Cycles of Life and Learning at WKU’s Green River Preserve

Along a remarkable stretch of land that’s more than 1,600 acres in size, you’ll find no shortage of habitats, including caves, uplands, limestone glades and the Green River.

This is the Green River Preserve, which is owned and managed by Western Kentucky University. The land is undoubtedly beautiful, but its significance extends far beyond aesthetics. The Green River Preserve’s varied habitats, foliage and animals make it one of the most important research sites in the world.

“The Green River Preserve includes eight miles of riverfront, and the Green River is one of the most biodiverse rivers in the country,” said Albert Meier, Ph.D., executive director of the Green River Preserve and a WKU distinguished professor. “In fact, we’re third in the nation in biodiversity for mussels and crustaceans and fourth for fish.”

The preserve’s biodiversity also supports an impressive array of research. Biologists and geologists frequently work in the Green River Preserve. Additionally, the area’s fields and sprawling cave system consistently attract archaeologists as they dig for various data. And the historic Gardner House in the Preserve is often a central point in folk studies and anthropological research, typically with an emphasis on cultural conservation.

The Green River Preserve, outlined in red, is depicted next to a representation of the Western Kentucky University campus for scale. The Green River Preserve is more than 1,600 acres.

A hub of research activity — and accolades

Restoration ecology is a primary focus of current research at the Green River Preserve, according to Meier.

“A lot of my research is on the restoration of native plant species that have dramatically declined due to a result of several factors,” he said.

The preserve’s incredible biodiversity has also contributed to another of the area’s acclaims: protecting endangered species.

“We provide habitats for 12 federally endangered species,” Meier said. “Some of our work is bent on restoring populations of endangered species and also species at risk of becoming endangered. If we can keep them from being endangered, it saves a lot of problems and resources.”

These species include cave shrimp, two federally endangered bat species and several federally listed endangered mussels.

Additional ecological-focused research at the preserve includes algae distribution, mussel research, the influences of karst on the food webs of the Green River, and forest restoration research, among other topics.

Because the preserve can accommodate so many types of research, the pace of the research itself has accelerated in the last several years. That acceleration has resulted in more than $4 million in external grants and contracts associated with work at the Green River Preserve or including it as a study site, Meier said.

Like other departments and centers under the Western Kentucky University Research Foundation umbrella, research at the Green River Preserve is often collaborative and can help identify inventive solutions for pervasive problems.

Take, for example, a new project that’s still in infancy. Working with WKU’s School of Business and Department of Agriculture, Meier said the focus of the project is examining the ecological principle of internal cycling and how it might benefit distressed counties.

“In places with low resources but an opportunity to have a high degree of internal cycling, you can have a productive system even though there are low resources,” he said. “For example, coral reefs are killed if you put a bunch of fertilizer on them. They have little access to nutrients but host extremely diverse systems where organisms trade with each other. The idea is to apply that concept to impoverished counties that had business decrease due to the construction of an interstate—using internal cycling and trading with each other in town to create a more diverse set of options within the community.”

With such a diverse variety of habitats in one place, the preserve attracts research interest from around the world. Renowned scientists that have visited the preserve include Hank Loescher, Director of Strategic Development at NEON, Inc.; Joseph T. Miller, Program Director, Office of International Science and Engineering; and Stephen Hubbell, a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA and the 2016 laureate of the International Prize for Biology. These high-profile interactions benefit the preserve much like the various species in a particular habitat help each other.

A partial view of a tallgrass restoration in the Green River Preserve. Restoration ecology is an integral focus at the preserve, including helping both endangered species and species at risk of becoming endangered.

“It’s a beneficial outcome,” he said. “If you have a place like the preserve where the value increases with the more work you do, then the next person has enough to work with.”

That’s especially true for student researchers, of which the preserve has many. WKU students often work on various studies throughout the preserve, but students also come from other schools to conduct research.

“We have a Ph.D. student from Louisville who’s done part of their work associated with the Green River Preserve, and we had a student from Washington a few years ago,” Meier said.

With that student research comes a variety of accolades that speak to the preserve’s value.

“In the 12 years that the preserve has existed, we’ve had two Minton award winners, which recognize the best graduate student at WKU,” Meier said. “We also have two Goldwater scholars from the preserve, awards that are given nationally to 200 students for being among the most promising undergraduate students.”

People and nature: the ultimate collaboration

Although researchers at the Green River Preserve are focused on the infinite cycle of activity happening in the land, sky, water and caves surrounding them, the seemingly ceaseless and purposeful activity of the researchers themselves is also a sight to behold.

In the preserve’s fescue fields, you might see teams of people planting pollinator mixes to help combat the pollinators’ global decline. Prescribed burns help support fire-dependent species. And trees are often planted as a consistent focus of restoration efforts, and Meier estimated that nearly 15,000 trees have been planted so far.

“I think we’re also approaching 1,500 cubic yards of trash removed from the preserve,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the activity at the preserve is all work and no play. Although the preserve isn’t typically open to the general public (special permission is needed to gain access), the site will often host activities.

Wildflowers are abundant throughout the Green River Preserve and are an important part of the preserve’s ecosystem.

“We work with disabled veterans who hunt deer at the preserve,” Meier said. Veterans will also bring their kids to the preserve for activities like canoeing.

The Green River Preserve is home to three cemeteries, and Meier said they’ll support relatives of the deceased who want to see the graveyards.

“[Department head of folk studies and anthropology] Darlene Applegate [Ph.D.] has done a lot of research in the graveyards,” he said. “She’s gathered huge amounts of data so people learn about their families from Western Kentucky University, and in turn, the university learns about these people.”

The cycle of learning in the Green River Preserve is similar to the natural cycles of life and death that keep the preserve thriving. And just as the preserve depends on a variety of plants, trees, animals and organisms to exist, Meier and the preserve’s research advisory team depend on people — researchers, students and citizens — to succeed.

“As we grow in the opportunities we offer for education, research and outreach, we must remember to keep our focus on people,” Meier said. “As special as the place is, the people who love and appreciate the preserve are even more important. They are the ones who will protect it and build its future, and that of Kentucky and beyond.”