Case Studies

Planning for Big, Connected Conservation – Kentucky Natural Lands Trust

Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve ~ Bill Lancaster

Climate Change and Connectivity

Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT) is working to protect, connect, and restore wildlands, large forest tracts, and migratory corridors. Efforts began with protection of the largest remaining old-growth tract in the state, expanded to a large landscape conservation initiative, and now include a range of conservation projects. KNLT’s primary goal is to protect biodiversity within climate resilient landscapes in ways that benefit communities. The organization has become a national leader in large landscape conservation. The 2015-2020 Strategic Plan outlines KNLT’s land protection and stewardship strategies which have been guiding these efforts in recent years.

What’s Being Done

Current conservation projects are focused on forested habitat and critical corridors in Central Appalachia. Through the Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor, KNLT is working to protect key wildlands and connect existing conservation lands along Pine Mountain to form a 125-mile contiguous forested wildlands corridor from Tennessee through Kentucky to Virginia. This is the largest conservation effort in Kentucky’s history, which aims to:

  • Protect high biodiversity – the mountain is within the second most biologically diverse temperate zone forest in the world and is essential habitat for thousands of plant and animal species, nearly 100 of which are rare and a few found nowhere else on the planet.
  • Protect climate resilient landscape – the mountain is part of Central Appalachia, a geography with an extremely varied landscape that is highly resilient to climate change. The species found here are better positioned to adapt and persist in the face of a changing climate.
  • Help the transitional economy – the mountain contains a matrix of conservation lands, areas that foster outdoor recreation tourism and livability for local communities. These protected wildlands are important to ensuring a just transition of the unfolding new economy of the region.

Species-driven conservation efforts are also underway. Over the last decade, KNLT has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Kentucky Ecological Services Field Office to manage the Imperiled Bat Conservation Fund, a multi-faceted fund that uses a combination of grant, mitigation, and federal discretionary funding to focus resources on bat, forest, and at-risk terrestrial species conservation in Kentucky. The fund has partnered with federal, state and nonprofit organizations to help protect over 30,000 acres statewide while also funding important research and stewardship.

Climate change considerations are being incorporated into KNLT’s comprehensive protection and stewardship planning efforts aimed at defining strategies to both protect large landscapes and defend the conservation value of their properties. The organization’s work has always been rooted in conservation biology, informed by the natural heritage network and inspired by innovative big conservation ideas. KNLT’s 2015-2020 Strategic Plan includes straightforward references to climate change and emphasizes the organization’s commitment to science-driven conservation which is aimed at protecting biologically diverse resilient landscapes like Pine Mountain. KNLT staff are now drafting the 2020-2025 plan in which the organization confirms its longstanding commitments to biodiversity and large landscape conservation while outlining unfolding opportunities and definitive commitments to providing natural climate solutions.

How They Do This

Based on the edge of Appalachia in Berea, Kentucky, KNLT has seven staff persons and a highly engaged and supportive board of directors and advisors.  Since its inception, KNLT has prided itself on being a science-based, science-driven organization. Members of both the board and staff have vast knowledge of Kentucky’s unique biodiversity and extensive on the ground conservation experience. This has led the organization to adopt land protection criteria and to formulate strategic land conservation plans emphasizing the importance of conserving the state’s biodiversity and large forested landscapes.  Over time, KNLT efforts have illustrated that protecting large, ecologically healthy, and unfragmented landscapes helps conserve the associated flora and fauna while also benefiting local communities. Working at landscape-scale requires partnerships with federal, state, and nonprofit organizations, as well as, with local communities. KNLT has a history of successful collaboration that has built trust with conservation partners, landowners and nearby communities.

  • Conservation Priorities – KNLT uses science-based priorities defined and informed by imperiled species data, landscape conditions and resiliency data. KNLT’s focus areas are aligned with federal, state and nonprofit partners’ priorities.
  • Land Acquisition – KNLT’s primary conservation tool is land acquisition, though most tracts within the organization’s project area are not for sale. The region has a history of outsiders coming in and exploiting local resources. KNLT must navigate this history and has a 25-year portfolio to illustrate the organization’s intent.
  • Funding – Kentucky has historically been a resource extraction economy, and funding for conservation has been limited. In-state funding via the Kentucky Heritage Lands Conservation Fund and the Imperiled Bat Conservation Fund have offered essential conservation capital. Private philanthropy is KNLT’s main funding source with most of it from within the state and limited out-of-state funders.
  • Stewardship – KNLT’s acquisition program comes with the overhead of long-term ownership. Through management collaboration with federal, state and nonprofit conservation organizations, KNLT is ensuring protection of its conservation investments.
  • Help with just transition – the mountain contains a matrix of conservation lands, areas that foster outdoor recreation tourism and livability for local communities. These protected wildlands are important to ensuring a just transition as a new economy and future unfolds in the region.


Since forming in 1995, KNLT has protected over 14,000 acres of wildlands, assisted in the protection of over 31,000 additional acres through partnerships and established itself as a key conservation organization in the state and region. Through innovative and strategic collaborations with federal, state, private and nonprofit organizations, this small land trust has made significant contributions within Kentucky and the Central Appalachian region. KNLT’s initial efforts to protect the state’s largest remaining tract of old-growth forest demonstrated an early commitment to science-driven conservation. The staff and board’s vision to take on a large landscape conservation project decades ago, and to remain focused, has proven impactful. KNLT has protected one-fifth of the overall 65,000 acres of conservation land along Pine Mountain, the second largest contribution after the U.S. Forest Service.

Lessons Learned

KNLT’s strong and well-informed land conservation planning and implementation, its commitment to managing the landscapes that it protects to ensure that they can be both resilient and adaptable, and its patience and perseverance, have yielded impressive results. Lessons learned include:

  •  Strategy & Reality – It is important to be strategic and realistic about not working everywhere. Focusing on big landscapes can take a long time; however, this approach can address climate responsive conservation needs in a meaningful way by incorporating the best science into land protection criteria, by understanding and then adopting at least some conservation goals that prioritize larger landscapes, and by emphasizing the related goals of landscape resilience and adaptation.
  • Science-driven & Community-minded: The science matters and so do the people. The science is solid, and it unequivocally shows that action must be taken to protect an irreplaceable natural treasure like Pine Mountain before it is lost forever.  By doing this, KNLT can simultaneously conserve biological diversity, make the region more resilient to the impacts of climate change, and improve the economic and public health of local communities. Working towards “win-win” solutions for people and the planet is a recipe for large conservation success!
  • Power of Partnership: Working at landscape scale requires strong and effective partnerships both with federal, state, nonprofit and private organizations, as well as, with local communities. It is important to identify strategic partnerships that compliment your goals and capacity.