JACKSON — As we hike uphill through beech and yellow poplar trees, a wild turkey flies out of the woods and across the trail in front of us. A few hundred yards higher, Erik Reece stops suddenly and points at a scarlet tanager foraging among the oaks.
At the crest of the ridge, we climb an old fire tower and are rewarded with a spectacular view of Robinson Forest. On this clear, spring morning, the forest looks like a rolling "river of earth," as James Still described the natural landscape of Eastern Kentucky in his classic 1940 novel, River of Earth.
The green waves roll out in every direction until they suddenly stop at Robinson Forest's boundary. Beyond the boundary are huge, gray scars from surface mining and the flattened, denuded remnants of "reclaimed" coal-mine land, now struggling to support foreign grasses and scrubby trees.
"We hope more people will go to Robinson Forest, but a lot of Kentuckians won't, so we wanted them to experience it vicariously," said Reece, co-author with James J. Krupa of the new book, The Embattled Wilderness: The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future (University of Georgia Press, $24.95).
Reece will sign copies of the book from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 East High Street.
Reece is a UK English professor best known for his award-winning 2006 book, Lost Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. Like Lost Mountain, this book has a forward by renowned Kentucky author Wendell Berry.
Krupa is a UK biology professor who, over decades of study, has explored every ridge and valley of the main 10,000-acre block of the 14,786-acre forest, which contains some of the state's cleanest streams.
"It is one of the last and largest examples of the oldest, most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America — the mixed mesophytic," the authors write in their introduction.
"Unfortunately, industrial development has churned under the mountains surrounding these 14,000 acres, turning Robinson Forest into an island of biological diversity surrounded by an ever-expanding desert," they write, adding that there is every reason to think that coal and timber interests want to plunder this land, too.
Reece and Krupa are both fine writers. In this small, engaging book, they alternate chapters, explaining the natural and human history of this unique corner of Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties, and making a case to preserve it.
Krupa describes the geological history of Robinson Forest and the surrounding Cumberland Plateau, which was formed before there were dinosaurs, mammals or even flowering plants. These mountains were once covered by a shallow inland sea and then swamps. Dead ferns and trees sank to the bottom for thousands of years, forming peat and eventually bituminous coal.
Krupa also discusses his research into the ecological diversity of the current forest. Who knew that lichens and wood rats could be so fascinating?
Reece's chapters describe the forest's human history, from settlement to the early 20th century, when Cincinnati business partners F.W. Mobray and E.O. Robinson bought the forest and cut virtually all of its timber.
In 1923, Robinson gave the wasted land to the University of Kentucky for research to "tend to the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky." Under UK's stewardship, most of the land has regenerated over the past 90 years into a second-growth version of the biologically diverse, native forest.
But coal operators, who wield considerable clout, have periodically pressured UK to allow mining in the forest. Reece said he and Krupa decided to write this book after the UK Board of Trustees' controversial 2007 decision to clear-cut 800 acres of the main forest.
Although the forest recovered from clear-cutting a century ago, critics doubt that can happen again because of the extensive surface mining on surrounding land and the planting of invasive species as part of mine "reclamation."
Reece said he and Krupa hope their book will prompt UK officials to rethink their management strategy for Robinson Forest and embrace a broader ecological research mission. A part of such a mission could be helping Kentucky adapt to climate change.
Specifically, the authors urge broader input into decision-making about the forest. Currently, Robinson Forest is managed by UK's Forestry Department. Also, they want UK to separate research and revenue goals, so that there is not periodic temptation to log or mine Robinson Forest to make money for the university.
Reece is up for tenure this year, and he acknowledges that this book won't be popular in some corners of the university. But he thinks Robinson Forest is worth fighting to preserve.
He said the book was inspired by The Unforeseen Wilderness, which UK commissioned Berry to write in 1971. It advocated for preservation of the Red River Gorge at a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to destroy it with a flood-control dam.
"We want to give readers a sense of why Robinson Forest is worth saving," Reece said. "If you can convince people to love something, they won't destroy it."
Excerpts from the final chapter of The Embattled Wilderness
"Robinson Forest is many things: It is one of the most important ecosystems in Appalachia, it is a laboratory for crucial research and teaching, and it is a gift held in trust for future generations of Kentuckians. But it is also a model for how we must proceed in our habitation of the natural world. In fact, Robinson Forest represents a model for an entirely new definition of "economy," whereby our American systems of exchange, both of wealth and energy, are brought in line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature."
"What we as 21st-century Americans must finally come to understand is that the economy of consumption operates in direct opposition to, and at the peril of, the economy of nature. ... Kentucky should look to Robinson Forest as a model for a sustainable, post-coal economy. We must replace the industrial logic of the strip mine with the much more ancient wisdom of the forest."
"To abandon wilderness places like Robinson Forest would be to abandon ourselves. To ignore the natural laws of its watersheds for the logic of our own industrial imagination would be to abandon our better selves — to abandon a sustainable future for the sake of short-term avarice and indulgence. But to preserve the world will mean learning the lessons of Robinson Forest, and in doing so learning to preserve that embattled wilderness."