Earth Healing The Health of the Bluegrass Is The Triangle Really Golden

The Health of the Bluegrass:
Is the Triangle Really Green?

Published by Earth Healing in cooperation with
EcoPerspectives, a project of Earth Island Institute



Loss of Green Space

Kentucky as a whole and the Bluegrass especially are losing green space.  The National Resource Conservation Service, which tracks conversion of natural land to development, reports that in 1992, Kentucky, with total acreage of 25.8 million acres, had 1.5 million acres of developed land.  In 2003 it had just over 2 million such acres, an increase of 500,000 acres or some 50,000 acres per year.  The pace of change has likely quickened since 2003.  Relying on statistics from Kentucky’s Division of Forestry, the Land Stewardship and Conservation Task Force, created by the Kentucky legislature, reported in 2008 that Kentucky currently loses an average of 136 acres of forest and 100 acres of farmland per day.  This works out to a total of roughly 50,000 acres of forestland and 36,500 acres of farmland per year.  Jon Gassett, Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) reported to the task force that Kentucky loses 47,000 acres of wildlife habitat a year (1).    

The Bluegrass has relatively little forestland compared to Eastern Kentucky.  As is well known, it has extensive farmland, and the rate of conversion of the farmland can be assumed to be higher than the state average, because the Bluegrass is the location of Kentucky’s “Golden Triangle,” the metropolitan areas of Lexington, Louisville, and Covington, all pushing to expand outwards.  The Task Force refers to the pressure for development in the Bluegrass when it states that “the fastest conversions [of farmland] are occurring in the Bluegrass and Pennyroyal regions” (2).  More than 300 square kilometers (116 square miles) of farmland in the Inner Bluegrass were converted to other uses between 1997 and 2002, the World Monuments Fund Watch List states (3).   

In 2002 the American Farmland Trust created a map analyzing how land use changes are affecting the United States’ highest quality farmland.  The map shows in red those mapping units with a greater percentage of high quality farmland (prime farmland as defined by the US Department of Agriculture, and land suitable for growing alternative crops such as berries) and a faster rate of development than the average mapping unit in the state.  In the Inner and Outer Bluegrass a semi-circle of counties immediately east of Jefferson County, a group of counties in the Inner Bluegrass, and parts of several counties to their south and east are in red.   Based on data from 1992-1997, Kentucky as a whole ranks eighteenth in the nation in rate of loss of prime farmland according to the Trust. Between 1987 and 1992 it lost 50,700 prime acres or 10,140 acres per year and between 1992 and 1997, 80,000 prime acres or 16,000 acres per year (4).

Residents of and visitors to the Bluegrass do not need statistics to tell them what is happening, however.   As they drive out any of the major roads from Lexington, drive east from Louisville, or drive south from Cincinnati, they see mile upon mile of new houses and businesses.  The very highways are swallowing land. The widening of US 68 from Harrodsburg to Lexington is eating up prime farmland, to name just one instance.  Now being discussed is a connector road between Interstate 75 in Madison County and US 27 in Jessamine County, which would cross the Kentucky River. 

Among the hot points for sprawl in the Bluegrass is the land east of Louisville and northeast of Bardstown road and the Watterson Expressway.  James Bruggers reported in the Courier-Journal that the area grew twenty-six percent in the 1990s and is expected to grow an additional 13.4% by 2010 (5).  The land around the Georgetown bypass in Scott County is rapidly filling up with buildings.  For example, an apple orchard, opened when the bypass was built, will now be “developed.”   Scott County anticipates construction of a mixed-use retail center, The Shoppes at Equestrian Crossing, between Wal-Mart and Toyota north of Georgetown.  In Madison County, along I-75, north of Richmond the 120-acre Richmond Centre shopping area is scheduled to open in the fall of 2008 (6).  The center will undoubtedly attract additional stores and housing to an area that is already becoming unsightly with buildings.  For the Maysville area in Mason County a vast development project called the Wyldwood of Kentucky Resort Community, which would include a 2700-acre Hilltop Village, has been proposed (7).

            Ironically the Kentucky State Horse Park, host for the 2010 World Equestrian Games, is a symbol of farmland conversion.   The 1200-acre Horse Park used to be an actual horse farm.  Now the park is being filled up with buildings and grand stands and parking lots.

Apart from the problem of conserving farmland, is the problem of conserving natural areas for the purpose of providing wildlife habitat.  The least disturbed area of the Bluegrass is the Kentucky River Palisades, a winding gorge cut by the Kentucky River between what is now Clays Ferry in northern Madison County and Frankfort.  Creation of the gorge began 400,000 to one million years ago.  Today the limestone cliffs that line it rise as high as 400 feet from the river.  Partly because the river winds, causing the banks to face in different directions, the palisades contain a wide variety of habitats, which support hundreds of species.  Efforts to conserve the palisades began in earnest in the 1980s.  Today more than 10,000 acres enjoy some level of protection.  However, much land remains without any protection, and housing developments are being built along the palisades, raising the price of land and making it difficult for conservation organizations and government agencies to make purchases (8).

