LETCHER COUNTY — If you want to see what Kentucky looked like hundreds of years ago — before coal mining, logging or even large-scale settlement — visit Lilley Cornett Woods. A large part of the Letcher County forest stands today exactly as it did then.
Eastern Kentucky University's director of the division of natural areas, Melinda Wilder, is in charge of managing the state-owned woods.
"This is what this whole area looked like to the people years ago, whether they were 'white' or 'red,'" she said. "Maybe I'm sentimental, but I think there's something special about that."
About half of the woods' 554 acres is classified as old-growth. To qualify as such, a forest must be largely untouched by people for at least 200 years. Lilley Cornett Woods is one of three old-growth forests in Kentucky. (The others are Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve in Harlan County and Mammoth Cave National Park near Cave City.) Lilley Cornett is the longest preserved among the three.
Getting there isn't easy
The woods are tucked about 45 minutes southeast of Hazard. Getting there requires driving winding, narrow roads through the old coal towns of Vicco and Isom. Along the way, signs advertise "fresh beer" and hamburgers that are just three miles to the left.
On arrival at Lilley Cornett, there is a large willow tree and the visitor center. You aren't allowed to enter the woods without a tour guide. There are only two people who work as on-site staff.
One is Rob Watts. The manager of Lilley Cornett Woods has worked there for 38 years and grew up in Letcher County. In his long tenure, he has never taken a vacation day that didn't allow him to check the precipitation gauge at 7 a.m. daily. If he takes the day off to, say, go hunting, he checks the rain gauge in the morning anyway. Thanks in part to Watts' dedication, Lilley Cornett is one of the few sites with four decades of precipitation data.
During a hike through the woods with Watts, it becomes easy to understand why he's so enamored of the forest. The woods are lush and overgrown. The trail is covered in moss, and the creeks are punctuated with gentle cascades. Trees that dwarf humans by hundreds of feet stand next to picturesque valleys and hollows.
Watts works hard to protect the forest that he has walked through all his life. On this day, he monitors all the trees for blight. He spent two years tending a herd of about 10 goats and five cows to rid the forest of a kudzu problem.
An island of biodiversity
All this care helps to maintain the rich biodiversity characteristic of what scientists call a mixed mesophytic forest. There are more than 100 species of trees in Lilley Cornett Woods. There are mushrooms and other fungi along the rocks and trees, and economically valuable species, including ginseng and yellow root. Wilder pointed out the smell of the soil in the old-growth forest. She said its so full of organic matter it has a special, particularly woodsy quality.
At one point, mixed mesophytic forests stretched all across the mid-range Appalachian region, which includes Kentucky. Wilder emphasized that Lilley Cornett Woods' existence is especially remarkable in a state whose economy has always relied on resource extraction.
Resource extraction, mainly logging and coal, used to be a significant threat to the woods. But Lilley Cornett, the forest's namesake, spent his life fighting to keep loggers off the land, which he bought in 1918. After his death, his sons sold the woods to the state in 1969 to be preserved.
But, the Cornetts, like many people of their time and place, had only the surface rights to their land. The mineral rights had been sold long ago. In the 1990s, several coal companies with rights to the coal under Lilley Cornett Woods demanded that they be allowed to mine the woods or that the state reimburse them for the 1 million tons of coal underneath. After years of legal battles with various outcomes, the woods remain unmined.
Watersheds and impact
Today, coal poses more of a threat to the woods' aesthetic value than to its environmental or historical worth. At three points, the view from the hiking trails includes surface-mining sites.
The woods themselves are not environmentally harmed by the nearby mining, Wilder said. However, they do work as a kind of control in the nation's long relationship with coal mining, other industries and unrestrained settlement.
The woods house four watersheds. Each one offers a portal into the impact of a different environmental threat. Students can study the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the soil and water of each watershed to see the effect of coal mines or settlement. Then they can compare it to those levels in the Big Everidge watershed from the old-growth forest to see what the carbon and nitrogen levels would have been if those areas had been left undisturbed.
The results of these tests lead Wilder to criticize coal production as the process stands.
"I'm not against coal," she said. "We need coal, there's no question about it. But we could do coal a lot more environmentally."
The problem of access
But Wilder doesn't have much time to fight the battle for clean coal. Along with her EKU colleague, geology professor Wally Borowski, she is busy trying to turn Lilley Cornett Woods into a site capable of hosting graduate student researchers and overnight field trips for students from elementary school through high school.
But Lilley Cornett's remote location is a barrier to the kind of research it could support. The underuse of the woods' potential resources frustrates Wilder and Borowski.
For instance, because the woods is so remote, there are no fiber-optic phone lines, which are necessary for high-speed Internet, and therefore the remote data sharing required by most grant providers.
Nor are there hotels or cabins close enough to the site to make it convenient or affordable for researchers, let alone ecotourists looking for a unique hike. (The closest hotel is in Hazard.) Wilder and Borowski say they want to buy property to convert into overnight lodging for visitors.
The two envision a time when Lilley Cornett has the opportunity to educate a few thousand visitors a year about old-growth forests — and about Kentucky's history and environmental challenges. Currently, the site gets about 800 visitors a year, mostly high school groups.
Without the proper infrastructure to support visitors and researchers, getting project and outreach funding is more difficult — which in turn makes it harder to support visitors and researchers.
"It's a chicken-and-the-egg thing," Borowski said.
"I need facilities to host people," Wilder said.
"If you build it, they will come," Borowski added.
He worries that school budget constraints will prevent children from experiencing the woods. Field trips are surprisingly difficult for schools, Borowski said. In addition to paying bus and driver fees, principals need to find money to hire substitutes for students not going on the field trip. Plus, some people fear that a field trip won't contribute to measurable improvement on state standardized tests
Wilder, who was a middle school science teacher for six years and teaches future science teachers at EKU, said it's wrong to think that trips like a hike through Lilley Cornett Woods are unproductive educationally. She said the students are given tests before and after the trip about what they will see and learn on the hike, so the trip is incorporated into the classroom's standards. Plus, she said, field trips can inspire a passion in students that can lead to better academic performance.
Wilder and Borowski think environmental education is vital, not just for the future of Lilley Cornett Woods but for the future of the Earth's resources.
"First and foremost, I want to maintain the ecological integrity of the woods," Wilder said. "It's very special. Then I want to use that resource to inform whomever about those ecological systems and why they should care."
"The most important thing is education at all levels," Borowski said, whether that be college-age students, elementary schoolers or just visitors out for a hike in the old-growth forest of Lilley Cornett Woods.