Students boost effort to promote ecotourism near Breaks gorge in Eastern Kentucky

lblackford@herald-leader.comMarch 24, 2014 

A raft paddled down the Russell Fork River during the Russell Fork Rendezvous near Elkhorn City.

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Eastern Kentucky leaders continue to ponder the region's post-coal economic future, but for Elkhorn City attorney Tim Belcher, the answer for his area has been clear for the past two decades.

"I've been talking about adventure tourism for 20 years. We have all the natural assets we need to diversify our economy and move forward," he said.

Specifically, he means the roiling waters of the Russell Fork River, which stream through Elkhorn City and the Breaks gorge, also known as the "Grand Canyon of the East."

"We've got the best whitewater in the United States," he said, and there is hiking along Pine Mountain Trail, which connects the Breaks to Pineville and could go as far as Cumberland Gap.

What Belcher, president of the Elkhorn City Heritage Council, does not have is the data needed to convince many locals that ecotourism will work. That's where students from the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University have helped.

A group of sociology faculty and students worked in the area during the past year and spent the past weekend interviewing nearly every resident about their perceptions and ideas of a tourism economy around Elkhorn City.

In October, students conducted surveys of tourists in the campgrounds around Elkhorn City and at the nearby Breaks Interstate Park to see where they come from and why.

Belcher said the students' work will help Elkhorn City obtain a state Trail Town designation, one of many changes needed to refocus the area's economy on tourism.

"The thing we don't have is the data to convince decision makers to move forward," he said. "The universities are compiling that data, and it really lends validity to what we're doing."

Once a community receives the Trail Town certification, the state's Office of Adventure Tourism promotes and markets the community with maps, websites, visitors guides and other publications.

Helping Elkhorn City has been good for the roughly 30 undergraduates involved, too, said UK sociology professor Shaunna Scott, a Pike County native.

Over the weekend, the students collected 90 surveys, and they hope to get more back in the mail.

"This is a great learning experience for them," Scott said.

Most of the students are in an Appalachian Studies class that requires them to learn about human research training and research ethics, and to study Elkhorn City's past and present economic trends.

Scott partnered with EKU professor Stephanie McSpirit, whose students joined the effort.

"Obviously there's a research question here, as a community that has been driven by a coal industry tries to transition to something else," McSpirit said. "These are the things our universities have to support, not only because of our service mandate but because it provides great opportunities for our students to get field experiences that a classroom doesn't offer."

UK senior Kaytlin Cox, who grew up in Elkhorn City, happened upon Scott's class, not knowing it was about her hometown.

"This was my first time doing any kind of research on Eastern Kentucky, and some things make me feel really hopeful about Eastern Kentucky," Cox said. "The community wants to see progress."

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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