A proposed development in southeast Jefferson County would endanger the largest remaining critical habitat for the Kentucky glade cress, a plant that grows nowhere else in the world.
The profits from that development would be used to fund the Parklands of Floyds Fork —nearly 4,000 acres of trails, playgrounds and protected natural habitat — right next door.
The Kentucky glade cress thrives in the harshest of conditions. It grows in shallow soils atop rocky dolomite outcrops — two to four inches high — producing miniature white and lilac blossoms.
It’s often found along old buffalo traces, and it’s thought that bison once spread the seeds across the cedar glades of two Kentucky counties. It’s a specialist, and like many other plants and animals adapted to specific habitats, it’s now under threat.
There are only about 50 distinct glade cress populations in the world — and all of them are in Jefferson and Bullitt counties. This has led the federal government to list the plant as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
“We’re to the point now where individual plants matter. An outcrop of five or 10 or 20, it’s a big deal, given as threatened as this plant is and how much of it we have lost,” said Jeff Frank, a conservationist and the Founder of Friends of Floyds Fork.
Frank has mapped out many of the remaining populations of the Kentucky glade cress. Some are protected in the Parklands.
But the plant’s largest remaining critical habitat in Louisville is right outside the park’s boundaries, according to federal register documents.
“When we did surveys in that area in 2010, 2011, it’s a large populations there,” said Botanist Tara Littlefield with Kentucky State Nature Preserves. “A lot of the glades in that area are lower quality but there was a tremendous amount of plants.”
That site is part of the proposed location of Oakland Hills, a development that will include 592 single family lots and up to 350 apartments, according to development plans filed with the city.
The development is a project of the 21st Century Parks Endowment, the same nonprofit that raises money to fund the Parklands.
So, the project that could eliminate a critical glade cress habitat is meant to raise money to help preserve the park’s nearby natural lands.
Frank said it’s the responsibility of the 21st Century Parks Endowment to protect the critical habitat for glade cress.
“If you’re raising money around protecting the landscape, protect the landscape,” he said. “If you’re going to lead by example, lead everywhere. They certainly have led by example within the Parklands.”
Chair of the Kentucky Land Trust Coalition, Don Dott, said there’s nothing inherently wrong with using subdivisions to fund the park, which he sees as a valuable asset to the community.
“In this case, the development is potentially harming this federally listed plant, which seems very contrary to what they are doing protecting nature for the benefit of the public,” Dott said.
21st Century Parks Endowment declined an interview for this story.
Spokesman Matt Kamer said the group won’t comment until development plans have been finalized.
A statement included with the email said the endowment is working with a naturalist to identify environmental assets, which could include glade cress.
“21st Century Parks Endowment’s goal with Oakland Hills is to create a model for an environmentally sensitive development on the edges of The Parkland,” according to the statement.
Although Kentucky glade cress is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, it receives few federal protections. Even the critical habitat designation cannot stop private land owners from destroying glade cress.
Unless, it’s tied up with federal funding.
The Parklands was developed, in part, using a $38 million federal transportation appropriation secured by Sen. Mitch McConnell.
21st Century Parks Endowment raises money to help fund the Parklands, though spokesman Matt Kamer said it is a separate entity with a separate staff.
It’s unclear, however, if that’s enough of a nexus for U.S. Fish and Wildlife to get involved, said Dott from the Kentucky Land Trust Coalition.
“So this is potentially a novel question, you know the park has to have the maintenance be done and how’s that being funded?” he said. “Well part of it is this development. So does that tie it in enough to the federal funding that went into it? That I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question.”
Why Protect Glade Cress?
Researchers know little about the Kentucky glade cress.
They know where and when it grows.
They know it’s an annual in the mustard family and that it’s among the first plants to bloom in early spring, making it a helpful store of nectar for bees and butterflies, said Littlefield with Kentucky State Nature Preserves.
But there’s a lot more researchers don’t know, and that in itself, is a reason to protect glade cress, she said.
“There’s the aesthetic, just the beauty, there’s the reason that all species have a right to exist on this earth, and third is, it’s connected to so many other species that if this plant disappeared, what else would disappear with it?” Littlefield said.