Camp rejects environmental groups

amead@herald-leader.comMarch 6, 2009 

Two groups that oppose mountaintop removal coal mining have been told they are not welcome to hold meetings at a former Boy Scout camp in Harlan County.

Jim Scheff of Kentucky Heartwood said his group called in May to reserve Camp Blanton for a gathering, called the Heartwood Forest Council, this Memorial Day weekend.

The other group, Mountain Justice, scheduled the camp for several days leading up to the holiday weekend.

They found out two weeks ago that their reservations had been canceled, Scheff said Tuesday.

Sidney Douglass, a Harlan attorney who is a board member and attorney for the trust that operates the camp, said the camp still is accepting reservations from other groups.

He said the two groups were canceled because "board members didn't want to get the camp involved in the kind of controversies that they're involved in."

Both groups said they had rented the camp before and had received no complaints. The groups had even helped out by painting buildings and inoculating hemlock trees against an insect that is killing them. Both said they received no explanation.

"It would have been one thing if earlier in the year they had said, 'We just don't want you here,'" Scheff said. "We had put in hundreds of hours of volunteer work on planning, a lot of it dealing specifically with this place."

Scheff said he spoke with board member Danny Smallwood, who would tell him only that "I'm just one of 15 board members."

Harlan County is deep in Kentucky's eastern coal fields, and coal mining is central to the local economy. Douglass, the attorney, said that several board members have ties to the industry.

Scheff said, however, that it would be speculation on his part to tie the cancellations to coal.

"Nationally there's a lot of pressure on coal, and the coal industry is really worried about it," he said. "The fact that Mountain Justice was going to be there camping for a week and then Heartwood was going to be there ... also working to end mountaintop removal coal mining, that might have been more than they wanted to deal with."

Scheff estimated that by canceling the two events, the camp lost $10,000 to $15,000.

Camp Blanton covers 10 acres near the trailhead of Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve, the largest stand of old-growth forest remaining in Kentucky.

Grover and Oxie Blanton, who refused to sell their timber, gave the camp to the Boy Scouts. Formal ties with the Scouts ended in 1988, when several local residents and former scouts formed the Camp Blanton Trust.

The camp's Web site says it can accommodate "small and large groups" with five cabins, a large dining hall and kitchen, and restrooms and showers. It also offers canoeing, swimming, a firing range "and some of the best hiking trails available anywhere."

Mountain Justice organizer Dave Cooper could not be reached for comment, but the group's Web site had earlier reported that about 200 people came to the gathering last May.

"The camp was so popular that we have decided to return," the site said.

This year's event has been moved to the Appalachian South Folklife Center in West Virginia.

On Memorial Day weekend, 200 to 300 people from the eastern United States were expected for the 19th annual Heartwood Forest Council. The group also met there in 2000 and 2003. It is now booking Camp McKee near Mount Sterling for this year's gathering, Scheff said.

Many people who travel across several states for the annual meeting have a special attachment to Camp Blanton and Blanton Forest, he said.

"While there is still an easement to allow public access to Blanton Forest, this decision by the Camp Blanton Board of Trustees means that we are no longer allowed to gather as a group in that place and enjoy the forest together," Scheff said.

Staff writer Dori Hjalmarson contributed to this report.

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