STURGIS — The gravel road off Kentucky 1508 in southwestern Union County initially passes through fields of corn and sunflowers, suggesting just another fertile corner of one of the state's best grain-producing counties.But drive on a mile or so, find a gravel parking lot, then pull off the road and put on some hiking shoes. Strike off on foot and you can explore the wonders of Kentucky's newest — and one of its biggest — wildlife areas. This is the newly minted Big Rivers Wildlife Management Area, covering 2,488 acres along the narrow Tradewater River and the broad Ohio River a couple of miles west of Sturgis. The corn fields nearest the paved highway deceive the visitor; just a quarter of the property has been cleared for crops. More than 60 percent is forest; another 10 percent is wild wetlands.
On Wednesday afternoon, some visitors traveled along a graveled path that decades ago was a railroad bed, constructed to haul coal down to a river dock. As people approached, a wild turkey and her brood of young poults fled in a cloud of dust into the safety of the woods. Farther down the lane, white-tailed deer bounded gracefully away. A raccoon waddled into the underbrush; neon-blue indigo buntings flitted through the clearings. Mike Morton, the area supervisor and biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, says he has also seen coyotes, bobcats, minks and otters at Big Rivers WMA. "And I haven't spent that much time here," he said. To be sure, the state of Kentucky — specifically, Fish & Wildlife and its ownership partner, the Kentucky Division of Forestry — has had possession of this tract for barely five months. But state wildlife officials have coveted this property for years.
"This is a fairly monumental event," Jon Gassett, the commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildife, declared at a dedication ceremony in a clearing of oaks on the Big Rivers WMA property Wednesday. In the late 1990s, when Gassett joined the department, news came that aluminum giant Alcoa was preparing to shed its holdings of 12,000 acres straddling the Tradewater River in Union and Crittenden counties. More than a half-century ago, Alcoa had acquired coal-bearing property in the area to serve the aluminum smelter it built upstream along the Ohio River at Newburgh, Ind.; atop the ground was valuable hardwood timber.
The land also straddles the lower stretches of the quiet Tradewater River, "the longest free-flowing river in Kentucky," unencumbered by dams, Gassett said. This is along a rare stretch of the lower Ohio River where Kentucky farmland doesn't quietly succumb to the muddy river. "There are (limestone) cliffs to the right and Cypress trees to the left, 90 yards away — what I'd call dynamic change in a very short distance," Morton said.
But Gassett said the state of Kentucky couldn't muster what he called the then "astronomical" sum of $11 million that the Alcoa ground commanded at the time. Instead, it fell into the hands of Indiana-based Kimball International, a maker of furniture and other goods that cut some of the timber. But Kimball did so sustainably, Gassett said, harvesting enough wood to meet its immediate needs while leaving enough standing for the future — and, it turned out, for today. The land also became home to a hunting lodge. In time, Kimball decided to move away from timber holdings; in 2008, it put the property up for auction. Millions were bid and were initially rejected; the acquisition ultimately involved a complicated $25 million coalition involving non-profit, local, state and federal agencies and organizations. "For me," Gassett said, "this has been a vision 12 years in the coming." "This kind of project does not come along often," said Terry Cook, director of The Nature Conservancy.
"None of these projects, at this scale, can happen without partners," Cook said. Including folks who choose to spend $10 extra for a Kentucky "nature plate" vehicle license plate. "For me, it's a dream come true," state Sen. Dorsey Ridley said. "And across the river, there is more opportunity." The Big Rivers WMA is open to hunters, fisherman, hikers, birdwatchers, photographers and canoeists. It is closed to all-terrain vehicles, campers, mountain bikers and horse riders. Kentucky's ambition's don't stop at the Tradewater River; the state also hopes, through its partners, to acquire 4,285 acres across the river in Crittenden County. The Big Rivers WMA, Ridley said, will preserve riverside forestland for generations to appreciate. "We're going to own this into perpetuity," he said. "We've left a legacy for future generations," Ridley said.
To visit the Big Rivers Wildlife Management Area: From Sturgis, at the intersection of U.S. 60 and Kentucky 109, travel westerly on Kentucky 109 for 1.6 miles, then turn left (southwest) onto Kentucky 1508. There are two entrances to the left; both are gravel roads into the Big Rivers WMA. The first is approximately seven-tenths of a mile west of Kentucky 109 and extends approximately three-quarters of a mile into the WMA to a parking lot near the Tradewater River. The second, which is the main entrance, is approximately 1.4 miles from Kentucky 109. The gravel road forks and leads to multiple gravel parking lots.