The Natural Areas Branch staff protect and manage the diverse system of nature preserves and natural areas that are scattered across the Commonwealth from the wetlands of far western Kentucky to Pine Mountain on the state’s southeastern border. Program activities center around several key focus areas: natural community restoration and management; rare species protection and enhancement; research and education; and passive recreational use by the public. KNP's conservation initiatives incorporate aspects of each of these activities to further conservation across Kentucky, not just on its nature preserves and natural areas. Current focuses include the conservation of shortleaf pine-oak barrens of the Cumberland Plateau Region and conservation of the Green River watershed. Program staff contribute to other aspects of the agency's work by assisting in the preserve design and land acquisition processes, agency outreach efforts and the Registered Natural Areas Program. Staff members also provide rare species data to the Kentucky Natural Heritage Program Database.
The Natural Areas Branch was formally initiated in 1986 with the hiring of a stewardship coordinator, the commission’s first preserve management staff person. Prior to 1986, preserve management tasks were carried out by the agency's Natural Heritage Program biologists. Staff positions dedicated solely to preserve management needs have slowly grown since 1986. In 1996, two regional preserve managers were hired to assist with the growing preserve system and the responsibilities of protecting properties located across Kentucky. An additional regional manager was added in 1998. In 2018, the branch also began monitoring the Wild Rivers corridors and Heritage Lands and administering the Rare Plant Program. Together with stewardship assistants, the branch carries out all the functions necessary to maintain the state’s best remaining examples of our natural heritage.
Natural Community Restoration and Management
Once a unique natural area is protected as a state nature preserve, the nature preserve manager’s work begins. It is rare to secure a new nature preserve in pristine condition. It is the manager’s job to correct the human influences that have adversely affected a site. Invasive plants, fire suppression, and poor land-use practices are some of the issues that must be addressed when planning for site restoration.
Most natural areas have some level of invasive plant infestation. Next to habitat destruction, invasive plants are the greatest threat to natural communities. Invasive species displace native plants thereby altering the structure and composition of natural areas. This change can be so severe that many native plants and animals can no longer survive. Invasive plants on state nature preserves are controlled by the most effective means known for each species, often a combination of mechanical control (mowing and trimming) and the judicious use of herbicides. Visit our Fact Sheets page for information on identification and management of some of the most commonly observed invasive plants in Kentucky. For more information about invasive plants and to see what others are doing about this growing threat to our native biodiversity, visit the Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council Web site.
Fire suppression enables trees and shrubs to grow into the more open glade and barrens communities, shading out sun loving species. After careful planning, nature preserve staff use prescribed fire to set back the overtaking trees. Controlled fire also benefits many native fire-dependent species.
The restoration of natural communities can take years, and even decades, to achieve. Despite the difficult and sometimes tedious work, restoring natural areas is very rewarding. Preserving remnants of Kentucky’s original landscape and maintaining havens where our natural communities and native species can survive is a crucial part of having healthy ecosystems and preserving our rich natural heritage.
Fire Management on State Nature Preserves
Effective natural areas management requires use of a diverse array of techniques. One technique used since 1987 by the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves is prescribed fire. Prescribed fire helps to restore or improve the conditions of fire-dependent natural communities within selected state nature preserves. These natural communities often provide habitat for rare, threatened and endangered species.
One factor in the rarity of certain species is the history of fire suppression in the United States since European settlement. A number of rare plants require some sort of disturbance regime (e.g. fire, grazing, flooding) to ensure strong and healthy populations. The reintroduction of fire into a disturbance-dependent community can help control the spread of shade-casting woody plants and invasive exotic species that compete with native plants for sunlight and resources.
Each burn is conducted by trained personnel of the Natural Areas Branch according to a prescription developed by the preserve manager. The prescription states the ecological objectives for the burn.
Recent studies have shown that populations of insects dependent on remnant grassland habitat continue to occur in units burned multiple times. Research conducted at those sites suggests that the populations respond well to a prescribed fire regimen with three-year intervals between burns. Populations of Short’s goldenrod (Solidago shortii), a federally endangered plant, at Blue Licks State Park Nature Preserve have increased due to more sunlight and open space resulting from repeated burning. At Crooked Creek Barrens State Nature Preserve, numbers of the state endangered slender blazing star (Liatris cylindracea) have risen as well.
You can learn more about the use of prescribed fire in Kentucky by watching a video on the Kentucky Prescribed Fire Council's website and YouTube channel.
Rare Species Protection
KNP currently monitors 862 state and federal listed endangered, threatened and special concern plants, insects, mammals, fishes, mussels, snails, arachnids, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and natural communities. The State Nature Preserves, State Natural Areas, Wild Rivers Corridors, and Heritage Land Conservation Fund protect rare species and natural communities throughout the Commonwealth. KNP works with other organizations and private individuals to ensure the protection of additional populations of rare species and natural communities.
The leading reasons species become rare are habitat destruction and competition from the influx of exotic invasive species. Some rare species have an extremely limited distribution, and habitat loss within that range can lead to extinction. The state nature preserves are often one of the last safe havens for declining species. In Kentucky the globe bladderpod (Lesquerella globosa) survives only in the Kentucky and Licking River drainages within the Bluegrass region. Rockcress Hills State Nature Preserve (SNP) in Franklin County supports the only known population of Lesquerella globosa on public land.
