From the Director
A Year of Hope
Life started to return to normal in 2022. That return has not been linear and certainly not complete, but looking back on this year, the pandemic played a far smaller role than it had in the two previous. So as I look toward the holidays and the conclusion of 2022, I am thinking a lot about hope.
In 2020 and 2021, my bywords were gratitude, resilience and love—reminders of all we have to be thankful for and all we can lean on to make it through darker and less certain times. Hope is different in that it is inherently about looking forward and believing things will be better. And I believe it is essential.
I thought about hope when staff and trustees from The Nature Conservancy visited a former mine site on the Cumberland Forest property in Bell County. Viewed from above, the site was ugly, a big gray and barren field, a scar all too common in our eastern Kentucky mountains. But when we descended down from the ridge and walked across that scar, I saw hope everywhere I looked. Little green leaves poked out among the rocks—thousands of tiny oak, shortleaf pine, hickory, redbud, sassafras and persimmon saplings planted across the entire field. And seeing one tree seemed to train your eyes to spot another. What was just minutes before a lifeless expanse of soil and rock was now a future forest and future home for bats, warblers, owls, salamanders, snakes, deer, bobcat, bear and elk.
Clearly a lot of planning, work, time and money went into this 140-acre reforestation project. Hope alone is not sufficient. But without hope—without that belief that old mine lands can once again be part of a diverse and healthy Appalachian forest—this sort of reinvestment in long-ignored and degraded landscapes does not happen. Hope is an essential component of any successful conservation project, strategy or program.
While perhaps not as overtly as in this essay, you’ll see hope in virtually all the updates and stories in this 2022 Impact Report. Amid a seemingly constant chorus of negative environmental news, The Nature Conservancy relentlessly but thoughtfully combines hope with smart strategies, hard work, honest dialogue and true collaboration to advance our mission and make Kentucky and the world a greener, healthier and more vibrant place.
Hope has been a constant in our now seven-plus-year effort to remove defunct and failing locks and dams on the Green and Barren rivers. 2022 rewarded hope and hard work with the removal of Barren River Lock and Dam #1.
Hope was our companion in Frankfort when we took a good idea, a compelling story and an ambitious ask to the Kentucky General Assembly. 2022 rewarded hope and hard work with nearly $4 million for a permanent conservation easement on Cumberland Forest (the actual easement is a work in progress, so keep hope alive!). I hope these stories inspire you. I also hope that you know how much I appreciate your consistent and generous support. It makes all the difference, and I am grateful.
Kentucky State Director
From the Board Chair
David’s essay centered on hope, and it is a theme I’ll continue in my message. We spent the first six months of 2022 drafting, debating, refining and ultimately completing a new five-year strategic plan for The Nature Conservancy in Kentucky. I am proud of what we produced, inspired by our ambitions, and am excited to get to work. But perhaps most of all, I am hopeful.
To paraphrase the concluding paragraph in our plan, our strategic plan is fundamentally about hope. Hope that through focus, hard work, authentic communications and true relationships with key partners and decision makers, we can and will make a real difference in the world we call home. We can make a difference in the Appalachian Mountains by protecting a connected and resilient corridor from northern Alabama to Canada—a migratory path for wildlife and a stronghold for clean air and water for millions. We can make a difference along the Mississippi River by restoring frequently flooded farmland back to bottomland hardwood forests, improving habitat, enhancing water quality and reducing downstream flooding risk. We can make a difference in Frankfort and Washington, D.C. by advocating for policies and investments in land, water and climate. All of this work is at the heart of our strategic plan, and all of it gives me hope for the future. While the document in front of you is a review of 2022, we are already looking forward to what’s next.
