In a world grappling with pollution and imperiled species, Eastern Kentucky's white-haired goldenrod shows the possibility of recovery.
The wildflower, which has fragrant yellow blooms and tiny white hairs on the leaves and stems, is found only in the Red River Gorge area.
It has been listed as threatened for more than 25 years, but efforts to protect it have worked so well that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Monday that it be taken off the list of species in danger of extinction.
It would be the first species that occurs only in Kentucky to be dropped from the list since Congress passed the federal Endangered Species Act in the early 1970s, said Lee Andrews, field supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Kentucky.
"For us, this is a pretty big deal," Andrews said. "It's quite a conservation success story."
The flower would be the 31st species overall taken off the list of threatened and endangered species based on their recovery, said Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Some of the others, including the bald eagle, also live in Kentucky and in other states.
The service will take public comments for 60 days about the goldenrod proposal before making a final decision, but Andrews said he expects little opposition to removing the flower from threatened-species status.
The service also announced a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to conserve the Kentucky arrow darter, which lives only in the upper Kentucky River basin and has dwindled because of impaired water quality and other factors.
The white-haired goldenrod grows only in sandstone rock shelters or on sandstone cliffs with overhanging ledges in the Red River Gorge area, one of the nation's premier rock-climbing locations.
The popularity of the gorge was almost the undoing of the flower. People too often trampled it when they came to climb, rappel, hike, camp or illegally dig for artifacts, according to federal officials.
The flower went on the threatened-species list in 1988.
Officials said the Forest Service has since taken steps to protect the flower. Those measures include rerouting trails, fencing off sensitive areas, having rangers check on the flower and educate visitors, and putting signs at rock shelters, trailheads and other spots with information on the flower and how to avoid damaging it.
The Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission also played a key role, conducting surveys on the prevalence and habitat of the flower and helping with public information.
Officials said climbers and other visitors have done their part. Most people respect the boundaries once they understand the significance of the flower, said Tim Eling, a district ranger with the Forest Service.
“We asked the public to help us protect the plant by staying out of the fenced rock shelters where some damage was occurring. We were pleased at how quickly members of the public acknowledged our request and complied,” said Bill Lorenz, forest supervisor for Daniel Boone National Forest.
The efforts have helped the flower make a comeback.
In 1993, conservation officials counted 45,000 stems on the flowers, which can have 40 or more apiece. There are now 174,000 stems, said Michael Floyd, a wildlife biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
There are 117 occurrences of the white-haired goldenrod in Powell, Menifee and Wolfe counties. All but six are in Daniel Boone National Forest.
Of those, 81 are considered stable, and 46 are stable, self-sustaining and protected. Forty of the sites needed to meet all three of those measures before federal officials could consider taking the plant off the threatened-species list, Floyd said.
Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the successful effort to protect the white-haired goldenrod showed that the Endangered Species Act works.
"It's welcome news that a unique piece of Kentucky's natural heritage has been safeguarded from extinction," said Curry, who is from Eastern Kentucky.
The proposal to remove the goldenrod from the list of threatened species includes a plan to continue monitoring it to guard against decline.
"We believe that with an annual monitoring program, public education and an effective management plan coordinated by several agencies and conservation groups, this unique and rare goldenrod will be protected," said Donald S. Dott, Jr., director of the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.
Still, Jim Scheff, director of the forest-preservation group Kentucky Heartwood, said some concerns remain.
Scheff said visitation to Daniel Boone National Forest is heaviest in the Red River Gorge. Developing more recreation opportunities, such as trails and campgrounds elsewhere in the forest, could curb the effects of visitation in the gorge, he said.
But the recreation budget for Daniel Boone National Forest has dropped for four straight years and stands at only a third of what was assumed in the 2004 management plan, Scheff said.
"While the success in protecting the white-haired goldenrod is a great example of effective management by the U.S. Forest Service and cooperating agencies, we need to recognize that there is a real funding crisis threatening the viability of both at-risk species and sustainable economic development through outdoor recreation," Scheff said.
Even as federal agencies laud the recovery of the white-haired goldenrod, they plan greater protection for the Kentucky arrow darter.
The small fish was once documented in more than 70 streams but is now known to inhabit only 47 streams in 10 counties, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
The darter's habitat has been "severely degraded" by pollution, siltation and loss of tree cover from surface mining, oil and gas exploration, logging, agricultural run-off and poor sewage disposal, according to the agency.
The conservation plan for the fish will include replacing some culverts on federal land that impede the movement of the fish and setting up a monitoring plan, officials said.
The darter was among plant and animal species nationwide covered under an agreement to settle a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity against U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
The center sued to try to force the agency to decide whether to list hundreds of species as threatened or endangered.
The settlement covered about 50 species in Kentucky and more than 750 nationwide.
The service must make a decision soon on whether to list the arrow darter as threatened.
Curry, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said she is glad that the two federal agencies have worked out a conservation plan for the darter, but she thinks it should be listed as a threatened species to provide greater protection.
Efforts to protect the fish also would protect water quality, she said, but people have "the moral obligation to take care of creation" too.
"We need all the plants and animals to keep the environment healthy," Curry said.