Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Botanic Garden in Sports Controversy

2 November 2006

The Lexington Arboretum, otherwise known as the "Official State Botanical Garden for the Commonwealth of Kentucky", is finding itself at the centre of a debate over whether it is appropriate for athletes to use it as a training ground.

Join the Debate

You can join the debate and read what local people are saying about this issue on the Lexington Herald Poll.


Arboretum supporters and scholars who use it for research are protesting that the botanic garden is not suitable as a training and practice facility for organized sports. They say is not good for the plants, or for the teaching and research that takes place in the Arboretum. They are also concerns that it can interfere with other Arboretum visitors.

Within the past couple of weeks, university officials have said that cross-country teams would no longer run on a half-mile wood-chip trail in a 16-acre section of the Arboretum called Arboretum Woods, which experts say is particularly sensitive.

Now officials are considering constructing a new half-mile wood-chip trail, either inside or just outside the Arboretum, to accommodate the runners, University spokesman Jay Blanton said. The new trail would tie into the remainder of the arboretum path that runners take while training.

"This is university property. It's maintained by the university and it's property that the track team has used for more than a generation. And they're not disturbing the Arboretum," Blanton said.

"It's student fees and dollars that, in fact, help pay to maintain that property," he added, suggesting that it's only reasonable that students be allowed to use the property.

Concerns for Rare Plants

 Liatris aspera or Rough Blazing Star

 Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera) is
a native wildflower of Kentucky
Image © Russell R. Kirt Prairie Species Gallery,
College of DuPage

Researchers like Jim Lempke, curator of native plants at the Arboretum, and other Arboretum supporters are concerned about just what the University has in mind when it comes to a new wood-chip trail. 

"Our wood lot is one of the last, best relics of inner Bluegrass forest," Lempke said of Arboretum Woods. "This wood lot is one of the most important pieces of land to the ecology of the Bluegrass."

Amongst the research taking place there is the attempt to coax long-dormant seeds of rare plants that exist in the ground there into germinating, he said.

"We are seeing a lot of these plants come back with proper management," Lempke said. But, he added, some of the plants have been lost, not only to invasive insects, but to trampling.

Michelle Kosieniak, superintendent of planning, design and landscape for the local government's division of parks and recreation and a member of the Arboretum Advisory Committee said "My sense is that if the university is serious about hosting the state botanical garden ... that athletic teams using the facility for practice is not compatible."

Kosieniak suggests that the training has adversely affected scientific research in the Arboretum.

"The restroom facilities are not really adequate for 30 or 40 students," she added.

Runners have used Arboretum land for training, typically twice a week through the spring and autumn seasons, since the late 1960s or early 1970s - before the Arboretum was even established.

The question of whether organized athletic teams and the Arboretum can co-exist has been debated by Arboretum supporters and UK officials over the past couple of years. Talk about the issue has intensified in recent weeks, with participants looking at alternative places for athletes to train.

It is claimed that alternative practice locations suggested for runners don't have the proper terrain, or are not convenient for the athletes or present issues of health and safety.

Legal Wrangles

Whether or where the new wood-chip trail for University of Kentucky runners goes ahead could depend upon a n amendment to a lease agreement between University and the local government relating to the Arboretum. The agreement, good for 50 years, was signed in 1987.

Under the amended agreement, a 50-acre portion of Arboretum property must be devoted exclusively to "passive recreation and open space purposes." Athletic fields, swimming pools, tennis courts, "or similar athletic and recreational facilities" are not to be constructed there.

Back to news archive