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Environmentalist John Cleveland, 55, dies

John Cleveland, an environmental activist who worked on coal, gas, logging and solid waste issues in Eastern Kentucky, was killed Monday when a tree fell on him at his farm near Blackey in Letcher County.

He apparently had been cutting a tree and was trapped between it and another, said Sgt. Brian Damron of the Letcher County sheriff's office.

Mr. Cleveland, 55, was recently hired by the Sierra Club. He also had been associated with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Democracy Resource Center, the Kentucky Resources Council and other groups. He was known as a local government watchdog.

"I think he probably attended more school board meetings and more fiscal court meetings that anyone else, probably including the elected officials," former Letcher County Judge-Executive Carroll Smith said.

Mr. Cleveland grew up on a farm near Frankfort and graduated from the University of Kentucky. He had lived in Letcher County for 20 years.

"John was warm and gentle, and at the same time tough, passionate and committed to the core," said Teresa McHugh, his supervisor at the Sierra Club.

Aaron Isherwood, a senior attorney at the Sierra Club offices in San Francisco, said Mr. Cleveland's death was a blow to the organization and to Eastern Kentucky.

"John ... worked tirelessly to try to protect communities in Eastern Kentucky from the devastating effects of coal mining" he said.

Less than two weeks ago, Teri Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth said, Mr. Cleveland had been the force behind an effort to contest a mining permit for land near the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River — one of Kentucky's cleanest streams.

Rick Clewett, a Sierra Club activist in Lexington, recalled Mr. Cleveland as a man who loved animals. Because he knew that some people tried to run over black snakes crossing a road, Mr. Cleveland carried a sack so he could capture the snakes and turn them loose on his land.

Smith, the former county official, said that Mr. Cleveland was ahead of his time in several areas, including recycling and reducing waste.

He recalled going through a fast-food drive-in window with Mr. Cleveland in the 1980s, when few in the region were thinking about such issues. Mr. Cleveland asked for his food on a piece of wax paper instead of in a foam box.

"At the time, I thought he was being silly," Smith said. "Then the rest of the world caught up."

Cleveland is survived by his wife, Artie Ann Bates, and son, David. Funeral arrangements are pending at Letcher Funeral Home.