WINCHESTER — Just about every week, William Crankshaw climbs into a utility vehicle packed with forestry tools and heads down Clark County's Lower Howard's Creek, which flows through a winding gorge and into the Kentucky River.
The retired professor of forest ecology, who lives in Lexington, volunteers for a six-hour day each week nearly year-round to eradicate invasive plants and clear trails at Lower Howard's Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve.
Owned by Clark County Fiscal Court, the park is 340 acres — 228 acres of which were placed in the State Nature Preserves system in 2001, according to preserve manager Clare Sipple.
"I see my goal here as a caretaker," Crankshaw said. "I'd like to see this getting back to the natural state as it was" in the late 1700s.
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Last week, Crankshaw, 87, worked at a spring used by pioneers. He was putting rocks back in place that he had moved while killing the invasive plant called bush honeysuckle. Among his tools are a Pulaski — a forestry tool that is half mattock, half axe — loppers, a bow saw and a chain saw.
In his 12 years as a volunteer, Crankshaw has inventoried plant species — more than 800 — and helped create seven trails. He also has kept them cleared.
Crankshaw eradicates plants such as honeysuckle and garlic mustard that prevent tree reproduction and crowd out other "good" plants. He guides hikers on trails that were significant routes for the pioneers and for Indians.
State officials say there are 61 nature preserves in Kentucky's system, and not enough volunteers.
Crankshaw's work led the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission to give him the 2012 Volunteer Steward Award, the commission's highest honor.
"Somebody like that is definitely worth recognition for the longevity he's shown and the ability to endure whatever we've thrown at him. It's a lot of hard work," said Joyce Bender, the state's branch manager for nature preserves and natural areas. "He's 87 and he doesn't slow down."
Crankshaw's work at Lower Howard's Creek began in 2000 after he moved from Indiana to Winchester to be near one of his sons. Sipple, the preserve manager, was his new neighbor.
Sipple found out that Crankshaw had been a professor and researcher of forest ecology at Ball State and Purdue universities. Before he earned his doctorate in 1960, Crankshaw worked for the U.S. Forest Service in California. He served in the Pacific in the Navy in World War II. He also conducted field research in Guatemala, Belize, South Carolina, New York and Indiana.
Sipple said she saw in Crankshaw someone who could help Lower Howard's Creek.
"He's the best kind of person you can have as a volunteer because you don't have to baby-sit with him. He's self-directed. He knows what to do and he knows how to do it," Sipple said. "His enthusiasm is just contagious. I don't know what I would have done without Bill to help me manage the preserve."
Crankshaw, who recently moved from Winchester to Lexington with his wife, Marilyn, said he has also started volunteering at The Arboretum on Alumni Drive.
But it is at the Clark County preserve where he fosters his lifelong interest in what happens when one community is replaced by another through time.
In the case of Lower Howard's Creek, the woods were cleared by Kentucky's settlers for an industrial site and community.
Fort Boonesborough was a mile upriver from Lower Howard's Creek. A man named John Holder established a settlement at the mouth of Lower Howard's Creek, Sipple said. Holder had a boat yard and recruited people to come from Fort Boonesborough to manufacture goods so he would have something to ship. There were more than 20 industries on the creek, including flour and hemp mills, bourbon distilleries and a hat factory. More than 300 people lived there in the early 1800s, Sipple said.
Though many of the industries and the people were gone by 1900, it will take hundreds of years for the preserve to fully change back into a mature forest, Crankshaw said.
Charley Sither, another volunteer and retiree, said he has worked with Crankshaw for four years.
"I learn a lot," Sither said. "He knows so much about things that grow around here. It's quite an experience. I've learned a lot more about trees and a lot more about invasive species and what happens to the land after it is no longer farmed."
In accepting his award, Crankshaw wrote that "the woods, the historic sites and the topography offer great opportunities for education and appreciation of what we have and what we have lost."
He said in an interview that the Clark County preserve needed more volunteers.
"There's an increasing segment of the population out there of people who were retired but are still active both physically and mentally, and have the urge to be out like this," Crankshaw said. "If you could tap those people to help you ... you could get a lot of things done."
Want a tour?
Guided tours of Lower Howard's Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve are available by calling (859) 744-4888. A public trail near Hall's on the River restaurant is open year-round. For more information, go to Lowerhowardscreek.org