Getting out in the woods is an important part of life in Kentucky. We hunt and hike, take the kids camping, ride our horses and mountain bikes, go fishing and climbing, or simply venture out to find some peace and solitude in an otherwise busy, noisy world.
In addition to enhancing our quality of life, outdoor recreation also offers significant economic potential that communities around Kentucky are working to harness.
In 2012, Gov. Steve Beshear announced the Kentucky Trail Towns program to help communities improve their tourism economies. More recently, outdoor recreational tourism has been recognized as a cornerstone of economic revitalization in Eastern Kentucky through the Shaping our Appalachian Region initiative.
Kentucky's public lands, particularly the 708,000-acre Daniel Boone National Forest, are an essential backbone to outdoor recreational opportunities. Much attention has been given to the economic successes of the Red River Gorge. The combination of developed trails, campgrounds and recreation sites, back-country areas, good signage and interpretive resources — as well as nearby amenities including restaurants, motels and convenience stores — has made the Gorge popular and busy. The impacts, from trail damage to overflowing parking lots, are apparent.
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But across the Daniel Boone are other scenic areas with underdeveloped recreational potential. Unfortunately, the Forest Service insists there's no money for more trails, campgrounds or other recreational infrastructure.
In 2013, the recreation budget for the Daniel Boone dropped for the fourth year in a row to $1.2 million, just 33 percent of the budget allocation estimated in the 2004 forest plan. The Forest Service acknowledges a $4 million backlog of deferred maintenance on recreational sites, with "a decline in quality of these facilities... being observed across the Forest."
In contrast, the timber budget has been funded, on average, at 103 percent of forest plan estimates. From 2005 through 2013, the Forest Service spent $9.7 million on timber management, but only received $3.8 million in revenue from timber sold.
This loss of taxpayer funds was worsened by the practice of selling federal timber at roughly half of the actual market, or "stumpage," price. Over the last decade, the Forest Service has subsidized the wood products industry by selling federal sawtimber at $3.2 million less than fair market value. Moreover, another $16 million has been spent since 2005 to maintain 1,300 miles of forest system roads — most inaccessible to the public and primarily serving the timber program.
Along U.S. 27, in northern McCreary and southern Pulaski Counties, is an area of similar size to the Red River Gorge with significant underdeveloped recreational potential. Set between Cumberland Falls and Burnside, and including the Beaver Creek Wilderness and Wildlife Management Areas, the area encompasses wild cliffs and canyons, waterfalls and clear streams, old-growth forests and scenic vistas. There are few trails, no campgrounds and one picnic area. The Forest Service has identified this area as part of its "Greenwood Vegetation Management Project." It proposes to log more than 3,600 acres to create open and regenerating forest habitats that are already in abundance as a result of natural disturbance and past logging of more than 4,000 acres since 1980.
The Forest Service still stands by the words of its first chief, Gifford Pinchot: The agency's mission is "to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run."
The Daniel Boone is irreplaceable as an outstanding recreational resource, while it provides just 0.4 percent of the timber harvested in Kentucky. It's time for Kentuckians and our elected representatives to call upon the Forest Service to stop throwing away limited funds logging and to invest instead in the trails, campgrounds and other recreational resources that bring so much good to so many people.