Almost 20 years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) first published a proposal for a national wildlife refuge at the confluence of the Green and Ohio Rivers in Henderson County, the Green River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) was officially established.

The announcement was made Friday, Nov. 22 by U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.

"Under President Donald Trump's leadership, the Department of the Interior has opened and expanded nearly 1.7 million acres of land, and today we're thrilled to add the Green River NWR to the list," said Bernhardt. "This is not just great news for recreationists, but also for the wildlife that will benefit from this conservation effort."

At the dedication ceremony Secretary Bernhardt acknowledged U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his steadfast dedication to the project, and leadership in shepherding it through Congress.

Sen. McConnell spoke at the dedication, saying "the establishment of the Green River NWR will preserve our natural resources for future generations of sportsmen and tourists to enjoy, and encourage growth in the local economy. I was proud to attract national attention to this Kentucky priority as Senate Majority Leader. "(By protecting) these lands we are fulfilling our responsibility as stewards of Kentucky's natural treasures."

Conservation Partnership Area

The first step in the creation of the refuge was to determine the Conservation Partnership Area (CPA). Within the CPA boundary, that includes five units and a total of 52,631 aces, the USFWS will acquire 24,000 acres for the refuge by buying easements and land from willing sellers. It may take decades for the refuge to reach 24,000 acres under public ownership.

The largest of the five CPA units is the 29,627-acre Scuffletown Unit, south of the Ohio River and east of the Green River. The area is in agricultural row crops now but could be rehabilitated into a wetland complex, with the removal of tile drains and the construction of a water control system.

The Scuffletown Bottoms were first identified by Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) biologists as an area of interest in the late 1950s. Mike Morton, who retired from KDFWR after 30 years as manager of nearby Sloughs Wildlife Management Area, said there are three major drainages that run through the area.

"There's overflow water during high river stages and heavy rainfall," said Morton, who began looking into the waterfowl management potential of the area in the 1980s. "There's a long history of use by shorebirds, and migrating waterfowl in the fall and spring."

Preservation of Habitat

The stated purpose of the refuge is to provide habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl, shorebirds, non-game land birds, such as neo-tropical songbirds, and bald eagles, and other birds of prey.

Establishment of the refuge would preserve habitat for several species of mussel listed as endangered or threatened, many species of wildlife found in wetlands and bottomland hardwood forests, and provide nesting habitat for wood ducks.

The refuge would be a prime destination for many outdoor recreational activities, including waterfowl hunting, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, hiking, birdwatching, wildlife photography, and conservation education/interpretive field trips.

Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the NWR system is an unparalleled network of 568 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts. More than 55 million people visit refuges every year, creating lasting economic benefits for local communities.

Refuge Would Benefit Local Economy

The Green River NWR would add to Kentucky's growing tourism industry, which generated $14.5 billion in economic impact during 2016, an increase of over five percent from $13.7 billion in 2015. Kentucky's tourism industry creates more than 193,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in tax revenues.

The establishment of a national wildlife refuge in such close proximity to the downtown business district of the city of Henderson, along US 41, and the John James Audubon Museum and State Park, would further enhance wildlife viewing and recreational opportunities, and could have a substantial impact on tourism in the community. In 2016, tourism generated $63.5 million in direct spending in Henderson County.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast.

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