Preston Lacy

“The connection he had with the earth and with the farm showed me that the land is more than just soil.”

Preston Lacy, Forest Steward Director, Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT); Shares his time between Pine Mountain, Kentucky, Harlan County and Louisville, Kentucky:

“I grew up in Scott County, just north of Lexington; first generation born outside of the foothills. My family settled in Wolfe County in 1783 on Lacy Creek and farmed sustainably for many years and then, the family bought some land in Scott County and moved out. My grandfather auger mined coal. He lived in Pineville, and then they lived in Jellico for a while. [They] moved around, and then got out of the coal business after one of the busts, and started farming. My great-grandfather bought the farm in Georgetown in the fifties. My dad moved there as an elementary school kid, and that’s where I was born. 

As a kid, we would go to family reunions in Wolfe County near the Hazel Green area, near the New River Gorge. A natural interest in my family’s past was instilled in me, and not in a forceful way. A lot of it came from my grandfather. He wasn’t an emotional person, but you could tell the joy he gained by seeing the foothills driving back on the Mountain Parkway. We would go back every Memorial Day and decorate the graves, go to gravesites all throughout that area of the county that I’d never been to before, and some sites were actually on the old homestead farm. 

I started gaining a real appreciation for this culture that I didn’t grow up with in Scott County, but yet I was so geographically closer than I ever thought. It was in my blood and I started realizing that, not necessarily being able to communicate it as well as a child and adolescent, but [I] started to feel it and understand it much more, which is what has driven my passion to become much more active in the mountains with this position.

I’d [was] maybe eight or nine [when] I started to get a feel for [Appalachian culture] from the trips we would take to Wolfe County, and watching my grandparents [who] I was very close to. I grew up in a rural subdivision north of Georgetown [and] the family farm is about a mile away. I would spend a lot of my time there as I got old enough to be able to help out. As a child, I always thought my grandfather was a very quiet and stern man and I never really connected with him well early on. My grandmother was the nicest person I could ever imagine on earth, and she cared for everybody, no matter what. We lost her when I was twelve or thirteen, and that was a very emotional thing for me, as it is for any child. 

As I continued to see the progression in age of my grandfather and help him out, take him to church every Sunday, and take him to Hazel Green Academy reunions and family reunions, I developed a bond that I never really [had] with him earlier in my life when we just didn’t really talk very much. I had opportunities to have conversations with him as he proceeded to get older that I don’t think he could have had a decade before. He was able to open up a lot more to me one-on-one, even without my dad being involved in the conversation at all.

I think [my grandfather] is somebody that was just so dedicated to what he was doing, no matter what it was. He was doing contract auger mining. I can only imagine back in his younger years he was always doing something that was providing for his family, and that was the most important thing for him. They started out on the old homestead he started out as a kid, and as he aged and started to reflect more, he would talk about having dreams of plowing the field with the horse and the mule down in the bottoms. The connection he had with the earth and with the farm showed me that the land is more than just soil. That was what brought me back to Kentucky after I moved away.

I majored in Natural Resource Conservation Management with a minor in Geography at the University of Kentucky. Then, I went on to the University of Louisville where I got a joint Masters in Masters of Urban Planning with a focus on Environmental Land Use Planning and the other Masters was a Master of Public Administration with a focus on Non-profit Management and Policy. 

I was one of the lucky few that had no time in between my first job and finishing up my last [college] paper. I had two days, and I moved to Illinois and got a job as an Environmental Planner for a small land trust near the St. Louis Metro, but on the Metro East side, an area that is breaking from the glacial till into a rugged area in southern Illinois. I did that for almost three years. Then, I moved about five miles across the river into the heart of St. Louis. I was working for another land trust and had the opportunity to travel a much larger geographical area; the whole Ozark Mountain bioregion. In the Ozarks, I found a closer connection because there was a lot of movement from Central Appalachian families that were moving west to the Ozarks. I started to see and feel that. 

I came back to Kentucky in May 2013. [I came back because] I missed it. I realized that there was nothing like moving away for me, personally. I gained a deeper respect for the state, for the region I grew up in, for the region my family’s from that I didn’t fully appreciate when I lived here, and didn’t see the full potential and the full value of.

Now I work for another land trust [which] is the third land trust I’ve worked for. They are all small non-profits that primarily focus on land conservation and land preservation. I work for Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT), and our main focus for twenty years now has been protection of land on Pine Mountain. Pine Mountain is a 125-mile long linear ridgeline running from near Jellico, Tennessee, all the way up to the Breaks Interstate Park [which] straddles the Virginia and Kentucky State line. [It is the second highest mountain in Kentucky.] The highest elevation on Pine Mountain is a little over 3300 feet in elevation and of course it goes lower. In Whitley County, it’s 2300 feet. 