The blackside dace (Chrosomus cumberlandensis) is a federally threatened fish that occurs in high-quality streams of the upper Cumberland River. The temperature and silt load of these streams are regulated by the distinct ecological community surrounding them, characterized by the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and great rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum). The dace tolerates only a narrow set of environmental parameters; logging and mining activities have compromised the quality of many streams in its range. This community is now being threatened by the hemlock wooly adelgid (Adelges tsugae), an insect introduced from Asia, which kills hemlock trees by feeding on sap drawn from the needles. Elsewhere in Appalachia this insect has caused mortality rates of over 90 percent of hemlock trees. At Bad Branch and Blanton Forest state nature preserves, continuing efforts to slow the spread of the adelgid are showing signs of success. To date, tens of thousands of hemlock trees of different size- and age-classes have been treated by soil injection of insecticide to protect the streams that support the dace. Treatment assistance has come from staff, volunteers, The Nature Conservancy and Kentucky Natural Lands Trust. Insecticide and some equipment have come through grants provided by the U.S. Forest Service, Toyota Motor Manufacturing and Bayer.
Terrapin Creek SNP in Graves County protects several species of fish found nowhere else in the state including a species of lamprey (fish) new to science that is related to the least brook lamprey (Lampetra aepyptera). This lamprey is found nowhere outside of Terrapin Creek and the unique spring runs located there. By protecting Terrapin Creek and the surrounding spring runs, the commission hopes to preserve this unique species.
Much of the agency's preserve management centers on enhancing known populations of rare species and restoring the natural communities that support them. Management efforts have brought some very rewarding success stories. The federally endangered Short’s goldenrod (Solidago shortii) protected at Blue Licks State Park Nature Preserve in Robertson County is one example. There has been a significant increase in flowering stems that resulted from the sunnier, more open conditions provided by the prescribed fires and cedar removal implemented at Blue Licks SPNP.
A colony of approximately 21,000 federally endangered Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis) winters at Bat Cave SNP at Carter Caves State Resort Park in Carter County. Specially designed gates erected at both entrances to the cave have been effective in preventing disturbance to the population during hibernation.
Research and Education
Kentucky’s state nature preserve system offers a wealth of opportunities for research and education. A comprehensive sampling of the state’s natural community types are represented and many contain the best remaining examples of a rare community or species known in the state. The preserves can be considered living museums, presenting a window to the landscapes of Kentucky’s past.
Research topics are as diverse as the preserves themselves and can include investigating specific questions that have arisen as preserve management issues, inventorying plants and animals, population studies, cave mapping, studying water quality and quantity or conducting forest health assessments. There are many benefits to conducting research on a state nature preserve. The dedication law that protects the preserves in perpetuity makes them more attractive to researchers seeking a stable site for long-term study. Funds to support research are available through the Sherri Evans Memorial Fund and the Heritage Land Conservation Fund board. Preserve management staff is available to provide some assistance with project logistics. Contact the nature preserves branch manager or the appropriate regional preserve manager for more information.
Educational opportunities are available on those preserves open to the general public. Teachers and professors are encouraged to take advantage of these “outdoor classrooms” for instructional use in any discipline. With a little imagination, subjects such as art, music, math and social studies as well as biology can be enhanced in a natural setting. While no curricula have been developed specifically for use at the majority of the preserves, the Kentucky Environmental Education Council and the Jefferson County Public School System have examples and sources of materials for use on-site.
The Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves maintains a system of nature preserves that showcase excellent examples of Kentucky's biodiversity. The primary function of a nature preserve is to protect rare biological resources and natural communities. For this reason, only passive recreational activities such as hiking, photography, bird watching and nature study are appropriate. Many preserves are open year-round from sunrise to sunset. Trails are open to foot traffic only, and visitors must stay on them at all times. In order to protect the natural and cultural resources occurring on state nature preserves, motorized vehicles, horseback riding, bike riding, artifact gathering, plant gathering, hunting, climbing, rappelling, camping, picnicking, building fires, audio equipment and pets are not permitted.
Each year, a series of guided hikes is led by commission employees. A list of state nature preserve hikes and events is available via our events calendar. Programming for children and adults is also offered by several partners.
While KNP is interested in conserving a wide variety of Kentucky's natural heritage, we are currently focusing on several species and ecological communities due to their unique characteristics and threats.
Conservation of Shortleaf Pine-Oak Barrens of the Cumberland Plateau Region
This rare community is typically found on broad, flat, or gently sloping sandstone ridges with well drained shallow soils throughout the plateau. The canopy is open to semi-open and encourages an understory dominated by grasses and mixed-forbs that offer habitat for a host of insects, birds, mammals, and rare plants. This is a fire-maintained community restricted to the Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky. Due to lack of fire, improper logging techniques, and recent pine beetle infestations, this community type has been greatly reduced and altered, with few high-quality examples remaining in Kentucky. The Office of Nature Preserves tracks or monitors twenty-one conservative or rare plant species that occur in this community type, and has made restoration of these communities a high priority for the next few years. Current efforts are focused on increasing prescribed fire within the plateau, cultivation of rare plants associated with these communities for reintroduction, and increasing public awareness.
Conservation of the Green River Watershed
The Green River is among the most significant of aquatic ecosystems in North America with a biodiversity ranking of B1 (i.e. the highest ranking given by NatureServe), and is home to twenty-nine fish and mussel species that are at-risk of extinction. A portion of the Green in the Mammoth Cave National Park area is also a legally designated Kentucky Wild River and conserved by the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves. Its unique landscape features, including a large region of karst topography, habitat diversity, and geographic location have combined to form one of North America’s centers for endemism and biodiversity. There have been over 125 species of fish and 70 species of mussels documented in the Green River. Threats from land use patterns in agriculture and altered hydrologic regime changes make conserving the great diversity of habitats, plants, animals, and water quality of the Green River a priority.