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Preserving Nature’s Gems

Thank goodness they’re out there, quietly walking through the hills, hollows, and wetlands of Kentucky with trained eyes and dedication. They are the employees of a little-known state agency with a big mission.

The Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission inventories, monitors, and manages the rare and endangered plant and animal species of our biologically diverse state. When they find high-quality natural areas with rare plants or animals, they work to get them protected as state nature preserves. The commission is currently responsible for protecting 25,000 acres statewide.

A spectacular example of what this agency, with its limited funds, manages to accomplish is Metropolis Lake State Nature Preserve in McCracken County. This 123-acre preserve with a 50-acre natural lake, ringed with cypress and tupelo trees, is reminiscent of wetlands in Louisiana or Florida. You can even see tropical-looking birds flying overhead.

Because of Kentucky’s geographic location and nearly 400-mile span from east to west, its rich diversity is influenced by many other regions. For example, the southeastern U.S. is one of
the most diverse regions in the world for aquatic organisms, and Kentucky ranks in the top five states for the number of native fish, mussel, and crayfish species.

Joyce Bender, the commission’s branch manager for nature preserves and natural areas, says Kentucky is “one-stop shopping for any natural community you might be looking for,” including mountain habitats, floodplains and wetlands, cave systems, prairies, rich forests, and river systems.

A great example is the upper Green River in south-central Kentucky. The Green has been recognized as one of the most important rivers in North America because of its rare species, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. You’ll find the bottlebrush crayfish, which grows to 6 inches long in Kentucky and resembles a lobster.

Sadly, we are losing these habitats at an alarming rate. One reason for this: various kinds of development, from highways to houses. The other big threat is the influx of invasive species like kudzu, bush honeysuckle, and winter creeper. They simply overwhelm native species and wildlife habitats.

But the small staff of the Nature Preserves Commission keeps trudging ahead, fighting to save the last of our truly wild places. Fortunately for outdoor enthusiasts, most of the nature preserves are open to the public from sunrise to sunset.

Because of the agency’s top priority, the protection of species and natural communities, you can’t camp or build fires or even bring your dogs. But you can bring your camera and go home with some incredible pictures of these last remaining pristine areas.

The nature preserves are some of my favorite places to hike because—along with awe-inspiring scenery—I just might see something I won’t see anywhere else in the world.


• Go to for details, photos, and maps of the nature preserves.

• Tread lightly and stay on designated trails.

• Your dog has to stay home this time.

• Check out the new book Kentucky’s Natural Heritage, an Illustrated Guide to Biodiversity.

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