By Katelynn Griffin / Staff Writer
Several agencies have partnered to purchase more than 1,800 acres of land in Whitley County in an effort to preserve local wildlife and plants.
The land is located along the Laurel Fork area and includes the Pine Mountain region and the watershed. The Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission partnered with the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service, the Kentucky Division of Forestry and the estate of William Dennis Benge of Fort Wright to secure the land.
Additional funding was provided by American Electric Power, a subsidiary of Kentucky Power, and a grant provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act.
“It was a very long and drawn out situation,” said Donald Dott, director of the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission. “It took at least three years to acquire the property, but it finally worked out and we’re very happy.”
Dott said one of the reasons it took years to complete the project was because funding was coming from multiple sources and some parties backed out of the project for fear that it would never be completed.
The commission purchased the land from the Kentucky Natural Land Trust (KNLT) for approximately $700,000, a significant discount to the appraised value of the land. The Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, which provided $300,000, acquires funds to purchase land by selling nature license plates. These plates are a part of the “Nature’s Finest” collection and often depict some type of Kentucky wildlife. Another $200,000 was donated to the commission by Benge.
“He was interested in preserving nature and wildlife. We’re very appreciative,” Dott said.
Several unique species of wildlife are protected with the land purchase, including the blackside dace and the Cumberland arrow darter, two federally threatened fish species. The Cumberland elktoe and the Cumberland papershell mussels have been located on the property, both of which are federally endangered species. In addition to the wildlife, several plant species are found in the area, such as the rock harlequin and the blue mountainmint.
Dott described the species as “fairly uncommon,” but more investigation is required.
“We had investigated the property prior and now that the land has been purchased, a complete inventory of the area will be conducted,” Dott said.
KNLT Executive Director Hugh Archer is familiar with another unique species in the area.
“There is a little beetle in one of the caves that is endemic to that cave,” Archer said. “It’s found nowhere else in the world.”
Archer said that there are potentially more endemic species waiting to be discovered and that some of the caves have never been disturbed by humans.
Archer said these same caves are home to the endangered Indiana bat and this land is important in protecting the bat's habitat.
The Pine Mountain corridor includes several protected land tracts to provide safe passage for numerous species throughout the state. This area consists of 120 miles from Virginia to Tennessee and is one reason for the resurgent black bear population in the state.
“This is the ninth state preserve area on Pine Mountain and is the southern most protected land area,” Dott said.
Archer said that 48 percent of Pine Mountain is currently protected due to the land purchases, but there is more work to be done.
“Our project isn’t just in Whitley County. We want to protect the entire stretch of Pine Mountain in all five Kentucky counties,” Archer said.
The project was finalized on Dec. 20 and in a couple of years there should be a visitors parking area and a trail system.
By Katelynn Griffin / Staff Writer
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