states.
From 1998 to 2008, for instance, Kentucky spent $46.9 million to preserve 52,000 acres, while Virginia spent $844 million for 558,000 acres, according to information provided by the Kentucky Conservation Committee.
"There's still a lot of other sites that are worthy of protection. Our work is not done," Bender said. "If you like to breathe fresh air and you like to drink clean water, we need these areas for their ecological services."
The decision to take money from the Heritage Land Conservation Fund was part of a larger sweep of nearly $300 million from dozens of small accounts into the General Fund. Gov. Steve Beshear and legislators approved the action as they searched for money for teacher pay raises and other needs.
Hugh Archer, a board member of the conservation fund, said he and others had been advocating for an extra $10 million to boost land purchases and maintenance of natural areas. Instead, the fund was drained. The board has had to turn down purchases as a result.
"It has stopped us in our tracks," Archer said.
The Heritage Land Conservation Fund played a role in the preservation of Hazeldell Meadow, with its bright pops of yellow-fringed orchids, lady's tresses with delicate white plumes, cranefly orchids, bushy bluestem and other plants.
The Nature Conservancy bought the meadow, then sold it to Pulaski County with a conservation easement in order to protect it. The county got a grant from the conservation fund for the purchase.
Advocates said the purchase shows the value of such funding. At one time, there would have been thousands of such wet meadows in the state, but most were drained so they could be farmed or developed, Archer said.
Scott said the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission lists only three such sites in Kentucky that have sundews. The sites are distinguished by a high diversity and unique assemblage of plants, Scott said.
The Nature Conservancy said Hazeldell is the only meadow of its kind on the Highland Rim, an elevated area in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Like wet meadows, most of the other wetland areas that once existed in Kentucky have been lost, pointing out the need to preserve what's left, Scott said. Wetlands clean water, store floodwater and provide recreation opportunities such as hunting, fishing and bird-watching that help Kentucky's economy, Scott said.
In addition to trying to keep money for conservation purchases in future budgets, advocates plan to ask legislators to approve a tax-credit program under which landowners could donate property to be preserved or agree to restrict it for public benefit.
That would help conserve important areas without the state having to pay full market value, according to the Kentucky Conservation Committee.
"For only modest cost to the public, there is enormous benefit in the form of improved quality of life and the permanent protection our farms, forests, and open space" from such a program, according to the committee.