“This is truly an historic opportunity for Kentucky!”
Those words came from Steven Dobey, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation senior conservation program-eastern U.S., during recent testimony (39:40 mark) given before the Kentucky Senate Standing Committee – Natural Resources & Energy.
He was referring to the Cumberland Forest (CF) – Ataya Voluntary Conservation and Access Agreement, an RMEF 2023 priority project in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources that would not only protect the wildlife values of 54,556 acres of land in Kentucky’s elk zone, but also provide perpetual public access to it.
The project lies within the Cumberland Plateau in Bell, Leslie, and Knox Counties in the Central Appalachians. It supplies important habitat for elk, whitetail deer, black bears, upland birds and scores of other game and nongame species. It also features vital riparian habitat for fish, songbirds and other species since about 140 miles of streams cross the property, including key waterways that feed the Cumberland and Kentucky Rivers.
As of today, there is access to the Ataya landscape because of a public access agreement but that could change if a future landowner insists upon a 30-day out clause.
“This property will be sold in the coming years and without this easement, or an easement like it in place, a future landowner with no interest in public access…it’s going to be lost. That would be devastating in terms of public access. Currently it accounts for nine percent of the public land entirely within the eastern elk zone,” said Dobey. “Under the current strategy with this easement, that scenario would not come to fruition.”
“If we run out of public access –this is a problem throughout the nation- we’re killing our own fish and wildlife agency that is at the forefront of conservation,” said Senator Robin Webb (52:15 mark).
RMEF has a long and rich conservation history in Kentucky. Dating back to 1995, it teamed with its partners to complete 196 conservation and hunting heritage outreach projects across the state with a combined value of more than $9.9 million. These projects conserved and enhanced 7,349 acres of habitat and opened or improved public access to 745 acres. As part of that work, RMEF supplied critical funding that led to the restoration of elk in the Bluegrass State. That initial 1997 release of seven elk, combined with others over the years, grew the population to more than 11,000, the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi.
“Despite all of our financial commitments to date and all of our successes and accomplishments to date, this CF Ataya project is the most impactful eastern project that we’ve been involved with since our organization was founded in 1984,” said Dobey.
In addition to providing public access for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and other recreational activities in perpetuity, the agreement limits subdivision and commercial development on the property, while continuing to allow economic revenue streams related to natural resources such as timber harvest, natural gas, and coal.
“I appreciate you and would urge sportsmen and women to support the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in what they do because we’re getting a return on that investment. Those of us who have and do, are now getting a return on that investment. It is an investment,” said Senator Webb.
Senator Webb since introduced a bill that clarifies the process, hopefully leading to a successful closure and implementation of the project.
(Photo credit: Ben Childers)