Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Dr. William H. Martin

This extraordinary educator, leader and conservationist talks about the Ohio River Basin’s rich, yet threatened, biodiversity.

By Amy Nelson

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Former Professor of Biology and Director of the Division of Natural Areas at Eastern Kentucky University and Former Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources.

Dr. William Martin began teaching Biology at Eastern Kentucky University almost 40 years ago, in 1969, and went on to become Director of the University’s Division of Natural Areas. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee – Knoxville in 1971. Dr. Martin left EKU from 1992-1998 to serve as Commissioner for the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources, but ultimately returned to EKU, where he continued to teach for another eight years. He developed and taught over a dozen courses in general ecology, plant ecology and environmental science and ethics. Dr. Martin’s research interests have concentrated on forests – particularly old growth – of the southern Appalachians and natural grasslands of the Midwest.

Throughout his career, Dr. Martin has devoted a great deal of his time and energy to serving conservation organizations, including, among dozens of others, The Nature Conservancy Board of Trustees, the Bluegrass Area Development District of Natural Resources advisory committee, and the Kentucky River Authority. He has served as chairman of the Education Section of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), President of the Association of Southeastern Biologists, Secretary-Treasurer of the Southeastern Section of ESA, and chairman of many sections of the both the Kentucky and Tennessee Academies of Science. Dr. Martin also participated in the Man and Biosphere Programme and the First Sino-American Expedition to Jiangsu Province in China. He has published at least 21 edited or refered books and papers. Probably the greatest accomplishment was his lead in editing the three significant volumes on the Biodiversity of the Southeastern United States: Lowland Terrestrial Communities, Upland Terrestrial Communities, and Aquatic Communities. Dr. Martin is now retired and living in Lexington, Kentucky.

Where are you from originally, and how did you become interested in biology?

I was born and raised on a farm in west Tennessee. We were cotton and cattle farmers. I was outdoors all the time. I hunted and fished some, but I wasn’t an ardent sportsman. My undergraduate work was at Tennessee Tech. I went into animal science because I was planning on going into vocational ag teaching. That’s how I came to have a degree in agriculture.

I became turned on to plants and ecological investigations late, in that I was already out of school. I was teaching high school in Florida and went to a National Science Foundation Institute for high school teachers in the early 60s. I learned a heck of a lot more there than I ever learned at the undergraduate level. It was then that I became interested in looking at things botanical. When I got into graduate school [at the University of Tennessee Knoxville], the faculty members that I had made me really interested in plants and forests and that’s the direction I went.

From an ecosystem perspective, what makes the Ohio River watershed special?

There are several reasons that it is interesting. One is that it is the geographic and genetic center of the Eastern Deciduous Forests of North America. The Appalachian Highland streams are headwaters of major rivers going into the Ohio River Basin, and are extraordinarily biodiverse. The rivers of Tennessee and Kentucky [in addition to those of Alabama] are leaders in terms of freshwater mussels and freshwater fishes. They are centers of evolution of these aquatic groups. Our limestone region, which is in the interior Low Plateaus portion of the Ohio River Basin, has extensive cave ecosystems. These systems are unique. Mammoth Cave National Park  has the longest cave in the world. Our cave systems have been studied, and we recognize them as being centers of biodiversity for those kinds of systems and extraordinarily important in terms of aquifers and rare habitat. They contain habitat for bats, for example, to live and overwinter. Those three categories of caves, waterways and forests are what make the Ohio River Basin systems as diverse and important as they are.

What do you consider to be the biggest threats to biodiversity within the Ohio River Bioregion?

It’s like anywhere else — habitat destruction and habitat fragmentation. That’s number one. One bird that is becoming very much threatened is the northern bobwhite quail. We also have a number of migratory songbirds with declining populations, such as the cerulean warbler in our forests. The second is invasive species. Our most invasive species have gotten here accidentally – by commerce or by the traveling of human beings. An example is the zebra mussel, which got in here from ballast water in the Great Lakes region and then invaded the Ohio River.

A major invasive species that is going to have an effect on our forests right now is the hemlock wooly adelgid. It is just now moving into Kentucky, and there is no stopping it. It is going to kill most of our hemlock trees, I’m afraid. I have seen it in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and I’ve seen its damage. It is not a hypothetical threat. It is very real.

So habitat destruction/fragmentation and invasive species are two immediate threats. On top of that is air and water pollution that is with us because of a concentration of power plants and industries that have used our waterways as places to get rid of things.

There are some threats due to overharvesting. For example, overharvesting of ginseng is a long term threat to the species. Kentucky leads in the amount of ginseng that is harvested. Typically, we think that harvesting of plants and animals is controlled and that most harvesting problems are associated with oceanic organisms, but that’s not the whole case.

