For years, the 746-acre Griffith Woods was home to elk, bison, corn fields and cattle, but the sale of the property last month has raised questions about what it will be in the future.
The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife bought the Harrison County property, but Cindy Lanham, a representative involved in the sale, said she could not discuss the department's plans until the deed has been transferred from the previous owners, the Nature Conservancy. There is also a portion of the woods awaiting an internal transfer within the state from the University of Kentucky to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Nature Conservancy's portion, 355 acres, sold for $1.38 million.
Terry Cook, state director for the Nature Conservancy of Kentucky, said transferring the woods to one owner and manager will improve efficiency.
"Fish and Wildlife does great on-the-ground management," he said. "And we're selling our part of the woods to Fish and Wildlife so that it can all be managed seamlessly."
The Friends of Griffith Woods, a non-profit group that advocates for the woods and operates a nursery on the premises, doesn't know many details about the woods' future. The group would like to see ecological restoration — reintroducing indigenous plants to the area and helping them flourish again.
"The Friends of Griffith Woods is certainly hoping that it will have a productive partnership with Fish and Wildlife, but they didn't want to be specific until they actually owned the property," said Friends of Griffith Woods president Pamla Wood. "My motivation is I'm an aficionado of native plants — native ecological systems. I'm a natural resources manager and I recognize the importance of maintaining biodiversity."
The entire Bluegrass area was once home to elk, bison and — if you go far enough back in time — mastodons, said Julian Campbell, a botanist for the Nature Conservancy. Before Kentucky was colonized in the mid-1700s, bands of bison used to roam this area by the thousands, Campbell said. Such behemoths liked the Bluegrass region because it had mineral-rich soil. This soil, he said, has helped make the horse industry and other big animals so profitable here. But it also produces an ecological problem — "too much chewing."
Due to the excessive grazing, some plants that are native to the region have become endangered, such as the running buffalo clover. But some of those plants can be found in Griffith Woods. Others, such as river cane, could thrive if planted there, allowing the area's vegetation to better match what it used to be.
Griffith Woods also is unique in the region in that it's relatively open and unshaded, Campbell said. There are many old trees there too, some of which are 200 to 300 years old.
"It's the best opportunity in the central Bluegrass to restore something like the ancient woodlands," Campbell said. But, Campbell said the woods probably are better preserved today than 150 years ago, when Kentucky was more agricultural and people had to produce their food on family farms.
During most of the 1800s, the woods were used to grow many crops including corn, tobacco, hemp and wheat, said Campbell. They also were used for grazing cattle and raising sheep. But Wood says some of the soil has never been plowed. That means its biodiversity has been preserved.
"Whenever you plow soil or drive over it or pave it — or all the things that we do to soil — it makes a difference in its structure," she said. "It impacts the organisms that live in it. So if you find soil that's not been disturbed by plowing, it's unique."
The Friends are ultimately interested in preserving the woods' ecological value, Wood said. "Griffith Woods is the best remnant of free settlement Bluegrass woodland savannah that we have in the area," she said.
The woods' natural resources are the Friends' priority. But Wood regrets that a 19th-century structure on the property can't be restored. The building dates to 1827, she said. It is rumored to have been a tavern and inn for people who were driving livestock between Lexington and Cincinnati. The inn probably closed during the Civil War but was used as a private home until the 1980s.
"We were sorry to lose the house because it's an incredible structure, but it would be a huge financial undertaking to restore," she said. Estimates for stabilizing and restoring the building were a couple million dollars, she said.
Instead, pieces of the tavern will be used to expand another historic building, Colby Tavern.
Wood doesn't know what the Department of Fish and Wildlife has planned for another structure on the property, a mausoleum that dates to at least the 19th century.
"I would expect that to remain, but I don't know; it needs some work as well," she said.
Wood said she hoped the Department of Fish and Wildlife could lend more resources to the restoration of the woods than its previous owners could. Campbell agreed, adding that he hoped communication among all the parties involved in managing and restoring the woods would improved under the department's lead.