Award-winning plan for saving bur oak a model for developers

November 9, 2014

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This bur oak, which tree physiologist Tom Kimmerer thinks is 400 to 500 years old, frames Firebrook subdivision at the intersection of Military Pike, right, and Harrodsburg Road. Ball Homes is developing the property and hired Kimmerer to come up with a conservation plan for the tree. He hopes it will be a model for other developers. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

The most fought-over tree in Lexington is now more noticeable than ever. Cleared of surrounding brush, it dominates the skyline at the intersection of Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike.

The giant bur oak was last in the news 13 months ago, when neighbors cited concerns for its welfare among their objections to Ball Homes‘ plan to develop 25 acres behind it into 42 single-family homes and 196 apartments.

The city rejected another developer’s plan for townhouses on the site in 2008 because the tree could have been lost or damaged.

But Ball Homes’ proposal was approved after the company developed perhaps the most detailed plan yet for conserving one of the giant, centuries-old trees that have been rapidly disappearing.

Last week, that plan won Ball Homes an award from the Lexington-Fayette County Environmental Commission. Tom Kimmerer, a tree physiologist who developed the plan, hopes it will become a model for other local builders and future developments.

141106SchoolOak0037Ball Homes hired Kimmerer, a consultant and former University of Kentucky forestry professor, to work with the company’s regular arborist, Ian Hoffman of Big Beaver Tree Service.

Kimmerer has studied these specimens of blue ash, shellbark hickory and bur, chinkapin and Shumard oak, which grow better and live longer in Central Kentucky than in any other place in America.

Many of these trees were well-established before Daniel Boone set foot in Kentucky nearly two and a half centuries ago. They are icons of the Bluegrass landscape and the oldest living things in Kentucky.

But dozens, if not hundreds, have been cut down or killed in recent decades by development. Because these species don’t reproduce well in urban areas, younger trees have not been growing up to replace them.

Kimmerer last year started a nonprofit organization, Venerable Trees, to research and help people learn how to care for and propagate these trees.

This bur oak had been in the yard of a 1970s house, since demolished. A large driveway was built below its canopy. That kind of soil compaction can be deadly.

So the conservation plan’s first move was to carefully remove the driveway and erect a fence to keep construction equipment at least 72 feet away from the tree. Six inches of wood mulch was then spread on three-fourths of an acre, which will be left open around the tree.

“One of the things I was impressed with about Ball Homes was they didn’t say, ‘This is how much space we’ll give you.’ They said, ‘How much space does this tree need?'” Kimmerer said. “There was some back and forth and a few compromises here and there, but they were quite generous in allocating space for the tree.”

141106SchoolOak0016Rena Wiseman, Ball Homes’ associate general counsel, said the company realized saving the tree was worth the trouble and expense because it would be a symbol for the neighborhood.

“It’s the focal point,” said Lee Fields, Ball Homes’ vice president of development. “Besides, trees going down cost us money. The lots that always sell first are the ones with the trees.”

Kimmerer and Hoffman assessed the tree’s health and removed several damaged branches. They installed a lightning rod to help prevent future strikes.

The tree has long been thought to be more than 300 years old. Kimmerer guesses it is closer to 500 years old. Still, despite lightning strikes over the centuries and hollow spots, the oak is quite healthy.

“There’s no reason in principle why that tree couldn’t live for hundreds of years longer,” he said.

Ball Homes plans to retain ownership of the tree and surrounding land, including the apartment buildings. That should help ensure the tree’s long-term care, Kimmerer said, adding, “Our management plan for this tree goes way beyond just the construction phase.”

Kimmerer is one of only two tree physiologists in Kentucky. As it happens, the other one, UK forestry professor Jeff Stringer, lives in a renovated old schoolhouse next door to the bur oak. For years, he has been closely watching the tree’s health and debates about its future.

“That tree is in really good shape, and this plan should help keep it that way,” Stringer said, adding that its prospects for survival are better than they have been in decades.

In addition to avoiding soil compaction around a tree, Kimmerer said the most important factors in good long-term care include frequent inspections for signs of stress and keeping lawn fertilizers and herbicides away.