In connection with habitat loss is the growth of the region in population. We’re not heavily populated in the sense of New England and lower New York. Nonetheless, the population centers plus the transportation corridors getting to the population centers, make habitat destruction and fragmentation very real and at the top of the list.

In Kentucky, we are losing 130 acres a day. (source: Natural Resources Conservation Service) As far as development is concerned, we’re not necessarily at the top of the list in the country, but we’re close to it. This means we’re losing more than a square mile a week. That is not sustainable. That is converting our forests and fields into concrete. Here in Kentucky, we don’t have many counties and areas that have planning and zoning associated with them. So it’s based on every person having a right to do what they want to with their property. That’s what holds forth here.

When we asked our readers to rate the Ohio River bioregion in terms of its importance to the ecological health of North America. On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being the most important), the largest percentage of our readers (24%) gave it an 8. How would you rate it?

I’d give the Ohio River Basin a 10. What is going to be ranked higher? For the Eastern United States, the Ohio River Basin is unbeatable in terms of the biodiversity it has, the range of ecosystems it has and the value of those land and water ecosystems that have unique characteristics about them. These centers that we’re talking about – deciduous forests, fishes, mussels and cave systems – where else are you going to see that? I would rank it a 10 and I would say it’s an extraordinarily important portion of North America.

Even within the Basin, though, there’s not a widespread appreciation [of the ecological richness of the Ohio River Bioregion]. The average person out here on the street is marginally knowledgeable about it.

Based on what you’ve observed in your career, how do you think the rest of America rates the Ohio River Bioregion?

Lower. They don’t know very much about it. People are not aware of the biodiversity we have here in the Ohio River Basin. That’s been part of my job – to try to get that message out. There has been a large federal effort into the Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades. But the federal effort that we have had in this part of the country as far as conservation is concerned has not had that kind of thrust to it.

What have you found to be the best way of getting that message out and educating people?

The best way to get the message out is a continuous concentration on that in terms of various media. As far as the region is concerned, we don’t have the activism that other parts of the country do. For example… the Sierra Club here is a group of very committed people. There’s no question about that. But the membership of the Sierra Club throughout the entire Ohio River Basin is not as great as it is in other parts of the country. Our conservation ethic is not as strong as it is in other parts of the country.

Our senators and congressman are not inclined toward conservation, by and large. We have some who are. Representative Ben Chandler,  who represents my district here in Kentucky, is a conservationist and has taken fairly strong, public stands on certain environmental issues. But of the six congressmen we have, he is the only one who talks about [conservation]. We don’t have the kind of representation at the national level that is needed to draw the attention of, say, the Chesapeake or the Everglades.

Our ecosystems here are fairly resilient, so they appear to recover quickly from some kind of disturbance. Furthermore, we still have a lot of natural landscape left, in comparison to other parts of the country. So people here in this region are not struck with any kind of urgency until they hear about this loss of 130 acres a day. Then they say, “Hmm…we need to think about this.”

The message we’re trying to get out – myself and others – is that portions of the Ohio River Basin are still rural, but there are threats and they are very real. Either they have arrived or they are coming.

When you served as Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources in the 1990s, you were instrumental in the creation of the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund. Can you tell me about the Fund?

The Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund  is created by three sources of funding that are part of state action – environmental fines, license plate program, and the state portion of the unmined minerals tax. One of the things I did when I was in State government was to help get this funding mechanism in place and get this conservation fund created. I’ve been chairman of the Heritage Land Conservation Fund ever since it started and I’m still the chairman.

How much has gone into the Fund since it was created?

$33 million. With that, we have acquired almost 28,000 acres that we have obtained from willing sellers. We have been able to conserve a number of areas throughout the state with this fund. It’s our State source of funding for natural areas. There was funding at the Fish & Wildlife Department, that came from the federal government, for farmland acquisition, but it was just a mere trickle in terms of what it could do. The Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund has allowed us to make the progress we have made, but there’s a long way to go. The amount that is allocated for this program has not increased much over time, but we now have a demand that is at least twice what we have funds for.

Would you say that getting the Fund started is one of your proudest accomplishments? 

That would definitely be one of them. Getting the funding in place was a team effort, of course, and I was a part of the team. I’m also proud of being chairman of that Board from 1995 until the present.

What was the predominant issue facing the Commonwealth of Kentucky at the time you served as Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources?

In one administration, it was the Heritage Land Conservation Fund. We also had a Biodiversity Task Force that concentrated on biodiversity in our state for about a year. The Task Force made some recommendations that are still guiding what we are doing today.

Another issue was forests and forest management. Kentucky is one of the top hardwood producing states in the country. One of the things we tried to do was address conservation of forests and the waterways associated with forests that were being abused by logging practices. That was the other big issue I dealt with.

