Kentucky Conservation Summary

A trip across Kentucky from east to west takes you from the panoramas of the eastern mountains to the swamps of the western lowlands.

Starting along the southeastern border with Virginia, the Cumberland Mountains are characterized by high elevations, sandstone cliffs and diverse, moist, hardwood forests with groves of hemlock. Moving west, thousands of miles of cliff lines, steep forested ridges, narrow ravines, rock shelters and natural sandstone arches extend along the Appalachian Plateaus. The vegetation here is lush in hemlock gorges where impenetrable thickets of rhododendron are common, and Appalachian acid seeps, rare wet areas found in the near the headwaters of streams, provide habitat for graceful yellow fringed orchids.

Dropping down from the steep hills, you enter a lower, rolling landscape, the well-known Bluegrass region of central Kentucky, best known as thoroughbred country. But the Bluegrass is also home to incomparable and hidden natural areas, like the Palisades, where over eons the Kentucky River down-cut a gorge with spectacular 200–300-foot limestone cliffs. In the Outer Bluegrass, you can find one of Kentucky’s rarest plants, the diminutive Kentucky Gladecress, found only in limestone glades. Turning sights south, we venture into a region of limestone sinkholes and caves best known for Mammoth Cave, the world’s longest cave system. Continuing west leads to scattered remnants of prairies and wetlands, rare survivors in the heavily farmed and surface-mined western portions of the state.

Our travels end finally in the bottomland hardwood forest wetlands along the Mississippi River, on the state’s western border. Here bald cypress/tupelo swamps, characteristic of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Plain, are near the northern edge of their range. One of these, Murphy’s Pond, is perhaps best known for its great concentration of venomous cottonmouth snakes. These swamps were once home to the ivory-billed woodpecker, but no more; yet they still provide high-quality habitat for millions of ducks, geese and other migratory birds traveling the Mississippi Flyway.

The state is so biologically rich that it ranks in the top five nationally for several groups of species, including freshwater fish and mussels. Salamanders and cave-adapted species attain some of their highest levels of diversity in Kentucky. Goldenrod, the state flower, is common and widespread, yet two of the 36 species of goldenrod that thrive in Kentucky—Short’s goldenrod and the endemic white-haired goldenrod—are exceptionally rare.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Pine Mountain is a conservation success continuing to unfold. This 120-mile-long mountain ridge, along the Kentucky-Virginia-Tennessee borders, is a natural migratory corridor that has recently provided a safe path for black bears to return to Kentucky, after many years of absence. In a similar manner, it will help species respond to global warming, providing a continuously forested north-south route, broken only by six two-lane roads – a rare occurrence in the region.

A diverse set of conservation partners have been working to protect this important landscape. Approximately a third of the mountain is under some form of protected status including national and state forests, state parks, wildlife management areas and private protected holdings of the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT), The Nature Conservancy and Pine Mountain Settlement School. The Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission owns seven separate preserves on Pine Mountain. KNLT is working to acquire additional lands to create a continuous protected ecological corridor.

Other major collaborative efforts to preserve and protect the state’s natural areas involve the contributions of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the Heritage Land Conservation Fund, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Western Kentucky University and a host of other government agencies and private organizations.


Perhaps the greatest threat to Kentucky’s biodiversity is the leading threat across the country: land conversion. It is estimated that we lose 130 acres per day of forests, natural habitats and agricultural lands to a developed use. With one of the least amounts of protected state lands in its region, increasing the scale of conservation in Kentucky is one of the state’s biggest challenges. Improving water quality is also a major challenge as Kentucky is critically important for numerous aquatic species.

Kentucky’s Future

It will take continued commitment to cooperative partnerships to protect the state’s significant rare habitats. But signs are hopeful. Kentucky has a strong foundation with its land-acquisition program known as the Heritage Land Conservation Fund. The state’s legislative leaders have authorized a task force to forge a plan to “crank up” this conservation engine with more resources in order to enable us to pull ahead in the race to conserve Kentucky’s best natural lands and our unique biological treasures.

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