“Modern lawn care is anathema to old trees,” he said.

Kimmerer has surveyed many of the open tracts inside Lexington’s Urban Services Boundary, which will eventually be developed.

“There are at least 50 of these ancient trees that are going to get in the way of development or, conversely, could be seen as symbols of a new development,” Kimmerer said. “That’s one of the encouraging things about this project is that the tree will become emblematic of the whole neighborhood.

Award winners

Winners of the Lexington—Fayette County Environmental Commission’s 44th annual awards:

■ Lexington Police Services, for the We Care program.

■ Lexington Women’s Garden Club, for garden on Wellington Way.

■ Idle Hour Neighbors Alliance, for two monarch way-station gardens.

■ Klausing Group, for a vegetative roof, permeable pavers and Pinnacle Home Owners Association Children’s Garden.

■ University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, for Food and Environment Alumni Plaza project.

■ Lakeshore Apartments Association, Andover Management Group and Barrett Partners Landscape Architects, for improvements to the pond at Lakewood Park.

■ Ball Homes, for bur oak preservation plan.

■ FoodChain, for aquaponics project.

■ Pax Christi Catholic Church, for electronics recycling program.

■ Lexington Division of Environmental Policy, for urban tree canopy assessment and planting plan.

■ Bluegrass Greensource, Downtown Lexington Corp., for downtown Trash Bash.

■ Lansdowne Neighborhood Association, for Zandale Park Stream Bank Protection Project.

■ Pinnacle Home Owners Association, for Children’s Garden.

■ Kentucky Utilities, for the Arboretum’s Party for the Planet Celebration.

■ Community Montessori School, Montessori Middle School of Kentucky, for storm water quality improvement and stream restoration project.

■ Clays Mill Elementary School, for Springs Branch storm water improvement project.

 

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A century later, passenger pigeon’s extinction still offers lessons

August 26, 2014

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Juvenile, male and female passenger pigeons, by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927)

 

One hundred years ago next week, a bird named Martha dropped dead in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was the last known passenger pigeon, a breed that just a few decades earlier had been the most numerous bird in America.

It was the first big wakeup call about society’s potential to destroy the environment. Extinction was no longer just about Do-do birds or other rare species; it could happen to a creature once so plentiful that it was both a major food source and a pest of biblical proportions.

The Cincinnati Zoo is marking the anniversary with a series of events. (More information: Ohiobirds.org). The keynote speaker is Joel Greenberg, who recently published the acclaimed book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Boomsbury USA).

Greenberg, a naturalist, author and lawyer, also helped start Project Passenger Pigeon, a non-profit organization to raise awareness of current extinction threats and to promote environmental sustainability.

Unlike today’s rock pigeon, which was brought over from Europe, passenger pigeons were native to North America. They ranged from Canada to Mexico, and the immensity of flocks once seen in Kentucky is hard to imagine. Alexander Wilson, America’s first ornithologist, wrote of an 1805 nesting area near Shelbyville that covered almost every tree for 40 square miles.

Passenger pigeons were so notable in early Kentucky that Project Passenger Pigeon reports 44 places in the state named for them, from Pigeon Roost Creek in Boyd County to Pigeon Hollow in Edmonson County.

John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and bird painter, wrote about flocks he observed in 1813 while traveling from Henderson to Louisville. During his journey’s last 55 miles, “The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow. The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession.”

Throughout the 19th century, many people reported similar events: sky-darkening flocks in the billions. When passenger pigeons chose to land, they could strip a field of crops or a grove of nut-bearing trees in no time.

But the docile birds had two great qualities: they were delicious and easy to kill. Long an important food source for Native Americans, a flock is said to have saved most of New Hampshire from starvation after a crop failure in 1781.

“The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river,” Audubon wrote of his 1813 sighting in Louisville. “For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of pigeons and talked of nothing but pigeons.”

So how did the pigeon population go from billions to zero in less than 50 years? Many questions remain, but scientists think one factor was widespread logging that destroyed forest habitat the huge flocks needed to reproduce.