I have been Board Chair for The Nature Conservancy for nearly two years, and in 2023 I will pass the reins to my friend and fellow trustee, Molly Yandell. I am not stepping down from the Board—I am way too invested in this organization for that—but this pending change in my formal role does provide opportunity for reflection. I have learned a tremendous amount since joining the Board in 2019. I’ve learned that The Nature Conservancy does bigger and more sophisticated work than I ever imagined. I’ve learned that Kentucky is not only beautiful but also home to globally significant natural systems and that our Kentucky Chapter regularly works with colleagues across state boundaries to protect nature at scale. I’ve learned that places matter, but policy is another key path to scaling our work, and we are growing our work in this space. I’ve learned The Nature Conservancy cares not only for what it accomplishes, but also for how it does the work. This is an organization with deep values, and I see them on display whenever I see us at work.
Examples of these lessons are woven throughout this impact report and our new strategic plan. I hope you’ll enjoy this look at our recent successes and the opportunities we’ll work to seize in the coming year. I am all in on this work and The Nature Conservancy, and I hope you are, too. Thanks, as always, for your support. Hope these last weeks of 2022 find you happy, healthy and hopeful.
Conserving a Resilient and Connected Corridor in the Appalachian Mountains
- Secured a $3.875 million state appropriation from the Kentucky General Assembly for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ acquisition of a nearly 55,000-acre easement on the Cumberland Forest Ataya property. While more work remains before we can close on this historic easement, this funding is essential and provides the required state match for millions in federal funding. Once complete, this conservation easement would be the largest state-owned easement in Kentucky and would ensure protection and permanent access to a huge swath of forest and a critical connection in the larger Appalachian Mountains.
- Started active negotiations on several thousand-acre or more priority land-acquisition projects in the Central Appalachians, both inside and outside Kentucky, as we ramp up cross-boundary collaboration to advance critical protection efforts in the identified resilient and connected corridor throughout the entire Appalachians.
- Completed reforestation plantings on 140 acres of former mine lands on the Ataya property in Bell County alongside our partner, Green Forests Work. Planted more than 120,000 trees with a mix of primarily white oak and short-leaf pine plus native warm-season grasses and forbs. These plantings will provide excellent wildlife habitat, link existing forested areas and provide increased natural carbon storage.
- Utilized advanced scientific mapping tools to prioritize reforestation potential on sites offering the most connectivity and resiliency in the Central Appalachians.
- Led multi-agency prescribed fire work on 15,575 acres in the Central Appalachians of Kentucky and Tennessee to improve forest health and reduce fuels to decrease the risk of uncontrolled and destructive wildfire.
- Expanded capacity for prescribed fire with seasonal employees and by training two Tennessee staff members for this work. Also coordinated with parties and contracted with the Kentucky Division of Forestry to host a fire team to assist with burns on the Daniel Boone National Forest.
- Restored important prairie and barrens grassland communities on TNC preserves and other private lands, completing a five-year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife grant.
- Launched an ecozone mapping project that uses aerial imagery and digital elevation models to identify the most critical lands in need of prescribed fire restoration.
- Donated three land tracts to our partners at the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves. Adjacent to their current holdings, this consolidated ownership with optimized management of rare plant species.
Close on several active land protection projects and advance our goal of protecting 92,000 acres in the prioritized corridors within the Central Appalachians.
Partner with Green Forests Work to restore 100 additional acres of former mine lands on the Ataya property in Leslie County, with tree plantings slated for spring 2023.
Lead partners in the 2023 spring burn season, building capacity to increase fire management in the Central Appalachians and reach a goal of 20,000 acres in Kentucky.
Begin advocacy for new state conservation funding of at least $5 million per year.
Building Success at the Kentucky General Assembly
During the 2022 General Assembly legislative session, legislators appropriated $3.875 million to a 55,000-acre conservation easement on the Ataya property in eastern Kentucky, part of the Cumberland Forest Project. The Nature Conservancy got a late start on our legislative effort, but a near-constant presence in Frankfort during the session ended with a resounding success.
