A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Heavy traffic during the coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on Kentucky’s state nature preserves

By Nadia Ramlagan
Public News Service

When state parks closed at the start of the pandemic, many Kentuckians ventured out to local nature preserves and natural areas, and experts say the heavy traffic has taken a toll on Kentucky’s public lands.

Clare Sipple recently retired, but spent 18 years managing Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve in Clark County. Over the past few months, she said, the staff has been working to pick up mounds of trash and scrub graffiti off the property’s palisaded limestone cliffs.

Of 372 plant species that Kentucky lists as endangered, threatened or of special concern, 206 are conserved in state nature preserves and natural areas like Preserves like Lower Howard’s Creek and Heritage Trail in Clark County (Photo from Lower Howard’s Creek)

“We became overrun with people bringing their children, their grills, their dogs, their fishing poles,” she said. “On weekends, we were having over 400 people at a time. The trails were destroyed.”

She said residents may not realize how much work goes into making trails safe and accessible for the more than 40 nature preserves and natural areas scattered across the state, totaling more than 26,000 acres. A list of nature preserves open to the public is on the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s website.

Joyce Bender, retired branch manager at the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, said nature preserves’ primary purpose is to protect habitat for rare and endangered species. While these areas also are designed for recreational use, she pointed out that they aren’t built to handle large volumes of people.

“There’s not very many of them. Kentucky really doesn’t have enough natural areas set aside,” she said. “And so, if you’re out there ruining what we do have, that means there’s a lesser experience for everyone else, and the resource suffers for the future.”

Zeb Weese, who directs the state’s Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves, said there has been a positive side to the increased activity.

“We have gotten more folks contact us about volunteering on these sites to help with trail work,” he said, “and to help do invasive species work and things like that.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued safety guidelines on its website for enjoying the outdoors, including staying at least 6 feet away from others, as well as other steps to curb the spread of COVID-19.

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