But the biggest factor was excessive hunting. Once railroads and telegraph lines spread across the country, flocks could easily be tracked by commercial hunting crews and decimated.

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Joseph H. Kemper

About this time, sportsmen hunters began adopting the conservation ethic that has made huge contributions to wildlife and habitat preservation. But it came too late for the passenger pigeon. After the 1870s, populations plummeted.

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, pastor of New Union Christian Church in Woodford County and retired executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said family lore held that her grandfather, Joseph H. Kemper, a champion marksman, killed one of the last passenger pigeons near Mt. Sterling.

“It was an accident,” Kemper said. “He was hunting doves. Daddy always said (his father) was sad about it.”

The journal of the Wilson Ornithological Society in 1925 quoted a Lexington Herald report saying Kemper accidently killed passenger pigeons twice, in 1892 and 1893, while dove hunting on Slate Creek in Montgomery County. Others reported similar isolated shootings around the country as late as 1902.

The last captive passenger pigeons were at the Cincinnati Zoo. By 1910, only Martha remained. Upon her death, she was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, where she was skinned, stuffed and put on display.

This centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction is a good time to reflect on how little humans really know about nature. And to think about how society’s actions have consequences we often can’t begin to understand until it is too late.


Kentucky realizing conservation can be economic development

November 16, 2013

IRVINE — Kentuckians are beginning to realize that developing natural resources means more than looking for things to chop down, dig up and export.

In some cases, economic development can be as simple as thinking about what you like about your community — a beautiful landscape, an interesting culture — and figuring out how to attract more people there to enjoy it.

One great example is the proposed Kentucky River Water Trail. The idea is to clean up the 256-mile river and make it more accessible for paddling, fishing and other kinds of outdoor recreation. And figure out how communities along the river can profit from it.

watertraillogoThe Kentucky River Water Trail Alliance, which is organizing the effort, met last week in Estill County. The meeting attracted about 75 citizens in addition to state, local and federal officials.

“I’ve always thought the Kentucky River was one of the greatest natural resources Estill County has,” said Judge-Executive Wallace Taylor. “It’s something we need to better utilize.”

The idea has gotten a boost since Gov. Steve Beshear nominated the river trail as one of two Kentucky projects for America’s Great Outdoors, a federal initiative to bring a “21st century approach” to conservation and outdoor recreation. (The other Kentucky project is the Dawkins Line Rail Trail in Johnson and Magoffin counties.)

From three Eastern Kentucky forks that meet at Beattyville, the Kentucky River flows into Central Kentucky below Lexington, through Frankfort and into the Ohio River at Carrollton.

From pioneer days until railroads took over in the early 1900s, the river was a vital commercial artery — taking flour, whiskey and tobacco from Central Kentucky to New Orleans, and later timber and coal from Eastern Kentucky to the Bluegrass.

But for decades, the Kentucky River has been mostly ignored, aside from its role as a water supply. Locks and dams that turned the free-flowing river into a series of 14 pools more than a century ago were all but abandoned until recently, when the Kentucky River Authority began rebuilding them.

Many people think the river has enormous recreation and tourism potential because it is so scenic, especially around the limestone cliffs south of Lexington known as the Palisades.

“I’ve probably traveled 10,000 miles by water all over the country,” said Jerry Graves, the Kentucky River Authority’s executive director, “and the Kentucky River Palisades is as pretty as it gets.”

Attracting more visitors will involve several steps: cleaning up the river through volunteer efforts such as the annual Kentucky River Clean Sweep, the third Saturday of each June, and water-quality monitoring by Kentucky River Watershed Watch. Counties must build ramps, docks and portages for canoes, kayaks and fishing boats.

Another key element is adding and promoting visitor services — restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns, outfitters and other stores, plus museums, historic sites, craft shops and cultural attractions. The final step is providing information about all of those things through websites, field guides and signs.

The Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet has a Trail Towns program to help communities figure out how to generate business by catering to visitors at nearby water, bike, horse and hiking trails. A couple of towns have gone through the program, and several more have applied, most recently Hazard.

Elaine Wilson, who directs the state’s Adventure Tourism program, explained the concept at last week’s meeting by citing the example of Damascus, Va., which was a declining lumber town until it built a new economy around the nearby Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper bike trail, a former railroad line.

That example resonated with me, because about 15 friends and I went to Damascus last summer during a week-long bike trip in Virginia and North Carolina. We had a great time — and made a healthy contribution to the local economy. We plan to make a similar trip every summer, and it would be great if we had some Kentucky destinations to choose from that are as developed as others in the Southeast.

Damascus could provide a good example for places like Irvine and adjacent Ravenna, which have struggled since the Louisville & Nashville Railroad went away. Irvine already has a charming old downtown beside the river, historic resources such as Fitchburg Furnace and Estill Springs and delicious, down-home cooking at Rader’s River Grill.

The state’s Adventure Tourism initiative makes a lot of sense. Some people criticize the effort, saying it’s no “big solution” for depressed rural economies. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

Big economic-development solutions are few and far between. Small-scale, entrepreneurial industries may be the best hope for Kentucky small towns and rural areas hoping to built sustainable, post-industrial economies.

Extraction industries run out of minerals to extract. Factories move away for cheaper labor. But natural resources such as scenic rivers and mountains can pay long-term dividends if wisely developed — and protected.


The gift of nature: new preserve showcases Palisades’ ecology

September 29, 2013

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Evan Edwards, a fourth grader at Camp Dick Robinson Elementary School in Garrard County, looks up an on old-growth American Beech tree after reading an informational sign about it at the Nature Conservancy’s new Dupree Nature Preserve along the Kentucky River palisades.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

LANCASTER — Thomas P. Dupree Sr. spent his career in high finance, but his heart has always been in nature.

While building a successful municipal bond brokerage in Lexington, Dupree spent more than three decades of his spare time as a volunteer, board member and chairman of The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and protect America’s special wild places.

Dupree said he fell in love with Kentucky’s natural landscape as an Eagle Scout growing up in Harlan, where he spent as much time as he could in the woods. Thanks to his generosity, more Kentuckians will be able to do the same.

The conservancy on Oct. 5 will open its newest and most developed Central Kentucky property: The 300-acre Dupree Nature Preserve. Located on Polly’s Bend with 3 miles of Kentucky River frontage, the preserve is a short drive off U.S. 27 south of Nicholasville in Garrard County.

dupreemapLike Lexington’s city-owned Raven Run Nature Preserve, the Dupree preserve will have accessible public trails and environmental education facilities and programs for schools.

“I could only dream at one time that I would have enough money to do this,” Dupree, 83, said as he and his wife, Ann, took a preview tour of the preserve last week. Despite battling Parkinson’s disease for two decades, Dupree walked the trails with vigor.

While conservancy staff member Jim Aldrich showed the Duprees around, the preserve hosted an inaugural group of fourth-graders from Camp Dick Robinson Elementary School in Garrard County.

“Kids who come out here can get a deep feeling that this belongs to them,” Dupree said. “This belongs to everybody, and I hope it gives them a feeling of wealth — natural wealth.”

Land restoration efforts at the preserve so far have involved removing invasive Asian species such as honeysuckle and winter creeper and the planting of 12,000 native trees.

Facilities will eventually include a dock, a picnic pavilion and educational information about the natural landscape and history of the bend, where Daniel Boone and other early pioneers once hunted and lived. Bluegrass Greensource will help with educational programming.

In addition to Dupree and other private donors, including Warren Rosenthal, the conservancy received help on the project from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Kentucky River Authority, Toyota USA, Kentucky American Water, Sterling Ventures and foundations affiliated with Ashland Inc., LG&E and KU Energy and the Hinkle family.

Over the past 38 years, the conservancy has partnered with government and other private conservation organizations to protect 45,786 Kentucky acres. That includes nature preserves and 6,534 acres of privately owned land put under conservation easements that limit development.