“We talked about the easement as a once-in-a-generation opportunity in southeastern Kentucky,” says Heather Majors, external affairs director for the Kentucky program. “Conservation, recreation, public access and tourism were all part of our message, and it resonated with members of the General Assembly.”
Legislators, especially those from eastern Kentucky, understand the beauty of that part of the state, and TNC’s message of the importance of public access and outdoor recreation framed much of the discussion in economic terms. There is still much work to do before the conservation easement is complete, but this investment in public lands will bring much-needed economic activity to the region.
“Outdoor recreation and nature-based tourism are not a panacea for addressing the challenges in eastern Kentucky, but they can be important components of that solution,” says Majors. “They need to be part of the region’s plan moving forward.”
The General Assembly’s investment enabled TNC and its partner, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, to leverage millions in federal funding that required a 25% match. Majors says this opens the door to talking about using state funding to secure even bigger federal investments with legislation such as the Great American Outdoors Act and the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“Positioning Kentucky to be able to take advantage of federal funding is important,” Majors says. “We are absolutely hoping for more opportunities to get funding like this in the future.”
Majors says legislators on both sides of the aisle received TNC and its conservation message positively during the session.
“Our nonpartisan and solution-oriented approach allowed us to be taken seriously,” she says. “The importance of having solid partnerships also helped tremendously. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped open doors for us, and we are grateful for their assistance.”
Reimagining Conservation in the Cumberland Forest
“The [Cumberland Forest] property is a complex set of discontinuous parcels punctured by inholdings, an Appalachian lace. But it contains a variety of latitudes, altitudes and microclimates that offer options for the future—and enough continuity that animals can range freely. Among those animals is one long missing from these woods: elk.”
— Excerpt from National Geographic cover story, September 2022
National Geographic magazine’s September 2022 cover story profiled four sites across the United States representing the leading edge of conservation in the 21st century.
“To safeguard all our species, all our ecosystems—and to make sure that they have the resources and space to adapt as the climate continues to warm—we need to do conservation everywhere,” the article states.
In addition to traditional preserves and public lands, “everywhere” includes Appalachian communities and the working lands of TNC’s Cumberland Forest. Continued on-the-ground progress here depends on buy-in from outside impact investors and local communities alike.
Learn More: Explore the Cumberland Forest
Restoring the Mississippi River, Tributaries and Floodplains
- Passed the 19,000-acres mark for protected and restored wetlands in western Kentucky, continuing our decade-long conservation partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
- Partnered with Square O Consulting to undertake a “Historically Underserved Producers” project, with the ultimate goal of ensuring these farmers have equitable opportunities to participate fully in conservation programs that benefit their operations and floodplain conservation in western Kentucky and Tennessee.
- Gathered additional data and identified important trends through an ongoing five-year wetland monitoring project. Results of the project—due in roughly a year—will help guide more effective and efficient wetland restoration efforts.
- Engaged with a Tennessee community task force to address the impacts of devastating flooding in 2021, learning valuable lessons that can be applied to helping eastern Kentucky communities rebuild and become more resilient following historic 2022 floods.
- Provided key assistance at Illinois’ Dogtooth Bend, a critical floodplain conservation project, helping advance wetland restoration on 5,000 acres, with 4,000 additional acres awaiting funding.
- Finalized development of the Kentucky Floodplain Explorer Tool, a decision support tool developed by TNC with input from a variety of partners. The tool will help prioritize location and type of floodplain conservation efforts.
- Partnered with the Kentucky Farm Bureau, the University of Kentucky and Purdue University on a landowner survey in the lower Green River watershed to help identify barriers to on-farm conservation practices.
- Completed an 8-acre stream restoration project on 1,619 feet of Long Branch, a tributary of Buck Creek in eastern Kentucky, and began a 5-year monitoring period.
- Worked with partners to complete removal of Barren River Lock and Dam #1, opening up 30 miles of free-flowing river conditions for the first time in nearly a century.
