A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: Green River National Wildlife Refuge near Henderson to protect nearly 24,000 acres

Plans are in the works for the establishment of a national wildlife refuge near Henderson.

A statement posted on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website in part read, “The Service has been directed to approve the establishment of the Green River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), near the confluence of the Green River and Ohio River in Henderson County. The refuge should consist of approximately 24,000 acres — to be acquired from willing landowners.”

The refuge is likely to be south of the Ohio River and east of the Green River, in what’s known locally as the Scuffletown Bottoms. 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 establishment of a national wildlife refuge near Henderson, Kentucky would preserve habitat for many species of wildlife found in wetlands and bottomland hardwood forests, and provide nesting habitat for wood ducks. (Photo by Chuck Summers)

Mike Morton, who retired from Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) after 30 years as manager of nearby Sloughs WMA, 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.”

The Scuffletown Bottoms were first identified by KDFWR biologists as an area of interest in the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until June 2001 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a proposal for the Green River NWR.

The stated purpose of the refuge would be 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, kayaking, hiking, birdwatching, and conservation education/interpretive field trips.

More than 41 million people visit national wildlife refuges each year, and their spending generates almost $1.7 billion in sales and nearly 27,000 jobs for regional economies, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In June, 2001 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a proposal for the Green River NWR. The main purpose of the refuge would be to provide habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl. (Photo provided)

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. In 2016 alone, tourism generated $63.5 million in direct spending in Henderson County.

The exact location and boundary of the national wildlife refuge will not be determined until the I-69 bridge corridor is selected.

Mindy Peterson, a spokesperson for the I-69 Ohio River Crossing Project Team, said the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) will be published this fall.

“After the DEIS is published, public hearings will be held in Evansville and Henderson, and there will be a 45-day comment period,” said Peterson.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and Record of Decision (ROD) from the Federal Highway Administration are expected by fall 2019. This allows the states, with the help of available federal funds, to move forward with design, land purchases and construction.

The establishment of a national wildlife refuge is mitigation for the land used for the interstate right-of-way and bridge.

There are three preliminary route alternatives being considered for a new I-69 bridge and interstate connections, from just south of Henderson, Kentucky, to Evansville, Indiana.

To view the route alternatives visit the Ohio River Crossing Project Team, visit i69ohiorivercrossing.com

In August 2007, I-69 was designated one of six “corridors of the future” by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

When completed, I-69 will be more than 820 miles long, and traverse eight states, with its southern terminus at three border crossings with Mexico in Laredo, Pharr, and Brownsville, Texas, and its northern terminus at Port Huron, Michigan, on the Canadian border.

In Kentucky, the I-69 corridor utilizes the state’s existing parkway system and includes sections of I-24, the Western Kentucky Parkway, and Pennyrile Parkway.

Green River NWR would be the third national wildlife refuge established in Kentucky.

Kentucky’s first national wildlife refuge, Kentucky Woodlands NWR, was established in 1938, near the town of Fenton, Kentucky, on lands between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.

Kentucky Woodlands NWR closed in 1963, with the creation of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL). Thousands of acres of the former refuge were flooded when Lake Barkley was impounded in 1966.

The establishment of a national wildlife refuge in such close proximity to the city of Henderson, 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. (Photo courtesy of the Henderson Tourist Commission)

For 34 years Kentucky was without a national wildlife refuge.

Then in 1997, Clarks River NWR, now 8,040 acres, was established on the East Fork of the Clarks River, near the town of Benton, Kentucky, on one of the largest remaining bottomland hardwood forests in the region.

“Regionally, it would be good for us to have a national wildlife refuge here, for duck hunters, birders and everyone concerned,” said Thomas Young, a private lands wildlife biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), in the Green River Region.

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.

“It would be great for that land to be re-purposed, and to have an influx of tourism dollars spent in Henderson County and surrounding areas,” said Maddy Fritz, marketing director for the Henderson Tourist Commission.

But the project process is just beginning, and likely to take longer than imagined.

“It’s not a snap your fingers deal, it will take a long time to happen,” said Morton. “It could be a couple of decades before (the national wildlife refuge) is realized.”

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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. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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