Nurture nature but demand dialogue on state conservation

Conservationist Julian Campbell helped replant this stand of native cane along Cane Run Creek in northern Fayette County.
Conservationist Julian Campbell helped replant this stand of native cane along Cane Run Creek in northern Fayette County. Herald-Leader file photo

In April, Kentuckians were urged to lobby for restoration of the Heritage Land Conservation Fund, which is supposed to receive proceeds from sales of nature license plates.

I complied but became determined to address the broader issue: Why does Kentucky not yet have sufficient consensus, mutual support and public education to maintain vigorous, transparent and appreciated programs for conservation?

After working here for 40 years on natural history and ecology, I have often seen discord thwart progress.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who founded the U.S. Forest Service and several national parks, said: “Conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve all others.”

Richard Nixon advanced a second great age of conservation through creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species Act and other institutional developments.

We now need a third age.

The proliferation of diverse agendas with associated professionals — academics, bureaucrats, consultants, engineers, lawyers, managers — discourages consensus-building across communities. Could presidential hopefuls Clinton, Johnson, Sanders, Stein or Trump lead this new effort?

Much obvious discord is among what I call “the three levels of conservation”— protection of landscapes or watersheds, restoration of degraded habitats and recovery of imperiled species. In Kentucky, legal protection of land has generally not been followed by adequate cooperative planning, staffing and funding for future restoration.

Moreover, there is insufficient connection between these lands and design of useful academic programs to improve technical understanding and popular appreciation.

We still lack agreed lists of appropriate native species for all of Kentucky’s varied habitats. There is little relevant educational material or regular involvement of schools with conservation, especially during the growing season.

Yet much local stewardship and horticultural support could be developed. With clearer goals, for example, students or homeowners could grow many rare wildflowers and grasses for use in restoration. One source of funding to start such programs is the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

What is the best scale for building consensus? Kentucky is too large and unwieldy for much work. It is most useful to focus on natural regions with five to 15 counties, such as the Jackson Purchase (and parts of adjacent states), central Green River watershed, central Bluegrass (with Palisades and South Fork of the Licking River) and upper Cumberland watershed (including adjacent Tennessee).

We desperately need to have regular meetings for each of these regions, inviting interested professional conservationists to give brief presentations; workshops would focus on collaborative projects and public education would flow.

Of course, larger regions (such as the Ohio River watershed) and smaller ones (such as individual counties) also deserve coordination, but intermediate scales offer the most enduring, practical centers of excellence.

Clear goals form the core of conservation. What landscapes or watersheds are the focus for each community? Which habitats are most degraded and how should restoration proceed? Which species need help, even in restored habitats, deserving propagation or other micromanagement? The Nature Conservancy started to develop such targets in the 1990s, but that effort became divorced from databases at the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.

Conservation, broadly defined, seeks to balance respect for nature with extraction of resources. A more recent division has developed between traditional preservationists, as at the nature preserves commission, trying to understand and restore past ecology, versus heralds of a human-dominated era, apparently at The Nature Conservancy, as climate change and invasive alien species wreck our chances of true restoration.

But extreme positions are often unreasonable; deeper understanding of the past should help with restoration or recovery, and public interests are served when cooperative consensus replaces dysfunctional discord. More regular field trips, workshops and meetings would help mend fences.

Potential hosts for such events should include state agencies, The Nature Conservancy and the insufficiently appreciated Kentucky Conservation Committee. There would be time for questions from the public, especially potential cooperators who walk and work on wilder lands.

Julian Campbell is a consultant in botany, ecology and conservation planning. His website is bluegrasswoodland.com. Email him at julian.campbell@twc.com.