Saving Kentucky: Kentucky Natural Lands Trust & The Pine Mountain Collective

We often talk about “saving the world” in a lofty, abstract sense, devoid of any tangible plan of action to actually deter the rapid path of ecological destruction that we’re on. The truth is that only about seven percent of Kentucky’s lands are publicly protected, which is lower than any other state that borders Kentucky. In the face of all of this, since 1995, Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT) has been raising awareness of Kentucky’s natural treasures as well as raising money to purchase and protect some of the most endangered and diverse ecosystems in the United States. As of 2018, KNLT has directly purchased 13,000 acres of land and helped financially leverage the purchase of more than 34,000 acres across the state.

Kentucky Natural Lands Trust started as a group of friends who were highly motivated to make a difference and succeeded in saving the largest tract of old-growth forest in the state, Blanton Forest. The state-wide non-profit land trust is working to protect, connect, and restore wildlands throughout Kentucky. It was formed in the mid-90s when Senior Ecologist at the Kentucky State Nature Preserve Commission, Marc Evans, teamed up with former Director of the Kentucky chapter of the Nature Conservancy, Hugh Archer, along with several others, in a communal effort to protect Blanton. The scope of their work quickly expanded from 2000 acres to working towards the preservation of the entire Pine Mountain corridor. Many of KNLT’s purchases have connected critical habitats essential for already marginalized wildlife and some of these lands have already been sold to become part of state-owned preserved Kentucky public lands.

Black-throated green warbler ~ photo by Dan Pancamo (Creative Commons)

“The way that we got here and started working on it [Pine Mountain] was Blanton Forest, this unique, iconic place that we protected back in the nineties, working with the State Nature Preserves Commission. Ultimately, the group realized that they knew, from the work that they had done there, that it was a really unique place and there was an opportunity to work more on the mountain.” – Greg Abernathy, Executive Director of KNLT

The main chunk of KNLT’s work is in the Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor, which is a 125 mile overthrust fault that starts at the Kentucky-Virginia border at Breaks Interstate Park, “The Grand Canyon of the East”, and extends all the way through Harlan County to Tennessee. It has only a few roads that cross it, a handful of river breaks, and is a major contiguous migratory corridor for wildlife. The geological history is such that it doesn’t have a lot of merchantable coal, so Pine Mountain’s vast number of rare and unique species haven’t been disturbed. Kentucky has 700 rare species and 1/10th of them are found on Pine Mountain. One is the endemic Icebox Cave Beetle, which only lives in  one cave in the Narrows Preserve and nowhere else on Earth.

High Rock, KNLT Artists’ Retreat ~ photo by Greg Abernathy, KNLT

In addition to Pine Mountain, KNLT also works in central Kentucky with Bernheim Forest on the Bernheim-Fort Knox Wildlands Corridor, a vital migratory habitat which ideally will include a protected one mile buffer zone around the Fort Knox army post, leveraged as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Army Compatible Use Buffer Program.

American black bear ~ photo by Marc Evans, KNLT

“When you think about the region that we’re working in in Eastern Kentucky, it’s a region that historically has been taken advantage of by outsiders, so there is a lot of cautious agreement to engage with you because, though we are offering fair market value for what the land will appraise for, at the end of the day, people are wondering if there is some value in this land that you know that they don’t know about. We’re buying and protecting some of the most biologically diverse land in the state for a very reasonable rate.” – Greg Abernathy

Land conservation work is definitely the long game. In 2017, KNLT closed a land deal for 2000 acres in Letcher and Harlan County that took 18 years to complete. These lands fill in the gaps between Kingdom Come State Park and the Hensley-Pine Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Once lands are acquired, KNLT has two stewardship staff members who focus on conservation stewardship objectives to protect their conservation investments, which include eradicating invasive species and preserving Kentucky’s natural heritage. This recently acquired land also ties into the multi-state Great Eastern Trail, which has been unfolding across the eastern U.S. for the last 15 years and covers 1600 miles from southern New York to Alabama.

KNLT pays their staff and funds acquisitions with a combination of private dollars and funds raised through foundations. KNLT is the first Kentucky partner to team up with the Forecastle Foundation, the non-profit wing of Louisville’s Forecastle Festival, and often partners with Louisville’s Snowy Owl Foundation to promote their conservation work and underwrite events.

KNLT’s new Executive Director, Greg Abernathy, is a graduate of the first class of the University of Kentucky’s Natural Resource Conservation major. Abernathy first heard about Blanton Forest off-season on a WYSO radio program in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Years later, Abernathy found out that the preservation of the forest was due to KNLT’s efforts. While working with Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development (MACED) in 2000, Abernathy started working with the KNLT staff on projects and, naturally, they joined forces. He joined KNLT as the fourth staff member about five years ago and they have since added two more employees.

“Through the artists, we hope we can spread that love of place, love of land, and it is really an extension of Wendell Berry’s love of place, and pride of place, and connection to place. We hope through the artists’ retreats that we can create that in the artists and, through their circles, ripple their exposure and understanding of it out to a larger population, to bring people more awareness of it. We’d love to bring you down to the mountain.” – Greg Abernathy

In 2008, KNLT hosted an event in Lexington called the Tsuga Art Show, which featured performances from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Chris Sullivan, and Warren Byrom, all to raise awareness of the invasive Hemlock Woody Adelgid insect. After the event, Abernathy spoke with University of Kentucky English professor, Erik Reece, who reminded him of the writers retreats that Kentuckians For The Commonwealth used to host in the mountains.

KNLT teamed up with Reece and Transylvania University art professor, Zoe Strecker, to organize a series of retreats for artists to come down to Pine Mountain Settlement School for the weekend and have an immersive experience with KNLT in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. 2017 was the third year that KNLT invited a group down and the more than 100 attendees have come to be known as The Pine Mountain Collective. This kinship of artists have already produced extensive work together including collective art shows in Lexington and Louisville and songs about the mountain, many of which have been written and recorded for an upcoming compilation being assembled by Louisville’s Daniel Martin Moore, featuring recordings from Wendell Berry, Warren Byrom, Joan Shelley, Jim James, and a slew of others.

KNLT Artists’ Retreat, Pine Mountain ~ photo by John Lackey

In addition to the retreats and acquisitions, KNLT partners with The Explore Kentucky Initiative to create community hikes around Kentucky’s wild spaces and also hosts Wildlands Social Club events that bounce between 21C Museum Hotels in Lexington and Louisville as well as West Sixth Brewing. The events highlight ten-minute talks about why wild places are important from an art, health, economy, and conservation science perspective. In the spring, 21C Cincinnati will be hosting a Wildlands Social Club event.  If you want to know more, you can visit their website at knlt.org.

Listen to Chuck Clenney’s interview with Greg Abernathy of KNLT.

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