- Continued demolition, working with these same partners, on the largest dam removal in Kentucky’s history, a $4.6 million project to remove Green River Lock and Dam #5. The project is paused due to unexpectedly low water levels, and the partnership is working together on a water supply solution for Edmonson County.
- Partnered with Beam Suntory on their sustainable sourcing initiative to help identify ways to define sustainability for Kentucky bourbon, to identify barriers to local on-farm conservation practices and develop strategies to address these barriers.
- Utilized an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant to demonstrate the effectiveness of a new technique involving combine-mounted interseeders as a new tool to address cost and capacity barriers to planting cover crops.
Restoring a River
A quiet stretch of the Barren River now flows freely for the first time in nearly a century. The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other partners removed Lock and Dam #1 in the fall of 2022, restoring 30 miles of the river to natural free-flowing conditions and eliminating a safety hazard for people using the river for recreation.
“This dam needed to come out for three primary reasons. Public safety was number one,” says Lee Andrews, Kentucky Field Office supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Secondly, this was an obsolete federal facility. It hadn’t been used for its intended purpose since 1965. Finally, its removal is a huge win for the river and its aquatic habitats.”
Dams obstruct the movement of fish and mussels, particularly rare and endangered species that need a free-flowing river to survive. Canoe and kayak routes are cut off by dams, diminishing tourism opportunities for small river communities. Additionally, low-head dams such as this one are difficult for paddlers to see, presenting a safety hazard. This dam removal was a win for people and nature.
“Getting an actively failing dam out of the river quickly and safely and opening up new stretches of the river for tourism and paddlers is a big victory,” says Heather Majors, director of external affairs for TNC’s Kentucky program. “There are all of these added benefits for fish and mussels, and we expect to see economic benefits as more people explore the Barren River.”
The Nature Conservancy played a critical role in securing federal legislation calling for the removal of several dams on the Green River and its tributaries, including Barren River Lock and Dam #1. For the last five years, we have convened and helped mobilize the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Kentucky Waterways Alliance and Mammoth Cave National Park to secure the funding, permits and operational efforts required to advance actual dam removal.
- Seek additional funding for wetland restoration and floodplain conservation in western Kentucky and Tennessee via a proposal to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. This funding would support stream channel restoration, reversing the effects of a decades-long trend of straightening streams and damaging their hydrology.
- Partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to inform restoration approaches at Dogtooth Bend and other priority sites.
- Strengthen our flood risk reduction and resiliency work through building closer partnerships with key stakeholders in Kentucky.
- Complete our five-year wetland monitoring project and utilize the results to inform better restoration techniques and practices and secure additional investments in wetland restoration.
- Resolve the water supply challenge and complete the removal of Green River Lock and Dam #5, restoring 73 miles of free-flowing conditions and making the river healthier, safer and more accessible.
- Promote conservation agriculture practices, using the Purdue University survey results to convene partners and formulate an action plan.
- Convene partners around a “think different” initiative to develop new incentives and innovative funding sources to significantly increase adoption of cropland grass buffers and other high-impact field edge agricultural practices.
Addressing the Climate Crisis in Ways that Matter to Kentucky
- Partnered with the Mountain Association and began installation of a rooftop solar project on the Middlesboro Community Center, utilizing Cumberland Forest Community Fund dollars. The project will lower community energy costs and decrease carbon emissions.
- Selected two additional community solar projects with the Mountain Association and began planning for installation in 2023.
- Produced two successful climate videos featuring trusted Kentucky voices: “Farmers in a Changing Climate” and “Doing Business in a Changing Climate.” These videos were viewed thousands of times and featured on the larger organization’s website homepage and flagship social media channels.
- Began piloting the Family Forest Carbon Program with three eastern Kentucky landowners to bring smaller forest owners into carbon markets and promote better forest management and healthier forests in the Central Appalachians.
