The Barren River Area Development District and the National Park Service recently finished a six-year effort to draft a “master plan” to designate the Green River as an official Blueways Water Trail.

The Green River spans more than 300 miles across 16 counties, five area development districts – the Bluegrass, Lake Cumberland, Barren River, Pennyrile and Green River – and Mammoth Cave National Park. It’s considered the most biodiverse river in the state, with about 20 mussel species and 150 species of freshwater fish, and supports ecosystems in the nearby forested karst.

To preserve and boost these natural attractions, the plan sets forth goals to establish a national system of water trails, galvanize efforts to protect and restore the health of local waterways and surrounding lands and promote the development of water trails and implementation of river best management practices, according to the planning document.

“It’s been an ongoing project for many years, we’ve even had staff turnover during the process,” said Eric Sexton, BRADD’s executive director. “I thought this was a really unique opportunity for BRADD. This diversifies the (district’s work) in terms of the environmental roles we can play in the community.”

To complete the first objective, becoming an official Blueways Water Trail, the Green River must be open to the public, comply with applicable land-use plans and environmental laws, gain support from landowners, remain open for public use at least 10 consecutive years after designation and maintain best management practices, which include continued conservation efforts, labeled public access points, trail maintenance, community support and educational opportunities about the value of water resources, cultural heritage, boating skills and outdoor ethics.

The benefit of this designation is providing nationwide visibility, marketing opportunities and support for future projects, as well as bringing together “a variety of individuals to ensure protection of Kentucky’s natural environment and development of its economy,” according to the planning document.

“This provides a great marketing tool for economic development in our region,” Sexton said, and “for anyone that is interested in adventure tourism.”

Economic growth will be part of the project goals, which could be met through increased tourism and the typically accompanying increase in demand for retail trade and food services.

“I see it as a particular boost for small business in the region,” Sexton said.

The plan lists the existing facilities and recommends the development of new facilities and recreational areas along the Green River. BRADD will also push for the construction of mile markers, which could especially be useful during emergencies, Sexton said.

To further boost eco-tourism, recreational canoe and kayak opportunities and economic benefits, the plan suggests removing the remaining dams along the lower Green River to aid in “considerable” ecosystem restoration.

If outdoor recreation increases, this could improve the health of area residents. Adult obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular death and stroke death rates are higher than national and state averages in most of these counties.

The other significant aspect of this project will be to improve conservation efforts through the Green River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. These efforts will include reducing the amount of sediment, pesticides and nutrients entering the river and its tributaries by planting barrier vegetation, protecting wildlife habitat and threatened or endangered species, restoring riparian habitat and targeting 1,000 priority sinkholes.

“When you go back a little bit in history, conservation should always be somewhere in our periphery,” Sexton said. “We have a lot of natural resources that we need to protect and preserve, and that can be used for economic development. Mammoth Cave and the Green River are prime examples. Nobody wants to (float) down a dirty river.”

The planning process began in June 2013 with regional leaders and representatives from Mammoth Cave National Park, Western Kentucky University, the Kentucky Division of Water, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources, Natural Conservation Resource Service and the Nature Conservancy.

Initially, this project prioritized the river trail flowing through the BRADD region. But the various people involved decided to extend the project and develop a Blueways Water Trail for the full 383 miles of the Green River, along with an official designation as a National Water Trails System for portions of the Green River.

The middle third of the river, which includes Mammoth Cave National Park and runs from the Green River Dam to Rochester Dam, has attracted the most momentum.

“As updates in the future are made, we’ll provide those to the website,” Sexton said.

– Follow reporter Caroline Eggers on Twitter @eggersdailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.

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