PADUCAH — Wildlife officials are proposing an expansion of Kentucky's only national wildlife refuge that would more than double its size, but the plan is drawing questions from neighboring communities.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a 15-year conservation plan this month for the Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Kentucky.
The plan proposed expanding the boundaries by 34,000 acres to improve habitat conservation and public access. The refuge lies along the East Fork of the Clarks River near Benton.
Refuge manager Michael Johnson told The Paducah Sun that people have misconstrued the service's intentions, and nearby residents feared that they would be forced to sell their property to allow for the expansion.
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"You don't promote interest for conservation by strong-arming or running over people. You lose the ultimate goal, which is to conserve this area and make it so that it's there for future generations," Johnson said.
Currently, the refuge occupies only 9,000 acres. Expanding to the west fork of the river floodplain into Marshall County would mean the refuge would be close to public roads, would allow wildlife unrestricted movement during the winter months and would create a contiguous area of bottomland hardwood forests.
"Kentucky has lost over 80 percent of forested wetlands in the last century, so when the refuge was created, that was recognized along the east fork, but there's a substantial amount on the west fork as well," Johnson said.
The wildlife service said the refuge is the seasonal home to more than 200 species of migratory birds.
"This area has been identified by many groups as one of the hot spots of wildlife in the entire state of Kentucky," said Tina Chouinard, natural resource planner for the federal wildlife service. "It's one of the last intact bottomland wildlife areas. Really, it has a lot of ecological importance, and the expansion would allow for that preservation."
The proposed expansion would extend the refuge's acquisition boundary to 53,874 acres, much of that falling across homes and farmland in McCracken, Marshall and Graves counties.
The wildlife service had several public forums to discuss the plan, and dozens of people questioned the land-acquisition process. Public comments will be collected through March 15.
Land might be marked as within the acquisition boundary, landowners can choose whether to sell the property to the wildlife service.
Nearly 100 landowners have sold land to the refuge since 1997.
"For some property owners, it might be to their advantage to sell, and to others it might not, but it's not a forced sale, and I have no problem with (the service) purchasing that land," Graves County Judge-Executive Tony Smith said.
The plans to expand might be on hold until it gets final approval and funding to acquire land.
There's nothing set in stone," Chouinard said. "We're really trying to have the forethought. We want to redraw this line not because we have the money right now, but in 20 years, when things really change, we want to have that ability."