Bringing Family Forests into Carbon Markets
In the world of voluntary carbon credit programs, small landowners are usually left out. Two thousand-acre minimums are the norm for forestland to be eligible for these programs. The Nature Conservancy and the American Forest Foundation are changing that with a new initiative called the Family Forest Carbon Program. Small family-owned forests like those found all over eastern Kentucky will now have the opportunity to benefit financially by improving the long-term management of their forestland.
TNC and the American Forest Foundation are currently piloting the program and intend to roll it out more widely in 2023. The Kentucky team is hiring a new Central Appalachians forester to connect families in eastern Kentucky to the program, which develops a forest management plan and provides payments over the life of the contract period (usually 20 years) based on adherence to that plan and an associated forestry agreement.
“This program is innovative because it’s the first real opportunity the average landowner has to participate in carbon programs and to financially benefit from good forestry practices,” says Chris Garland, director of Kentucky’s Central Appalachians project. “Long-term, this program will leave them with a healthier, more valuable forest that captures and stores more carbon.”
TNC’s new forester will work with eastern Kentucky landowners to perform a preliminary inventory of their properties. The key assessment is how much improved management can increase carbon capture from the atmosphere. Based on that assessment, the program can make landowners an offer and finalize the agreement. As trees grow larger in eastern Kentucky, this natural climate solution yields conservation and financial benefits.
“Income to eastern Kentucky families is a big benefit,” Garland says. “Down the road, we hope to see improved overall forest quality and some sustainable timber harvest, which could provide jobs. And you never know—hopefully this will instill a conservation ethic that builds into permanent land protection. It’s a win-win for nature and communities.”
- Hire a conservation forester to develop and deliver the Family Forest Carbon Program in Kentucky as well as work with Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee to advance forest conservation and management strategies across the Appalachian Mountains in all three states.
- Roll out the Family Forest Carbon Program more widely in eastern Kentucky to bring family forests into carbon markets and make improved forest management financially beneficial to eastern Kentucky families.
- Complete two additional community solar projects in eastern Kentucky in coordination with the Mountain Association.
- Work with the University of Tennessee and other partners on the implementation of a Climate Smart Commodities proposal, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, by establishing on-farm pilots to quantify increased carbon sequestration related to native grass re-establishment in both a pasture and cropland border setting.
Kentucky Farmers and Business Owners
Nature Works for Kentucky Communities
- Led a volunteer event with Green Forests Work and Beam Suntory to reforest 10 acres of a 140-acre reforestation project on the Cumberland Forest Ataya property. More than 30 volunteers planted nearly 7,000 trees in two days.
- Enhanced the visitor experience at Dupree Nature Preserve with a new one-mile hiking trail. The new trail highlights the western portion of the preserve and runs parallel to the Kentucky River. The trail is an easy hike that features several geological features and a mix of forestland.
- Completed tree plantings for the Green Heart Louisville project, a critical milestone in this first-of-its-kind scientific study of the human health benefits of urban greening.
- Construct a new accessible trail at Dupree Nature Preserve. Although this preserve does not provide an opportunity for a certified ADA accessible trail, much of that criteria can be met, and the trail will provide enhanced accessibility to visitors.
- Maintain health of the tree plantings for the Green Heart Louisville project to ensure successful completion of the project’s greening intervention.
- Work with coalition partners to build support among state legislators for increasing investment in conservation, leading to healthier and more vibrant local communities across the commonwealth.
- Provide permanent public access on the Ataya property, part of the larger Cumberland Forest Project.
- Construct a new half-mile hiking trail on the Crutcher Nature Preserve. The trail will provide an excellent view of an ephemeral waterfall that hosts a magnificent spring wildflower display.
Featured Community Members
Farmer, Henderson, Kentucky
For Robbie Williams, farming is conservation. He installed solar panels and geothermal energy on his western Kentucky farm and inspired dozens of friends and neighbors to go solar. He says we must all be part of the solution to climate change.
