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Dragonflies dart past the cattails and buzz across Island Pond. A bullfrog leaps into the calm water, leaving spreading rings. A startled deer flees deeper into the woods. A tributary of Carpenter Creek trickles over a limestone ledge—a waterfall during rainier seasons.

This natural beauty is part of the privately owned, 500-acre Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge, located about 13 miles from Danville.

Formed in 1965 by preservation-minded residents of Boyle County, the Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge is one of the growing number of Kentucky private nature preserves.

Private preserves have existed in Kentucky for at least 75 years. One of the first to be created was Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Bullitt County. In 1929, Isaac W. Bernheim donated about 14,000 acres he had purchased. The park opened to the public in 1950.

Many private preserves are gifts of individuals. Virginia Creasey Mahan and her husband Howard, both farmers, formed Oldham County’s Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve in 1975 to protect their beloved acres from development.

Today, the 160-acre refuge forms an oasis in the middle of Goshen’s subdivisions. Two miles of easy trails meander among wildflower meadows and new forest emerging from the old fields. At the nature center you can attend a lecture, study the dioramas and the display of local wood types, and make your own wild animal tracks.

The growth in private preserves has most recently been fertilized by land trusts such as the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust and The Nature Conservancy. Land trusts help identify desirable land and assist conservation-minded landowners with the legal details and management.

Thanks to these not-for-profit organizations and to willing landowners, thousands of acres have been protected in the state—millions around the world—supplementing the natural areas managed by budget-strapped state and local governments.

Private preserves are often inspired by rare species or unique land features. A “lost river” runs underground through caves below Bowling Green, but surfaces at a large cavern you can visit at Lost River Cave. Floracliff, in Fayette County south of Lexington, boasts a 61-foot cone of rock known as a “tufa” formation, created by a waterfall running over Elk Lick Creek’s limestone bed.

Many owners dedicate their land as a State Nature Preserve, a special status made possible by the 1976 Kentucky Nature Preserves Act. While remaining private, dedicated land holds the highest legal protection possible in the state.

“It can’t be condemned for a road or a power line or a pipeline,” says Joyce Bender, branch manager for Nature Preserves and Natural Areas of the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.

Dedicated preserves can only be used for nature conservation. That means condos will never sprout from the fields where the rare running buffalo clover still thrives in Boone County’s Dinsmore Woods State Nature Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy (don’t be fooled by the “State” in its name; it only means Dinsmore has been dedicated as a State Nature Preserve.)

The Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission is picky about what land it allows to be deeded this way.

“Not every piece of property out there is something we want to make a nature preserve,” says Bender. “They have to be very high quality examples of ecosystems that are disappearing from the landscape.”

Once the land is safe from developers, there are still more invaders to fight off—ATVs that tear up the hillsides, and gravel companies that dig up streambeds. But the most insidious invaders aren’t human or machine, they’re the so-called exotic species. Once they become rooted, they strangle the native plants.

Carey Ruff, Floracliff’s manager, says, “One of my main jobs is removal of invasive, exotic species—or attempted removal.”

Battling these leafy intruders, with deceptively attractive names like garlic mustard, winter creeper, and honeysuckle, is a full-time job that requires diverse tactics—pulling them by hand, spraying chemicals, and even hacking up the honeysuckle with a chainsaw.

Nevertheless, Ruff digs in, as do other caretakers, such as Creasey Mahan’s director Glenn Yost, who this fall will tackle his own invaders: autumn olives and multiflora rose. He’ll also continue clearing 12 acres of briars and brush to create a habitat for wild turkeys and other birds.

It’s not easy reclaiming Kentucky’s disappearing habitats. The state does its part, with a budget smaller than its managers would like. For their part, privately owned and managed preserves add their own vision to Kentucky’s panorama.

Here’s a sampling of private natural areas you can visit.

Boone County Cliffs
Owner: The Nature Conservancy
Features: Two miles of moderate to strenuous trails wind among 72 acres of tranquil forest and cliffs. Created by glaciers, the cliffs contain rocks not native to Kentucky. Also known for spring wildflowers and spectacular fall foliage.
Hours: Dawn to dusk, 7 days a week.
Cost: Free
To get there: Take Interstate 75 to exit 181. Go five miles west to Burlington. Continue on KY 18 for six miles. Where Middle Creek Road intersects, turn left and go 1.9 miles to the parking lot/trailhead (maps and brochures available).
For more information: states/kentucky/preserves/art10859.html

Dinsmore Woods
Owner:The Nature Conservancy
Features: 107 acres of rare mature forest of sugar maple, white ash, and several varieties of oak. The Dinsmore Foundation maintains a 30-acre, early 19th-century homestead nearby.
Hours: Dawn to dusk, 7 days a week. (Homestead open April 1 to mid-December).
Cost: Free
To get there: Take Interstate 75 to exit 181. Go west five miles to Burlington. Continue on KY 18 six miles. The preserve is on the right, just past the intersection of Middle Creek Road and KY 18. Parking on left.
For more information: states/kentucky/preserves/art10905.html

Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest
Owner: I.W. Bernheim Foundation
Features: 14,000 acres with 35 miles of wooded trails, most short and easy to moderately difficult. More serious hikers can try the 13.5-mile Millennium Trail. Also enjoy picnic areas, visitor center with art exhibits and gift shop, plant and tree collections.
Hours: Open daily, except Christmas and New Year’s, 7 a.m. until sunset. Visitor center open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays during the summer).
Cost: Free on weekdays, $5 per vehicle weekends and holidays.
To get there: Take Interstate 65 to exit 112. Go east about one mile on KY 245 to the entrance.
For more information:
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest
State Highway 245
P.O. Box 130 • Clermont, KY 40110
(502) 955-8512

Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve
Owner: Virginia Creasey Mahan Foundation
Features: 160 acres of park-like woodland and meadows. Two miles of easy trails, nature center.
Hours: Dawn to dusk, 7 days a week.
Cost: Free
To get there: Take Interstate 71 to exit 9B (Gene Snyder Freeway, I-265). Take the freeway two miles west to U.S. 42 (Prospect). Continue north on U.S. 42 to State Road 1793. Turn left. At Harmony Landing Road make a right. The entrance is a short distance down the road by the Oldham County Public Library.
For more information:
(502) 228-4362
12501 Harmony Landing Rd.
Goshen, KY 40026

Owner: The Floracliff Board of Directors
Features: Beautiful 287-acre forested area surrounding a small gorge cut by Elk Lick Creek. Numerous seasonal wildflowers and tree species.
Hours: Open to the public only for guided walks. Contact the preserve or visit the Web site for a schedule.
Cost: Usually free. Some events may have a small fee.
To get there: Take Interstate 75 to exit 99 (Clays Ferry exit). Meeting place depends upon the event location.
For more information:
Floracliff State Nature Preserve
P.O. Box 4006
Lexington, KY 40544
(859) 351-7770

Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge
Owner: Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge
Features: 530-acre woods located 13 miles from Danville. Scenic knobs region with 12 miles of easy to difficult trails, streams, and a waterfall. New nature center (contact caretakers to visit the center). Maps at trailhead parking lot.
Hours: Dawn to dusk, 7 days a week.
Cost: Free
To get there: Take Interstate 64 to Graefenburg (exit 48). Continue south on KY 151 to KY 127. Take KY 127 past Danville to Junction City. Turn right onto KY 300. Turn left on KY 37. Go four miles and turn left onto Carpenter Creek Road. The refuge is about one mile down the road.
For more information:
Robert and Susan Anderson, caretakers, (859) 332-8672
Danville-Boyle Convention and Visitors Bureau, (859) 236-7794 or 1-800-755-0076

Mantle Rock
Owner: The Nature Conservancy
Features: 367 acres commemorating an 1838-39 stop on the Cherokee Trail of Tears where many died during a harsh winter. The site protects a diverse topography—exposed bedrock and forest glades (Note: rocky areas can be hot in mid-summer). Mantle Rock itself is a large sandstone natural bridge. Easy trail (one mile).

The Mantle Rock Native Education and Cultural Center (, located 20 miles away in downtown Marion (110 S. Main Street), holds native crafts classes and takes tours into Mantle Rock. Contact the center for a schedule, (270) 965-5883.
Cost: Free
Hours: Dawn to dusk, 7 days a week.
To get there: Take the Western Kentucky Parkway to exit 4. Go north on U.S. 641 to Marion. Continue southwest on U.S. 60 to Salem. From Salem, take KY 133 north two miles past Joy. The entrance is on the south side of KY 133.

Lost River Cave and Valley
Owner: Western Kentucky University. Leased and managed by The Friends of Lost River Inc.
Features: 25-acre valley bordered by lime-stone bluffs—an “urban forest” within the city of Bowling Green. Easy trails (1-1/2 miles) pass three sinkholes, or “windows,” where the Lost River surfaces (it runs for three miles under Bowling Green). Chief attractions are the boat tours in aluminum pontoon skiffs, including an evening “lantern tour,” that explore the cavern.
Hours: Open year-round, 7 days a week. Boat tours operate hourly 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., weather and water level permitting.
Cost: Adults: $11.50, children 6-12: $6.50, children 5 & under: $1.50, seniors: $10.50 (65 and over); AAA and other discounts available.
To get there: Take Interstate 65 to exit 20 (William H. Natcher Parkway). Continue on Natcher to the first exit (exit 4). Turn right on Nashville Road (U.S. 31W), and go 1.2 miles to the entrance.
For more information:
Friends of Lost River Inc.
2818 Nashville Rd.
Bowling Green, KY 42101

More nature preserves
In addition to private preserves, the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission owns or manages 45 nature preserves. Currently, 22 of those are open to the public throughout the year from sunrise to sunset. The other 23 can be visited through tours that are scheduled periodically. You can phone (502) 573-2886 for more information, or visit the Web site for background on the program and maps, and lists of all 45 state preserves.

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