The conservancy’s biggest Kentucky acquisition ever was completed earlier this month: 4,241 acres near the Ohio River in Crittenden County as part of a project to improve water quality. After purchase, the land was transferred to the state, whose wildlife and forestry divisions will manage it.

The conservancy is working to preserve wetlands in the Obion Creek/Bayou du Chien watersheds of far Western Kentucky and portions of the Green River. In Eastern Kentucky, it works with energy companies to try to minimize or mitigate environmental damage from coal mining in sensitive areas.

In Central Kentucky, the conservancy’s efforts have focused on the palisades region of the Kentucky River between Boonesborough and Frankfort, which increasingly are threatened by suburban sprawl. Through easements and nature preserves, the conservancy has protected 3,000 acres along the river.

The Dupree preserve represents a new direction for the conservancy, said Terry Cook, the state director.

Rather than just saving sensitive natural areas from development or damage, the organization wants to get more people outside to enjoy them. The conservancy also wants to improve environmental education to create future generations of advocates like Tom Dupree.

The conservancy has been doing more environmental education with adults, too, including helping corporations figure out how to reduce their impact on the planet and understand how a cleaner environment can reduce their operating costs.

“Then we started looking at how we could reduce our own footprint,” Cook said.

That effort includes a new Nature Conservancy state headquarters office in a restored 19th-century house on Woodland Avenue. The project has included both historic preservation and incorporation of new energy-saving technology.

Cook said the building will be made available to partner organizations for meetings and events. Next year, the conservancy hopes to join Gallery Hop and showcase local artists and photographers whose work depicts Kentucky’s natural landscape.

“We’re at the point where we’ve got a foundation in place,” Cook said. “Now we’re looking what the future opportunities might be.”

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Capitol Education Center shows progress can penetrate coal politics

February 17, 2013

A group of Louisville high school students in Frankfort to attend the I Love Mountains Day events toured the Capitol Education Center roof, which has solar panels, a wind turbine and a roof garden. Below, an interactive exhibit inside shows how much less power LED and compact florescent lights use than traditional incandescent bulbs. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

FRANKFORT — Each year, I notice more young people attending I Love Mountains Day. The rally against mountaintop-removal coal mining is organized by the citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and it has been a Valentine’s tradition since 2006.

The young people join hundreds of their elders from across Kentucky in marching to the Capitol steps to hear speakers that have included writer Wendell Berry and actress Ashley Judd. This year’s main speaker was writer Silas House.

Before the speeches, many marchers visit legislators and urge them to curb the coal industry’s worst environmental abuses, to no avail.

But this year, there was something new for the young people to see: the Capitol Education Center, which had its grand opening Feb. 8. The center was the brainchild of First Lady Jane Beshear, and it is located in a formerly vacant building beside the Capitol that once housed heating and cooling equipment.

Beshear thought the 60,000 students and teachers who visit the Capitol each year needed a place to rest and eat their lunch. Then, the former teacher realized that this recycled building could play a role in teaching students about one of the most important issues facing Kentucky’s future: environmental sustainability.

The building got a “green” renovation that included recycled materials and energy-efficient technology. Solar panels and a wind turbine that feed into the utility grid were installed on the roof. Rain water is recycled to water a roof garden that will provide food for the Governor’s mansion kitchen.

The Kentucky Environmental Education Council coordinated a dozen universities and state agencies in developing interactive multimedia exhibits for the building. They teach students about Kentucky history, civics and geography — but mainly about energy efficiency and alternative energy sources.

The project was funded with $1.1 million from the Finance Cabinet and a $250,000 donation from Duke Energy. General Electric donated appliances for a commercial kitchen that Beshear hopes to use for demonstrations of healthy cooking and eating. (For more information, go to: Cec.ky.gov.)

In an interview, Beshear said these issues are “so important for the future. The more we as a state get into energy efficiency and alternative sources, the better off we’ll be.”

This education center is outstanding, and the First Lady’s vision for it is inspired. But it was hard to ignore the irony when I took a tour on I Love Mountains Day.

