Many people are skeptical about the SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) effort to revive the economy of Eastern Kentucky because of a profound belief — based on painful experience — that entrenched interests and political posturing will ultimately preserve the status quo.
They fear that the health of the land, air, water and people of the region will always be sacrificed to powerful economic interests.
Last week there was a heartening example of a possible different way forward,
At Lake Cumberland, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed on a way to protect an endangered fish and the local economy.
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The economy of the area has suffered during the six seasons the lake has been drawn down for repairs on the Wolf Creek dam. Visitation, which reached 4.4 million in 2006, slid by as much as 20 percent, hurting marinas and other businesses.
The Corps announced the dam was fixed and that it had discovered colonies of the tiny, rare duskytail darter in the headwaters of the lake. The lake couldn't be completely refilled until the Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act, agreed to a plan to limit damage to the fish.
There was a fair amount of political thunder about putting fish ahead of people and out-of-control govern-ment, ignoring that it's government that spent $594 million on repairing the dam, and that people come to the area to enjoy diverse wildlife, including fish.
Regardless, the two agencies worked hard and fast to reach a solution, and found one. So, if there's enough rain this spring, Lake Cumberland will be full and the duskytail darter protected.
What's this got to do with the SOAR?
Simply this: The economy of Eastern Kentucky can grow while the environment is protected and improved.
We will go farther: The economy will not grow consistently and sustainably unless the environment is protected and improved.
There would be little disagreement that some of SOAR's focus areas — like agriculture, natural resources and tourism — are tied to environmental health.
All the focus areas rely on protecting the environment.
It's true that people won't vacation and plants won't grow where the water and soil are toxic. But even more fundamentally, people with choices don't live in environmental wastelands, meaning business recruitment, youth engagement, leadership development would all be doomed as well.
Lake Cumberland isn't the only example of protecting the environment while accommodating economic interests.
University of Kentucky scientists have been doing research along these lines for years in Eastern Kentucky, using the almost 15,000 acres of Robinson Forest as a huge laboratory.
They've studied how to cut timber while protecting water quality and future harvests and how best to reclaim land after surface mining.
It can be done.
The story Kentuckians have been sold is that environmental degradation is the price of economic growth. That's a lie, one that SOAR's leaders must dismiss.