Wildlife Biologist, Louisville, Kentucky
An internship with The Nature Conservancy helped Derrick Mason discover what he wanted to do professionally. Now a wildlife biologist, he looks back at his time with TNC as the beginning of his career in conservation.
Reforesting a Mountain
A hard wind blows across a treeless landscape as volunteers walk through ankle-deep mud. Soon, a cold April rain comes down hard as the volunteers pull on ponchos and retrieve buckets full of saplings. They carry tree planting shovels and fan out in pairs across a 10-acre field on an eastern Kentucky mountain. White oak and shortleaf pine dominate the mix of trees, but these hardy volunteers will plant hickories, redbuds, persimmons and a host of other native trees as well.
In this landscape long used for extraction of natural resources, a renewal has begun. The Nature Conservancy and its partner Green Forests Work are reforesting former mine lands on the Cumberland Forest Project, planting trees, grasses and wildflowers that will restore the land’s ability to store carbon and support diverse wildlife.
“This was all forested habitat before mining,” says Chris Garland, Central Appalachians project director for TNC’s Kentucky program. “It is important to re-establish that forest habitat and connectivity.”
The Appalachians are a continentally important migratory pathway for wildlife, especially as the planet warms. Mammals, amphibians and birds will make their way through these forests, and the more connected the habitat is, the better chance they will have for successful migration.
“It’s great work, and it’s much needed,” says Michael French, director of operations for Green Forests Work. “If we leave the mine lands alone and don’t do anything, they just don’t provide the same ecosystem services to wildlife and to climate change mitigation. We really need to do this work to get this land back on track.”
TNC and Green Forests Work have planted more than 100,000 trees on this site so far, working with professional equipment operators and tree planters. But the partners set aside a section of land for these volunteers from Beam Suntory. During two days of planting, the volunteers put nearly 7,000 trees in the ground. They left the eastern Kentucky mountain for homes as far away as Chicago.
“The job they did was absolutely phenomenal, especially given the weather conditions,” Garland says. “They didn’t miss a beat. There was no quit in them. Even on day two, they were excited and pumped up. And this is hard work—people were sore—but they came back on that second day just as dedicated and eager to get the project done. It’s incredible to see that level of enthusiasm.”
As for the land the volunteers planted, French thinks it will be transformed in 10 years.
“Hopefully we’ll see that area approaching a closed-canopy forest, where the trees have grown up and the branches are starting to touch each other,” he says. “Some of the trees will be producing fruit for wildlife, and the trees will provide shade from the heat. It’s something I look forward to seeing. Given some help, nature does recover. And that resilience is always inspiring to see.”
Trustee, TNC Kentucky
Steve Johnson first came into contact with The Nature Conservancy on Capitol Hill in the mid-1980s. He was working on environmental issues for a California legislator.
“TNC was then, as it is now, always the voice of reason on conservation issues,” Johnson says. “When they came by, you always sat down and listened to them.”
Johnson took a sabbatical from his government relations career and traveled out West, where he got to see a different side of conservation. Working in Alaska at a national wildlife refuge and in the mountains of Montana, he experienced nature firsthand.
“It’s one thing to read about it in a policy document, but it’s another thing to experience it,” he says. “It changes something in you forever. You never lose that, and I’m a better person for having gotten to experience it.”
Johnson and his wife, Kim, have made sure their children got the opportunity to experience the same places where they have lived. With one child recently home from India and another living in Arizona for school, adventure is ingrained in the whole family.
“Being asked to serve on TNC’s board was serendipitous,” Johnson says. “I consider this truly a part of my life’s mission and purpose.”
Johnson says TNC’s work to remove dams on the Green River is particularly inspiring to him. He loves the free-flowing river that comes with this restoration.
“I see TNC’s mission as being very altruistic by its very nature,” he says. “It’s really about trying to conserve these beautiful areas so everyone can experience what I have experienced.”
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