Western Kentucky University

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Outdoor classroom

Outdoor classroom 'a real joy'

Western Kentucky University owns a little-known plot of land where biologists, schoolchildren and people wounded during war can marvel in the beauty of rural Kentucky and heal from trauma, while researchers also contribute to the scientific community.

There are 11 endangered species in the Green River Preserve, 1,500 acres that WKU owns adjacent to Mammoth Cave National Park, according to Albert Meier, a WKU biologist who oversees preserve activities.

“This is wonderful for our students. It is an opportunity for them to get experience managing land and dealing with endangered species,” Meier said.

Everglades National Park has just two more endangered species at 13, and the 600,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park ties with the Green River Preserve at 11 endangered species.

“The Green River is one of the most diverse rivers in the nation. It’s a real joy for the kids to realize how special this is in our own backyard,” Meier said.

The land in Hart County along the Green River includes 7 miles of river frontage. WKU has received $3.6 million for purchase and management of the preserve in the dozen years since its first grant application.

The Green River ecosystem has been studied in the context of global change, how land may be restored and how to track organisms by bioacoustic devices. Meier said WKU observations have appeared in 11 peer-reviewed publications, 12 master’s degree theses, seven undergraduate honors theses and more than 90 presentations at various conferences.

Research grants exceed $2.2 million, Meier said.

The upper Green River hosts 109 fish and 59 mussel species and ranks fourth in the United States in imperiled fish and mussel species, so there is plenty of wildlife to monitor and research. The fanshell, pink mucket, ring pink, clubshell, northern riffle shell and rough pigtoe mussels are just a few endangered species under examination by the biologists.

There are other management strategies to keep the preserve viable, including trash cleanup, erosion control, restoration of the riverbank habitat and native grasslands and the removal of exotic species. Road improvements and the closing of unneeded roads, removal of old, unused buildings and the preservation of the historic Gardner House in Hart County, which is roughly 200 years old, comprise other activities in the preserve, Meier said. The 2011 open house at Gardner House by the WKU Folk Studies Department attracted 140 visitors, he said.

The biology efforts include work in zoology, ecology, wildlife management, aquatic field biology, entomology and plant taxonomy while the geologists study structural and environmental geology and the WKU Folk Studies Department pursues anthropology, Meier said.

“This is something that we are doing that is really important to Kentucky,” WKU President Gary Ransdell said.

“It’s been built on a shoestring,” noted Gordon Baylis, WKU vice president for research and president of the WKU Research Foundation. 

Seventeen years ago, Meier arrived in Bowling Green and, as a biologist, wanted to monitor the species in the Green River. 

“At the time, Mammoth Cave National Park was not friendly to people who wanted to do research,” Meier said. “We didn’t have a place to go where we could manipulate (an ecosystem).”

Thus efforts began to acquire land, and the purchases were financed by the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund. The last land purchase six days before Christmas pushed the total acreage to 1,508 acres. Further purchases have been put on hold while Kentucky lawmakers and Gov. Steve Beshear decide if the KHLCF will be funded in the next state budget.

Meier said bats, because of white nose disease, and several varieties of mussels are studied. Cooperation is much better with the Mammoth Cave National Park on research efforts.

Chuck Reed, director of Kentucky Wounded Heroes, appreciates the preserve for the healing it may bring to wounded military veterans and their families.

“We locate, close with and introduce wounded heroes to the great outdoors,” said Reed, a retired master sergeant in the U.S. Army and more than 30-year veteran with the Kentucky State Police. Brett Hightower of Bowling Green is vice president of Kentucky Wounded Heroes, Reed said.

The veterans have an opportunity to take excursions to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, explore Lake Erie in Ohio and hunt whitetail deer or travel in canoes along the WKU preserve on the Green River, Reed said.

The canoes go in outside Munfordville and are taken out at the preserve.

“The trip is as long as 30 miles, although they can put out at 5 miles,” Reed said.

Reed said the veterans have an opportunity to sit along the Green River and fish. Volunteers from the community assist the effort.

“It’s not just the property; it’s the people in Hart County,” Reed said. “These guys climb out of their shells.”

— Follow education reporter Chuck Mason on Twitter at twitter.com/bgdnschools or visit bgdailynews.com.

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