No river in the Bluegrass has been made a part of the federal or the Kentucky Wild Rivers systems, which would protect the river banks from development.  One unit of both systems, nine miles of the Red River, is in the Kentucky River drainage but it is located in Powell and Wolfe Counties.  The Bluegrass has no federal lands devoted to conservation.  Its only federal lands are military, the Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County and a corner of Fort Knox in Bullitt County.

Preservation efforts insufficient

In 1999 Fayette County raised the minimum lot size from 10 to 40 acres in its rural area, and in 2000 it established a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program, which has become a national model.  As of June 2008, the program had permanently protected by means of conservation easements 20,834 acres on 182 farms, donated or bought with a combination of local, state, and federal funds.  The program is admirable.  However, when one looks at a map of PDR easements and of land protected by private organizations, one can see how far from being conserved rural Fayette County still is.  The PDR lands form a sketchy patchwork, with the greatest concentration in the northern part of the county.  Given that Fayette County has 128,267 acres in the rural service area, the 21,000 acres in easements represent only 16 % of the county’s rural land.  The goal of the PDR program is preservation within twenty years of 50,000 acres, less than 40% of the rural service area (9).  Unfortunately there is no regional land use planning in the Inner Bluegrass, and Fayette County’s forty-acre lot size has actually helped create sprawl—in other counties.  People wanting to build on small lots have simply bought them outside Fayette County.   Scott County, tired of the buildings swallowing up its rural land, established a PDR program in 2008, the second county program in the state.

Louisville/Jefferson County has a small conservation easements program, and the state has an easement program for farmland, the Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements program (PACE), established by the legislature in 1994.  As of November 2007, the state had purchased easements of 20,927 acres on 88 farms; and landowners had donated an additional 4,638 acres on 34 farms.  However, the program lacked funding to go forward with purchases, and applications from 667 owners covering 129,000 acres were pending (10).

In Kentucky ninety-four percent of the land is in private hands.  Therefore, one could expect private land trusts to play a major role in land protection in the state, the Task Force notes.  Actually, according to data provided to the Task Force by the Land Trust Alliance, Kentucky trusts enroll less land than do trusts in any of the contiguous states.

            Government agencies and private organizations are working to preserve land in Kentucky, but through lack of coordination and through lack of funding their efforts are falling short.  The Land Stewardship and Conservation Task Force found that “Land conservation in Kentucky is fragmented.  It is delivered by numerous different state agencies, local governments, universities, and private organizations each focusing on achieving different land conservation goals.  This has led to a competition for land acquisition resources and scarce finances.”  “The Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund is the principal source of financing for land conservation in Kentucky, but it is insufficient for agencies to make needed land acquisitions.”  The Task Force did not make any official recommendations but, in its report, it states that it discussed, among other things, the need for the Kentucky legislature to “identify and dedicate additional sources of funding for land conservation programs, including Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements” (11).

            The Kentucky legislature needs to establish a dedicated source of funding for land conservation programs, including the state’s PACE program, as stated by the legislature’s task force. 

             Furthermore, government leaders, non-profit organizations, and concerned individuals need to encourage the return to food production of land that is within developed areas but that is  not itself under concrete or asphalt.  To facilitate the reconversion, any regulations that dictate lawns be frequently mowed and that discourage gardening and edible landscaping should be abolished. The community gardens that are beginning to be organized on vacant lots and in city parks, are a way of allowing people without land to grow food and of encouraging people who have never gardened to learn how to grow food.  As transportation becomes increasingly expensive and as food prices rise, the need for reverse conversion is becoming obvious.

                                                                                                               --Mary Byrd Davis

1.  Report of the Land Stewardship and Conservation Task Force, January 22, 2008, Research .Memorandum No. 502 (Frankfort: Legislative Research Commission, 2008), pp. 3-4.       

2. Report of the Land Stewardship, p. 4.       

3.  Kentucky Derby Museum, “Vanishing Bluegrass” [Press announcement], February 7, 2007.

4.  American Farmland Trust, Web site, at, accessed July 2, 2008. 

5. “2 Wastewater Plants Found Lacking,” April 5, 2008, p. 1A. 

6.  Ashlee Clark, “Richmond Centre to Open This Fall,” Lexington Herald-Leader, June 28, 2008, p. A14. 

7.  Marla Toncray, “Optimism Surrounds Wyldwood Proposal,” The Ledger Independent, November 14, 2007.

8. Andy Mead and Greg Kocher, “A Race for Space along the River,” Lexington Herald-Leader, January 14, 2007, pp. A1 and A14.

9.  Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, Division of Purchase of Development Rights, updated June 17, 2008.

10. Kentucky Department of Agriculture Farmland Preservation Program, “Current Status of Program,” available online at, accessed July 16, 2008. 

11. Report of the Land Stewardship, “Summary,” p. vii.

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