Terry Cook

In the 200 years since Daniel Boone’s first expedition to Kentucky significant changes to the lands and waters have occurred.  Kentucky’s population has grown to over 4 million people and by 2035 Kentucky’s population will likely exceed 5 million.The need for land, water, food, fiber, and energy will place greater and greater demands on the state’s natural resources and threaten our ability to sustain a quality of life that has characterized and shaped Kentucky’s unique identity.

From a conservation perspective, biologists and scientists often focus their efforts on protecting, conserving, and restoring biodiversity. Biodiversity is the variety of species, their genetic make-up, and the natural communities in which they occur. Kentucky, blessed with biodiversity, is home to over 20,000 different species of organisms, and of this total, over 100 are considered to be rare, threatened, or endangered. Relative to other states, Kentucky ranks 23rd in overall species diversity and 4th in the nation for its freshwater species diversity. Yet Kentucky also ranks 9th in the nation in the number of species extinctions. So, despite the diversity of our landscapes and richness of our streams and rivers, relative to other states Kentucky has a disproportionate number of species and natural communities that are at risk.

The list of potential threats to biodiversity and wildlife habitats is lengthy and includes such things as invasive exotic species, inappropriate and destructive land use practices, overexploitation, nonpoint source water pollution, aquatic habitat modifications such as dam construction and channelization of streams, and climate change.  Of these threats, habitat loss and fragmentation are often identified as primary culprits in the degradation of wildlife habitats and the subsequent loss and decline of species.

  • The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources estimated that Kentucky looses 47,000 acres of wildlife habitat per year.
  • Kentucky has lost approximately 81% of its original 1,566,000 forested wetland acreage found in the 1780’s, putting it in the top 10 states with most wetland acreage by percent lost.
  • 68 % of Kentucky’s river and streams are considered impaired as “primary contact recreation water” meaning people cannot swim in them without risk of adverse human health effects.

While habitat loss and fragmentation are drivers of species loss, they are also a concern because our landscapes and rivers and streams are sources of aesthetic beauty, recreation and inspiration. They provide valuable environmental benefits in helping to cleanse the air that we breathe and the water that we drink.

Our land and waters also contribute billions of dollars to the Kentucky economy in jobs, taxes, tourism and other revenue.  Outdoor recreation activities that rely on natural areas, such as hiking, biking, camping, boating, wildlife watching, equine activities, sport fishing and hunting are also significant generators of revenue and local economic activity. The lands and waters of Kentucky form the foundation for a strong a vibrant tourism industry in Kentucky. In 2010 Kentucky tourism generated over $11.3 billion in sales, $1.2 billion in state and local taxes and $2.5 billion in wages.

Our history and culture are inseparable from our mountains, forests, rivers and streams. Yet the population growth projected over the next several decades will likely result in accelerated rates of land conversion and water use as the demands for housing, food and energy increase. The impacts of land conversion and habitat loss are already evident in the decline of our forests, loss of native species, and the impairment of our freshwater ecosystems.

The Commonwealth faces a challenge it can no longer ignore. The landscapes of Daniel Boone have seen dramatic changes since he first climbed Pilot’s Knob and surveyed the natural wonders of Kentucky. Yet, between 1998-2008 we spent only $11 per capita on land conservation and conserved just over 52,000 acres.  During that same period Tennessee spent $20 per capita and conserved over 100,000 acres. Virginia spent $109 per capita and conserved over 550,000 acres.

If future generations are to enjoy and experience the natural places that enhance our lives, sustain our economy, and support Kentucky’s rich biodiversity, we must rethink this complex set of interdependencies and forge new solutions that are supported by environmental, recreation, and business interests. Conservation cannot be viewed as anti-people and development will always be in conflict if it does not sustain and conserve nature’s resources for future generations.