The Kentucky Forest Conservation Act of 1998 was the culmination of all of the legislative and executive branch activity that was associated with forestry. We did a lot of outreach to educate people about the forests of Kentucky and the timber industry and its value to the state. The Forest Conservation Act is not as strong as a lot of people would like it to be – in terms of stopping logging abuses – but there is a program in place that allows the State to monitor logging jobs and fine people when necessary. There is also a training program for people doing the logging to establish best management practices. We did all of that through the Forest Conservation Act of 1998.

Here we are, 10 years later. Are these programs being implemented? Have things improved?

The situation has improved some, but there are still abuses as far as the logging is concerned. This is simply because there are not enough people to monitor. There is also not enough attention given by the people who are in the community where the logging occurs. There is ignorance and apathy in terms of logging and that there are certain best management practices for improving a logging operation so that the soil and waters are not going to be as badly affected as they are by indiscriminate logging. Ninety-two percent of our forests are privately owned. That was one of our struggles with the Act. There are few controls that can be placed on logging when it is done on private land.

You have done a great deal of service work with many different organizations. What have you seen to be the most effective way to help ensure that ecosystems and biodiversity are protected for generations to come?

What has to occur is that there’s some kind of recognition of the value of these systems and some kind of formal agreement that allows them to be conserved. The best way, to quote an old advertisement, is “to get these lands protected the old-fashioned way; that is, to buy them.” That is one strategy. I don’t think it’s the only strategy by any means. That has been The Nature Conservancy’s strategy. They have not gotten into lobbying and activism as, for example, the Sierra Club has. The conservancy has been very successful – nationally and internationally now. I was with the Conservancy here in Kentucky back when it was an embryonic organization. We’ve seen it grow to a fairly good size for this state, but there are other parts of the country where it is stronger.

There are several kinds of agreements that provide legal protections that include purchasing, land trust, conservation easements, etc. There isn’t any one thing that is magic to conservation. It begins with people who are interested in the land being conserved in the first place. In the long run, all we have to do is have people who are interested in conserving. In answer to your question, the most direct thing is that it has to get out of the private domain and into the public domain where there is oversight and protection in the long run that protects it from being converted into something else.

Are there any organizations – regionally or even nationally – that you think do a particularly good job generating/promoting/inspiring environmental stewardship?

The Nature Conservancy,  The Conservation Fund, The Trust for Public Land, The American Farm Land Trust, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

We once dedicated an issue of Leaf Litter to the topic of natural capital, the idea of assigning monetary value to ecological systems and processes. Do you see natural capital being addressed in any conservation or restoration efforts in your region?

A lot has been written about natural capital and values of ecological services. A big example, of course, is the conservation of the Adirondack region in New York  and how they have saved money on water treatment by conserving areas providing water to New York City.

Beyond that, there is not a lot of emphasis on natural capital at this time. An awful lot of stuff is written about it. There are a lot of numbers that are kicked around (billions of dollars that pollinators are providing to agriculture; what an acre of trees provides as a sponge against pollution, etc.). In terms of really being something that is a widespread and widely recognized campaign of the value of ecological services, no. I haven’t seen that being applied to any great extent yet.

Overall, your focus seems to be on conservation. A lot of our readers are also involved in ecological restoration and regenerative design. Do you see much of these approaches being applied in your region?

Yes, there’s some of that here. I’ve seen that with the Heritage Land Conservation Fund. Some of the acquisition dollars – and acquisition intent – is to conserve a place, but also to restore it. There’s some of this going on, but as far as widespread…no, I wouldn’t say that.

You have taught biology at Eastern Kentucky University for over 30 years. You must have touched thousands of lives. What were the main themes that you hope your students walked away with?

From the standpoint of the students that were not biology majors, what you want to try to do is give them some knowledge about what these natural systems are, what the ecological goods and services are, and also an appreciation for them. Hopefully they will carry that out with them and keep it over their lifetimes.

For graduate students, you’re really training them to go on with their professional lives in biology or ecology. You’re trying to make sure they appreciate the natural world and are enthralled by it. The complexity of the natural world is awesome and continues to be completely amazing. One of the things that has guided me is an old saying [by African conservationist Baba Dioum]:

In the end, we will conserve only what we love.

We will love only what we understand.

We will understand only what we are taught.

That’s what I’d like people to leave my courses with.

If I wanted to see the greatest amount of biodiversity in the Ohio River Bioregion, but only had time to go to one place, where would you recommend I go?  

To the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. The western part in Tennessee drains into the OhioRiver Basin. If you want one place to visit that gives you a view of the majesty of this part of the country, that’s my recommendation.

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