Pine Mountain has essentially over one hundred rare species plants and animals. It’s a biodiversity hot spot for the state, particularly for terrestrial, but there are also aquatic species, which are federally listed species. Twenty years ago, the KNLT was called Blanton Forest Trust. It was a group of like-minded environmentalists [and] conservationists that wanted to see this large uncut, old growth forest protected. At the time, it was in private ownership and as I understand, the landowners were in negotiations about selling the property to them. The main issue was raising the funds to be able to do that [and] the organization essentially started as a rally of support to protect this treasure that the state had, that a lot of people hadn’t seen. It is protected now.

After we protected the heart of the old growth forest, the organization decided, ‘we should go ahead and start buying some lands, if they’re available for sale, surrounding that old growth forest to help buffer it, just in case.’ We proceeded to do that, and not long after that the organization said, “why don’t we just work on the whole mountain?’ That’s when the name changed from the Blanton Forest Trust to Kentucky Natural Lands Trust [which] gave it much broader goals even beyond Pine Mountain, to some degree. We have a focus area between Bearhind Forest and Fort Knox as well, but Pine Mountain has and will always be the number one priority for KNLT.

The Indiana bat is listed as endangered and there’s hibernacula, there’s swarming areas and certain areas throughout the mountain range that are very high priority. There are several caves on the north face of Pine Mountain that are habitat for the bats as well. 

There is the one extreme of purely a wildlife corridor, for resiliency to climate change as the climate continues to shift. There is this corridor that will be intact hundreds of years from now, for plants and animals to be able to migrate north/south hundreds of miles. The other side of the coin is the more direct human benefit. For folks in the area, there is a lot of tourism potential that has already started with Blanton Forest, but I think that opportunity will continue to grow over time with the Pine Mountain Trail, which has started on the north end. 

Over forty miles are complete, and the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail Organization has done a tremendous job of getting that section completed. We’re purchasing land along the ridgeline that will allow that trail to continue on all the way down to Pineville, to The Narrows and on down to Cumberland Gap National Park. [In the] grander scheme, it’s actually a part of a concept called the Grand Eastern Trail, which is going to run all the way to Alabama, connect up to the trail system in Florida, and all the way to the finger lakes of New York, so it will rival the Appalachian Trail. It will tie into Pine Mountain, and will provide some good options for diversifying the economy for some of the communities along the base of the mountain.

[Trail volunteers] meet on a monthly basis and continue to update maps, update markings, build shelters, and provide opportunities for people to use the trail fully [and] fully benefit from it. There are parts [of the trail] that are open for horseback riding, there are parts that I hiked on that are used by ATVs as well, and [parts of it you can put your automobile on]. 

I feel a very deep connection between [the Appalachian] people and the culture. It’s hard for me to really put it in words because I am still trying to figure it out. There’s something that I see in the culture as I experience it more in depth now than I ever have in the past. No more just going on a day trip or an overnight trip, but actually spending days and weeks at a time immersed in the culture. It’s something that I feel like would have been really great to have been a part of as a kid. I had a great childhood, but there is some level of community that I lacked. Luckily, I had my grandparents and the farm nearby that [gave me] bit of a taste of it. That was my connection.

I was always sensitive to [stereotyping] before, and I became even more sensitive to it after moving away. I feel like after moving away, when you do hear stereotypes, it’s focused on the entire state of Kentucky. It’s just fascinating, people’s stereotypes; fascinating in a very negative way, of course. I think it might be part of the reason why a lot of Kentuckians who move away might be moving back. It’s very confusing to have to hear those kinds of things and not really know why. When I moved back and got this job and started spending more time in the mountains it also intensified my sensitivity to that not only as a statewide perspective, but also for the culture for the mountains.

I feel like it’s human nature to point the finger and find a way to degrade somebody and as it becomes less and less politically correct to do so for other cultures or people with other colors of their skin. People will find a group of folks that they still feel comfortable doing that with. I don’t know when the cultural shift will actually occur for that to change, [but] my biggest fear is when that does happen, who does it narrow in on next? There will always be somebody else. That might just be one of the worst parts of human nature.

(It’s Good 2 Be Young In The Mountains Conference) It’s the first time I’ve seen an event like this, and to have it here in Harlan is really a powerful thing. Culturally, Harlan, in my opinion, is a hotbed of uniqueness and a hot bed of a lot of empowerment for our generation. 

After seeing the West End Poetry Opera from West Louisville [perform], that really hit the heart of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I am so glad that group was able to come and be at this event, because there are so many overlapping commonalities between urban black youth and rural white youth in Appalachia. It transects the urban rural divide, which a lot of things don’t, at least in pop culture. It transects the color of your skin, and it shows at a human level how similar we really are. To see that connection, and to see the positive involvement of the audience the entire time was a very moving and powerful thing to see.

(What will be your legacy? Just to do some good stuff for the environment, and ideally, have some positive impact on social change at some level. At whatever small level I can do, if there is some positive outcome from my time on earth, then I have done something good. Even if it’s not something that’s ever shown on TV or in the newspapers, that’s just fine with me.”