That event was created eight years ago to push for the so-called “stream saver” bill, which would ban coal companies from burying streams with mining debris. KFTC says the practice has obliterated more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian waterways.

But thanks to the coal industry’s enormous clout in Frankfort, the proposed legislation has gone nowhere. Most elected state officials proudly call themselves “friends of coal”. That friendship, which comes with lots of campaign cash, has always meant that public health, mine safety and environmental stewardship take a back seat to coal company profits.

Kentucky’s coal industry is in decline because of depleted reserves, cheap natural gas and the Environmental Protection Agency’s newfound willingness to do its job. But, like the National Rifle Association, the coal industry has always fought every attempt at common-sense regulation. Anyone who threatens the industry’s freedom to mine with impunity is branded as an enemy of coal.

There was an added emphasis for this year’s I Love Mountains Day: House Bill 170, which would require utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and put more emphasis on energy-efficiency programs.

In short, this bill, sponsored by Democrats Kelly Flood of Lexington and Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, would put into law some of the good ideas showcased at the new Capitol Education Center.

Change is hard, and progress can be slow. But I can’t help but be encouraged when I attend I Love Mountains Day or see something like the Capitol Education Center. Politicians will always be captive to power and money, I suppose, but it is good to see other Kentuckians working for a better future.

Few legislators have the courage to attend I Love Mountains Day, and the coal industry would go after any governor who dared show his face there.

But it is perhaps worth pointing out what Gov. Steve Beshear was doing shortly before the crowd arrived for I Love Mountains Day. He was in the Capitol rotunda with former Wildcat basketball star Derek Anderson, calling for legislation to create a statewide public smoking ban.

If you had told me 20 years ago that a Kentucky governor would do such a thing, I would have said you were crazy.

 


Bluegrass PRIDE marks decade of a cleaner region

September 17, 2011

As a Boy Scout in the 1970s, I spent several weekends helping cleanup crews haul decades worth of junk out of streams and woods throughout Central Kentucky.

I couldn’t understand why people would trash such beautiful places. Did they not know any better? Were there not more environmentally friendly ways to get rid of stuff?

Things have improved since then, but not without a lot of hard work.

One organization behind much of that hard work is Bluegrass PRIDE, which celebrates its 10th anniversary Saturday with a bluegrass concert featuring JD Crowe and the New South and Balsam Range. (The show begins at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall. For details and tickets, visit Bgpride.org.)

Bluegrass PRIDE — the acronym stands for Personal Responsibility in a Desirable Environment — is an 18-county non-profit organization modeled after a similar PRIDE organization that works in 38 counties in eastern and southern Kentucky.

Bluegrass PRIDE has facilitated a lot of cleanup projects with more than $1 million in grants over the past decade, many secured with help from Central Kentucky’s congressmen over that period, Republican Ernie Fletcher and Democrat Ben Chandler.

“The grants were much-needed,” said Executive Director Amy Sohner, who directs Bluegrass PRIDE’s staff of 16 from a bare-bones office in suburban Lexington. “They allowed communities to do a lot of things that needed to get done.”

More recently, though, the organization has shifted its focus to environmental education. “We try to help average people learn about small changes they can make that could make a big difference in improving the environment,” Sohner said.

Among those activities: litter reduction and cleanup; recycling of hazardous household waste; road and stream cleanup projects; helping individuals, businesses and cities learn how to build rain gardens to reduce storm runoff; and selling rain barrels to recycle water.

“With rain barrels, we’ve almost put ourselves out of a job,” Sohner said. “We used to be one of the few places that had them. Now, even Sam’s Club sells them.”

Among other things, Bluegrass PRIDE figures it has helped Central Kentuckians recycle 1,200 pounds of batteries and 4,200 cellphones, and properly dispose of 77,500 gallons of old paint.

Much of Bluegrass PRIDE’s funding now comes from Lexington’s government, which has hired the organization to manage the Live Green Lexington Partner Program. That effort enlisted 350 businesses, 130 apartment complexes and 100 schools in a variety of environmental activities that range from proper disposal of used cooking oil to helping the Fayette County Public Schools save $4,600 a month in trash fees through increased recycling.

