Protecting Kentucky's forests

Here's one more reason to be happy on a holiday weekend at summer's threshold: Blanton Forest is 400 acres larger.

Thanks to Myotis sodalis, the Indiana bat.

Thanks, too, to the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust.

The non-profit pulled off the purchase by tapping transportation dollars obligated under the Endangered Species Act for replacing Indiana bat habitat disturbed when U.S. 119 was rebuilt across Pine Mountain.

More than bats will benefit, though. Large blocks of undisturbed forest are critical to the survival of many plants and animals and to the health of the forest. Healthy forests cleanse the water and air and will have a role to play in combating climate change.

The single most effective way to save forestland from mining, drilling and other development is to buy it.

The Nature Conservancy has proved that.

But try doing deals in a region where land ownership is a jigsaw puzzle of far-flung heirs and energy companies, and where rich philanthropists are as common as oceanfront condos.

The Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (www.knlt.org) has had notable success in the heart of coal country, despite those challenges.

KNLT also has a vision, one that deserves public and private support, for weaving together a 120-mile conservation corridor along Pine Mountain from the Virginia to Tennessee borders.

This wild and rugged landscape is home to almost 100 rare species including some that live nowhere else on Earth. It's also a critical sanctuary for animals whose north-south migration has been disrupted by the isles of wasteland created by the strip mining of coal.

KNLT's biggest accomplishment so far is Blanton, the primeval forest on the flanks of Pine Mountain in Harlan County. It had never seen a logger's saw upon "discovery" in 1992. Blanton is now a 5,000-acre state nature preserve with almost 5 miles of hiking trails open to the public.

This latest purchase, which will connect two parts of the Blanton preserve, required persistence. KNLT director Hugh Archer worked on the deal for 17 years.

Now Archer and KNLT have their sights set on another precious remnant of Kentucky wilderness: Laurel Fork at the western end of Pine Mountain in a part of Whitley County so remote it's long been known as South America.

After four years of deal-making on multiple tracts, KNLT has 2,000 acres under option and needs to raise $1 million to complete the purchase.

The acquisition would protect 23 species of fish living in cold streams sheltered by steep forests. The streams are so isolated and undisturbed that they support a number of cave-dwelling creatures that exist nowhere else, as well as globally endangered mussels.

The legislature can help preserve this one-of-a-kind place by designating Laurel Fork a Wild River and by providing low-interest loans until the private fund-raising recovers from this recession.

The legislature also should bring Kentucky in line with other Southern states by enacting tax credits and other incentives for landowners who put forests into conservation. Such credits would be a boon not just to the Pine Mountain Legacy Project but to the future of the entire state.