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A new conservation easement in eastern Kentucky is one of the largest in state history

View toward the horizon, green mountains below and cloud-splotched blue sky above.
Ryan Van Velzer
The view of Appalachian Kentucky from Pine Mountain.

Kentucky officials and environmental advocates secured the deal last week. In total, it will protect nearly 55,000 acres in the Cumberland Forest Wildlife Management Area in Bell, Knox and Leslie counties.

“As far as we know it’s the largest conservation easement in Kentucky’s history,” Nature Conservancy state director David Phemister said.

The conservation easement will provide permanent protection and public access to the forested mountain sides of the Appalachians as part of the Nature Conservancy’s Cumberland Forest Project -- which encompasses more than 250,000 acres in three states.

The Nature Conservancy of Kentucky and the state department of Fish and Wildlife Resources worked with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to secure the conservation easement, which protects the land from development in perpetuity.

The property will be open to the public for outdoor recreation including hiking, wildlife viewing and hunting -- it's already a popular destination for hunting elk.

It’s also an important migratory corridor for a number of species, from foxes, black bears and bobcats to birds of prey and neotropical songbirds that head south for the winter and travel up through Kentucky on their migration.

“Ecologically the Appalachian Mountains are globally important for biodiversity, for terrestrial carbon stores,” Phemister said.

The Kentucky Legislature invested nearly $4 million dollars in the project. Another $12 million came from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act.

“The General Assembly’s support, evidenced by both the state appropriation in 2022 and the enabling legislation across 2022 and 2023, has been instrumental in this success. I am honored to have played a role in this significant project,” said Democratic Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson in a press release.

Kentucky’s Fish And Wildlife Department will manage the easement.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.