Ky. voices: Julian Campbell says Bluegrass native plants, habitats need a coalition of protectors

By Julian Campbell

Plants-people of all types will have a significant opportunity Oct. 9 and 10 at the Second Kentucky Botanical Symposium at the University of Kentucky.

This meeting (www.knps.org/) will focus on the Central Bluegrass, its native flora, conservation problems and how to reduce weedy aliens such as bush honeysuckle and winter-creeper.

In addition to presentations by local botanists, managers and researchers, we seek to increase interaction among people who are interested in regular meetings, field trips, stewardship of restored woodland and development of botanical gardens.

The challenges to conserving native plants and their habitats in this intensively developed region are great, but a good community of cooperators is possible at this scale.

Three groups of plants-people should work much more together:

■ Academic and amateur botanists.

■ Gardeners and horticulturalists.

■ Conservationists and managers of wilder lands.

We are inspired by Mary Wharton (1912-1991), a local botanist who helped form the Bluegrass Land and Nature Trust in 1975: "Dedicated to the preservation of natural areas in the Bluegrass Region, including streams and watersheds."

This organization disbanded in the 1990s, as others began to work more on conservation in the region. But these organizations have had little regular interaction, at least in public. Much would be gained from comparing experiences, sharing data and cooperating on projects of regional significance.

It is especially important for us to figure out, together, how wilder areas might be managed with browsing, burning, cutting or mowing to favor native plants over aliens. Animals — and native people — once maintained a network of glades and trails through the woods, promoting many species, some of which are now endangered, such as the native clovers.

The Kentucky River Palisades and South Fork of the Licking River have become the focus of attention for natural areas, but many more degraded sites with potential for restoration exist elsewhere on farms and even in towns.

We have identified the best remnants of original woodland, but there is confusion about the nature of that woodland and how to promote naturalistic conditions.

The meeting will allow discussion of how we classify habitats, which is important since there has been some misunderstanding.

For example, we need to clarify differences between sinking creeks with karst, typical riparian corridors and true wetlands, so that Environmental Protection Agency-driven funding of so-called "restoration" projects is not wasted, as in initial plans for Coldstream Park north of Lexington.

And we need better insight to the original mixture of sun and shade, so that sites like Griffith Woods in Harrison County can become properly restored.

We need to explore methods for management of old fields, so that a good balance of woodland, grassland and farmland can be achieved.

Production of native plants can be combined with management of old fields, rather than letting them grow into weedy thickets or planting "warm-season grasses" that are not really native. Seasonal use of livestock could simulate the effects of bison and elk.

Which uncommon native species most deserve propagation, and which aliens are most problematic? A regularly interacting network of plants-people could refine our existing lists and develop more detailed plans.

Species such as native cane and the imperiled clovers are still not being extensively promoted with cooperative work among interested people. We plants-people of the Central Bluegrass need to take a more active role in organizing such efforts and integrating them into general programs for protection of land and restoration of habitats.

Due to exceptional soil fertility, this region has become not only the Horse Capital of the World, it is also the Weed Capital of the Temperate World. Those of us who crawl through the bush-honeysuckle to kill it, who collect seed of rare natives, and who replant acres of restored habitat, should meet at least once a year to commiserate, share information and improve plans.

Maybe we can even celebrate some small successes or share dreams of Elkhorn and Eden.

Julian Campbell is a plant ecologist who has studied regional flora, vegetation and soils for 40 years and worked for 20 years at The Nature Conservancy. Read his website at www.bluegrasswoodland.com