The Legacy of a Healthy Planet

by Mike Hensley, Green River Program Director for The Nature Conservancy

I’ve worked in the conservation field for almost twenty years; first with the Florida Park Service and then, for the last seven years, with The Nature Conservancy in Kentucky. During that time, it has become apparent that people pursue a career in conservation because they want their life’s work to be meaningful and produce results that extend beyond their lifetime to benefit all species and our planet. These are the type of people I have had the tremendous honor of working with during my career.

People like us will spend a career or lifetime searching for the opportunity to work on a Legacy Project—one that may require a commitment that spans more than one career or generation in order to move the needle in a big way. Saving a species that would otherwise go extinct or coming up with a solution to a previously unsolved conservation challenge are all examples of this.

Restoring a river’s natural vitality also falls within this category. That is what removing one of the locks and dams on Kentucky’s Green River has been for me.

me at dam 6 demo
Mike Hensley witnesses the removal of Dam #6. © Mike Hensley/The Nature Conservancy

When I first joined the staff of The Nature Conservancy in 2010, my boss at the time, Jeff Sole (well-known throughout Kentucky’s conservation community) told me that removing one or more obsolete locks and dams from the Green and Barren rivers was a high conservation priority—something he and many others had been picking away at for many years. In the following months and years, we continued along that path, engaging in discussions with trusted partners and other stakeholders about the future of these four old dams.

However, it doesn’t make much sense to only talk with folks who see things the same way that you do, especially with regard to thorny issues like this one. That is why we also made a point of engaging with people who were not in favor of dam removal. The Kentucky Chapter’s state director, David Phemister, and one of our volunteer trustees, Larry Cox, worked overtime to help advance our cause with many different audiences.

Mike Turner (USACE) and David Phemister (TNC)
The Nature Conservancy’s Kentucky State Director, David Phemister, participates in a stakeholder discussion about Lock #6. © Mike Hensley/The Nature Conservancy

Gaining support for dam removal hinged on presenting benefits that made sense to the many stakeholders who would be impacted—the regional water commission, recreational interests, the agricultural sector, a blossoming ecotourism industry and also those with strong ties to local history. And there were politics to consider. In fact, no action was possible until Congress passed federal legislation that authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deauthorize and dispose of the dams.

The passage of federal legislation took place during 2016 in the form of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation bill (WIIN for short). Senator McConnell and Congressman Brett Guthrie, and their capable staff members, worked to ensure that the WIIN legislation balanced stakeholder viewpoints and desired outcomes. Specifically, the legislation designated non-federal ownership for three of the four dams and specific instructions on removing the dams at the earliest opportunity. (The legislation also transferred ownership of a fourth dam, the Rochester Dam, over to the regional water commission.)

Workers chip away at permanently removing Dam #6. © Mike Hensley/The Nature Conservancy

As fate would have it, as Congress passed the WIIN legislation, one of the dams (Green River #6 near Brownsville) partially failed, opening the door for an expedited removal. Last March, a skilled dam removal crew from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the dam and the lock chamber in 16 work days with assistance from KDFWR, the Corps of Engineers, Mammoth Cave National Park, the Conservancy, Kentucky Waterways Alliance and local authorities.

Now water flows freely past a site where a dam once interrupted the river’s natural flow and the life cycles of aquatic life for over 100 years.

The Green River flows freely past where Dam #6 used to be. © Mike Hensley/The Nature Conservancy

In the coming months, we and our partners will shift focus to the two remaining lock and dams slated for removal by the WIIN legislation: Green River #5, about 15 river miles downstream from the now-removed #6 site, and Barren River #1, located about 14 miles downstream from the city of Bowling Green. Removing the dams will open up amazing new opportunities for ecotourism and associated economic benefits, as well as improved fishery health. Lands associated with each of these sites will be repurposed as public green space, another beneficial outcome secured by the WIIN legislation.

Jeff Sole, now retired from The Nature Conservancy, and his son Aaron who has chosen a career in the conservation field. © Mike Hensley/The Nature Conservancy

My old boss, Jeff Sole, made sure to participate in the Dam #6 removal since he had dedicated a good portion of his career to laying the groundwork for the project’s success prior to his retirement. Jeff was accompanied by his son who follows in his dad’s footsteps by pursuing a career in conservation.

Jeff’s replacement and my new boss, Danna Baxley, was also in attendance and glowed with excitement and pride as we realized such a positive outcome. It happened. We witnessed and participated in a true Legacy Project—one which had spanned several careers and a generation. I am proud to have played a small role in this story and it’s happy ending. It was a good day for conservation.

Learn about the mussel rescue that happened after the dam breached! Feel inspired? spport this work with a donation to The Nature Conservancy’s Kentucky chapter.