Bluegrass PRIDE has worked with more than 230 schools throughout the region on environmental education tied to core-content curriculum. It also has furnished home-energy audit kits that Lexington residents can check out from public libraries. The kits include equipment to identify energy loss in homes to save energy — and money.

As Bluegrass PRIDE begins its second decade, Sohner hopes to spread many of the projects pioneered in Lexington throughout the region. She also hopes to use unpaid coordinators in each county to identify local needs the organization can help fill.

“I feel like we do a very good job in Lexington,” Sohner said. “But I really want to be able to serve our other 17 counties more.”

Fayette Alliance’s fifth

While Central Kentuckians have become better at cleaning up after themselves, they also have learned that suburban sprawl is bad for the environment — not to mention taxpayers, who must pay for construction and maintenance of far-flung infrastructure.

Next month marks the fifth anniversary of the Fayette Alliance, a non-profit organization that has made a big difference in reducing sprawl and promoting better land-use management in Lexington.

The Fayette Alliance celebrates its anniversary Oct. 6 with a party from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at its office, 603 West Short Street in Lexington. The event is free and open to the public.

In addition to refreshments and birthday cake, artist Bill Fletcher will be painting a special work that will be auctioned at a future event to benefit the Fayette Alliance.


‘War on coal’ avoids the real challenge, responsibility

June 12, 2011

Did you hear we are at war? I don’t mean the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the covert wars in Libya and Yemen or even the nebulous wars against terrorism and drugs.

I mean the “War on Coal.” All of Kentucky’s politicians are talking about it — at least all of those who want campaign contributions and support from the coal industry.

“They have declared war, war on Kentucky’s coal industry,” U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a speech to the Kentucky Coal Association earlier this month. The U.S. Senate’s Republican leader claimed the EPA wants to see the “coal industry driven out of business altogether.”

The next day, state Rep. Jim Gooch, a Providence Democrat who heads the state House Natural Resources Committee, went even further as he complained about the EPA’s efforts to make coal-fired power plants reduce their air and water pollution.

“This is a war on Kentucky,” Gooch exclaimed during a hearing, “because what we’re talking about is totally destroying our economy.”

And don’t forget Gov. Steve Beshear’s tantrum against the EPA during his State of the Commonwealth address in February. “Get off our backs!” Beshear bellowed. “Get off our backs!”

So what is this War on Coal? A lot of baloney, that’s what. It is a public relations campaign by an industry with a long history of maximizing profits by disregarding environmental stewardship and mine safety.

The coal industry is apoplectic because federal regulators are doing their jobs more aggressively now than they did during the Bush administration. The EPA is enforcing the Clean Air Act by requiring industries to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change. The agency also is trying to curb destructive surface-mining practices and reduce water pollution.

Some politicians and business executives have responded by claiming that climate change is a myth, despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary. Others just fear costs. But the costs of pollution have always existed; we just haven’t paid enough of them with our power bills and corporate bottom lines. We pay for them with sickness, premature death and degradation of our fragile planet.

I was encouraged to see that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has invited journalist James Fallows to be a keynote speaker at its annual meeting July 12 in Louisville. He will talk about his December cover story in The Atlantic magazine, Why the Future of Clean Energy is Dirty Coal.

Fallows’ article — click here to read it online at TheAtlantic.com — is excellent. For one thing, it punctures illusions on both the political right and left. Yes, climate change is real and carbon emissions must be dramatically reduced to avert disaster. No, renewable energy cannot replace coal — at least not in our lifetimes.

Because coal will be essential to civilization for generations, the sensible thing is to figure out how to mine and burn it more cleanly, Fallows wrote. Most of that responsibility must fall to the United States and China, which together produce more than 40 percent of man-made greenhouse gasses and bring different strengths to the fight to reduce them.

