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The Pristine Wilderness of Martin’s Fork

There’s a hidden treasure in the mountains of Southeastern Kentucky. The remote, 1,600-acre Martin’s Fork wilderness area, adjacent to the Cumberland Gap National Park, looks much as it did 200 years ago.

“This is literally what the first Kentuckians would have seen as they came through Cumberland Gap, with a forest much like this,” said Zeb Weese of the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund.

The Kentucky Life crew went on a three-hour hike to visit Martin’s Fork. Access is by foot only. The people who take care of this mountain stream and the surrounding forest want visitors to experience it as a place that time forgot.

“These areas, these are the last that we have that are fairly pristine,” said Zach Couch, coordinator of the Kentucky Wild Rivers Program. “There has been some historic logging on this property, but the forest is starting to recover. You don’t find places like this anymore. You have absolutely zero development up in this watershed. The water is crystal clear. You don’t have any sort of runoff issue as far as nutrients from agriculture.”

The land that makes up the Martin’s Fork wilderness area was purchased in the late 1990s and early 2000s by the Kentucky Division of Water and is managed in cooperation with the Fish and Wildlife Resource and the state Nature Preserves Commission.

Biologists say the area is a treasure trove of wildlife: salamanders, snakes, and bears. “You’re not necessarily going to see those things if you’re out hiking, but their habitat is here,” said Weese.

Nine plants and three animals listed by the commission as endangered, threatened, or of special concern have been found on the property.

“We monitor those to make sure they’re not disturbed in any way,” said Kyle Napier, manager of the Southeast Regional Nature Preserves.

Crouch says biologists monitor wildlife populations and keep records on population trends, to “be able to do some small-scale manipulations and see if we can recover some species that may be on the decline. That’s very fulfilling.”

A must-see on a visit here is Quadrule Falls, a 16-foot waterfall near the headwaters of Martin’s Fork. It takes some perseverance to get here, about 4 miles upstream.

“It depends on how much the average person likes to hike and get wet and fall down,” said Weese. “It’s all in the creek and you’re going to wet and it’s pretty slow going. But once you get here it’s a pretty nice destination.”

Weese said conservationists estimate that Kentucky loses about 120 acres a day on average to development. “We lose a lot of land like this, and we don’t make more of it. So if we don’t protect the few spots we have left, they’re irreplaceable, basically.”

These lands are purchased with money from the “Nature’s Finest” Kentucky license plates. “So if you have one of these plates on your car, you helped purchase this,” said Weese. “And we encourage people to come out and hike around and enjoy it.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2104, which originally aired on January 23, 2016. Watch the full episode.