The rural landscape is changing. We notice farmland disappearing in Central Kentucky and hear about the decline of coal in Eastern Kentucky every day. Small towns and rural school systems are declining across America.
The loss of railroad jobs has impacted my part of the state, as the flow of coal cars has decreased tremendously over time. But not all of our loss comes from coal.
The coalfield’s peak employment was in the 1950s; today coal income is significant in 10 to 11 Eastern Kentucky counties. The loss of tobacco production has impacted many Appalachian counties more than coal. The absolute peak of coal production was the early 1990s. This was about when tobacco production quotas began to fall.
So where do we go from here?
A new Abandoned Mine Lands and community development pilot program will allocate $30 million in Kentucky to reclaiming lands that had been developed for coal production.
If we look to tourism as a path to economic rebirth, as frequently mentioned, we must realize that the most active group of tourists will be sportsmen. And we need to do a better job in Kentucky of addressing the needs of this dedicated group of people.
I took my first trip to Wisconsin last year to grouse hunt and came away most impressed by the efforts of its fish and wildlife department and the Wisconsin Division of Forestry. Paths through public lands for hunting and even snowmobiling were everywhere.
These paths and openings were planted in clover and other species that wildlife could consume. The forests are logged on a rotational basis and the resulting habitat for wildlife is exceptional.
The money to be allocated here in Kentucky could be put to use in this way. Working with private logging companies, the Kentucky Division of Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service and others could lead to a change in how we seed down logging roads for the benefit of wildlife.
Clovers would be good for deer, turkey, rabbits, elk, grouse and many other animals. Reclaimed strip mine land would be good for quail populations, habitat for rabbits and expanding the elk herd. Kentucky elk permits are prized across the country and many expect the next world-record elk to come from our state.
Small ponds and lakes could be developed for waterfowl and back-country fishing and paddling. Some areas would be suitable to develop a trout population at a time when fly fishing for trout has achieved cult-like status in western states.
Hunting trails and trails for ATVs could be developed in clear-cut or other logged areas. Just a little mowing, like the trails in Wisconsin, would be good for people and wildlife alike.
Now these trails grow up with briars and become impenetrable to all. Timber cutting, done responsibly, is good for the forest and especially good for many species of wildlife.
This is a different way to look at the redevelopment of Eastern Kentucky. Like it or not, population is declining and in an age when transportation is at a premium it is unlikely that large-scale employment opportunities are going to suddenly appear.
Why not make this an area that sportsmen from across the country will aspire to visit and stay for a time? Other areas have developed cabins and vacation homes and sometimes jobs related to the folks who move in and stay.
Maybe someday we will be a destination like Wyoming for elk, Montana for trout, Wisconsin for grouse, Texas and Oklahoma for quail, Maine for moose and Alabama for crappie. Maybe it will be Eastern Kentucky for the wildlife wonders of the world.
Past efforts at development have not been that successful so maybe it is time to try something new. The mountains are at our backdoor and this is not something everyone can claim. Natural resources are what developed the area and now redevelopment of these resources is needed.
Mark Reese is a retired Scott County Extension agent who also worked for Eastern Kentucky University. He raises sheep on a farm in Estill County and writes an outdoors column for the Estill County Citizen Voice & Times where this was first published.