IRVINE — Kentuckians are beginning to realize that developing natural resources means more than looking for things to chop down, dig up and export.
In some cases, economic development can be as simple as thinking about what you like about your community — a beautiful landscape, an interesting culture — and figuring out how to attract more people there to enjoy it.
One great example is the proposed Kentucky River Water Trail. The idea is to clean up the 256-mile river and make it more accessible for paddling, fishing and other kinds of outdoor recreation. And figure out how communities along the river can profit from it.
The Kentucky River Water Trail Alliance, which is organizing the effort, met last week in Estill County. The meeting attracted about 75 citizens in addition to state, local and federal officials.
Never miss a local story.
"I've always thought the Kentucky River was one of the greatest natural resources Estill County has," said Judge-Executive Wallace Taylor. "It's something we need to better utilize."
The idea has gotten a boost since Gov. Steve Beshear nominated the river trail as one of two Kentucky projects for America's Great Outdoors, a federal initiative to bring a "21st century approach" to conservation and outdoor recreation. (The other Kentucky project is the Dawkins Line Rail Trail in Johnson and Magoffin counties.)
From three Eastern Kentucky forks that meet at Beattyville, the Kentucky River flows into Central Kentucky below Lexington, through Frankfort and into the Ohio River at Carrollton.
From pioneer days until railroads took over in the early 1900s, the river was a vital commercial artery — taking flour, whiskey and tobacco from Central Kentucky to New Orleans, and later timber and coal from Eastern Kentucky to the Bluegrass.
But for decades, the Kentucky River has been mostly ignored, aside from its role as a water supply. Locks and dams that turned the free-flowing river into a series of 14 pools more than a century ago were all but abandoned until recently, when the Kentucky River Authority began rebuilding them.
Many people think the river has enormous recreation and tourism potential because it is so scenic, especially around the limestone cliffs south of Lexington known as the Palisades.
"I've probably traveled 10,000 miles by water all over the country," said Jerry Graves, the Kentucky River Authority's executive director, "and the Kentucky River Palisades is as pretty as it gets."
Attracting more visitors will involve several steps: cleaning up the river through volunteer efforts such as the annual Kentucky River Clean Sweep, the third Saturday of each June, and water-quality monitoring by Kentucky River Watershed Watch. Counties must build ramps, docks and portages for canoes, kayaks and fishing boats.
Another key element is adding and promoting visitor services — restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns, outfitters and other stores, plus museums, historic sites, craft shops and cultural attractions. The final step is providing information about all of those things through websites, field guides and signs.
The Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet has a Trail Towns program to help communities figure out how to generate business by catering to visitors at nearby water, bike, horse and hiking trails. A couple of towns have gone through the program, and several more have applied, most recently Hazard.
Elaine Wilson, who directs the state's Adventure Tourism program, explained the concept at last week's meeting by citing the example of Damascus, Va., which was a declining lumber town until it built a new economy around the nearby Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper bike trail, a former railroad line.
That example resonated with me, because about 15 friends and I went to Damascus last summer during a weeklong bike trip in Virginia and North Carolina. We had a great time — and made a healthy contribution to the local economy. We plan to make a similar trip every summer, and it would be great if we had some Kentucky destinations to choose from that are as developed as others in the Southeast.
Damascus could provide a good example for places like Irvine and adjacent Ravenna, which have struggled since the Louisville & Nashville Railroad went away. Irvine already has a charming old downtown beside the river, historic resources such as Fitchburg Furnace and Estill Springs and delicious, down-home cooking at Rader's River Grill.
The state's Adventure Tourism initiative makes a lot of sense. Some people criticize the effort, saying it's no "big solution" for depressed rural economies. That's true, but it doesn't mean it isn't worth doing.
Big economic-development solutions are few and far between. Small-scale, entrepreneurial industries may be the best hope for Kentucky small towns and rural areas hoping to build sustainable, post-industrial economies.
Extraction industries run out of minerals to extract. Factories move away for cheaper labor. But natural resources such as scenic rivers and mountains can pay long-term dividends if wisely developed — and protected.