Fallows profiled U.S. and Chinese scientists who are working on innovative solutions. The most intriguing experiment may be “underground coal gasification.” Jets of oxygen, mixed with steam or chemicals, are blasted into coal seams deep underground. That creates a chemical reaction, producing a gas that can be piped out and burned to create electricity. The process avoids the need for traditional mining and leaves most of coal’s nasty by-products underground.

Kentucky politicians and business leaders could learn a lot from Fallows’ thinking, which transcends ideology to see the coal issue for what it really is — a technology problem to be solved.

Rather than fighting a “war” to protect pollution, Kentucky’s leaders should look past political clichés and entrenched economic interests.

They should position Kentucky to be a leader in meeting the technical and economic challenge of making “clean coal” a reality instead of an oxymoron. It won’t be cheap, easy or painless for anyone, but it is the smart thing to do.


News events show energy status quo must change

March 20, 2011

If we can learn anything from recent headlines, it is that powering our economy and lifestyle will only get more difficult and expensive, at least in the near future.

Japan is struggling to avert catastrophe from an earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant. The crisis has the rest of the world taking a second look at the safety of its nuclear systems.

Kentucky outlawed nuclear power in 1984 until the federal government came up with a plan for storing spent fuel, which it has yet to do. The ban was prompted by a leaking radioactive dump in Fleming County that took years to contain. The state Senate voted last month to repeal the ban, but the bill died in the House.

Should Kentucky reconsider nuclear power, which now provides 20 percent of this nation’s electricity? Maybe so. We’re in no position to ignore any source of energy. But Japan’s disaster reminds us nuclear power is an imperfect, unforgiving technology that can be dangerous and costly.

I spent the early years of my career covering another example, much closer to home.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to parts of Kentucky and six other states, narrowly averted a nuclear accident in 1975 when one of its reactors in Alabama caught fire.

By the time I started covering TVA in 1981, the utility was raising electricity rates and writing off billions of dollars in investment because officials realized the agency was building too many nuclear reactors.

Then, in 1985, TVA shut down all its reactors after its own nuclear engineers secretly came to me and other reporters with evidence that raised questions about whether those plants had been built safely. That led to years of repairs and billions in additional cost.

Coal provides half the nation’s power and more than 90 percent of Kentucky’s power. Electricity has been cheap in this state, because many of the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal have been ignored. That is changing, because it must.

The Environmental Protection Agency last week proposed tighter rules for how much mercury, other toxic substances and particle pollution coal-fired power plants can release into the air. The EPA claims the rules will save 17,000 lives a year, and the $10 billion cost of making plants cleaner would produce $100 billion worth of health and environmental benefits.

Utilities will fight the new rules, just as they fought many previous rules that made coal-fired plants much cleaner and safer. Expect opposition, too, from many politicians, especially those in the pockets of industries that fund their campaigns.

They will say we “can’t afford” to protect public health or the environment, and higher standards will “kill jobs.” Change is inevitable, though, because research shows that pollution and climate change are killing a lot more than jobs.

Many of those same politicians have fought against fuel-economy standards for vehicles, leaving us all the more vulnerable to political instability in the Middle East and rising demand for oil in developing nations such as China and India.

Increasing domestic oil production in ways that harm the environment isn’t the answer, because that would barely make a dent in the price or supply of what is now a globally traded commodity.

So what is the answer? There isn’t one, but many.

We must invest in research and technology to mine, drill and burn coal and oil more cleanly and efficiently. We must incorporate whatever lessons are learned from Japan’s crisis to make nuclear power safer.

We must develop renewable energy sources — solar, wind and biomass — that will be able to sustain civilization long after coal and oil are gone. Government must play a significant role in this research where private industry cannot or will not.

Perhaps more than anything, we must get serious about designing buildings, vehicles and gadgets to use less energy. Conservation isn’t as difficult as many people think. Take, for example, Kentucky’s many new energy-efficient school buildings, including one in Warren County that will generate as much power as it uses.

We have a choice: ignore the headlines and fight inevitable change, or learn from them and get serious about balancing our needs and desires with those of future generations. Anyone who thinks we can maintain our energy status quo is a dim bulb.