He’s helping rock climbers and residents near the Red River Gorge get along. Here’s how.

People climb around the top of Half Moon Rock in the Red River Gorge in Wolfe County in this 2004 file photo.
People climb around the top of Half Moon Rock in the Red River Gorge in Wolfe County in this 2004 file photo. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

When you take coal and manufacturing out of Eastern Kentucky’s economic picture, what remains? What about rivers, forests, rock formations and farming? Eastern Kentucky University Associate Professor of Sociology James Maples has been asking that question and getting answers. He shared them with Tom Martin

Question: Tell us about your work in the area of outdoor recreation.

Answer: I was trained as a political economist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. And, I do outdoor recreation economic impact research. A lot of my work is focused on rock climbing, but I’ve expanded that to include things like mountain biking, paddling and so forth.

Q: Is it realistic to think that there might be a balance found between economic growth and environmental preservation?

A: Yes, it is possible. It’s something that takes a lot of thought and a lot of careful land management. Part of it has to be couched in the fact that outdoor recreation is growing both in user numbers and also the amount of money that’s being spent. And it’s becoming a job creator — everything from manufacturing climbing harnesses to guide services and having hotels and campsites where people can stay, it’s becoming an important part of the economy.

The balance is really all about finding the ways to preserve these outdoor recreation areas. We have to think of them as a resource that can be damaged by overdevelopment. If we try to put too many outdoor recreation users into a space and it’s not made sustainable, then we can lose those places and those economic resources. On the flipside if we can get good policy to make sure these places aren’t overdeveloped and are carefully maintained, then it can be not only a healthy part of our economy, but a healthy part of our community.

Q: So, how do we translate this into something beyond just potential for Eastern Kentucky? How do we make it real?

A: That’s a really hard question. Part of it may come with trying to convince the community members of the value of it for the Red River Gorge. For quite a long time, we saw that outdoor recreation is something that was largely not favorable amongst local residents. Rock climbers weren’t particularly well thought of in the community.

But, having some basic research on them has helped to change that. Also, we met with Lee County’s tourism board a couple of years ago to talk about the demographics of who these climbers are and they were blown away that they’re these very educated individuals. We found that not only did the community members want to talk to these people, but they wanted to know what is it that you like about these areas. And it turns out that rock climbers and outdoor recreationists love Lee County and these areas for the same reasons that the people who live there do.

In the end, they were able to find a lot of common ground and the meeting went about two and a half hours longer than planned. It was one of the highlights of my career as an applied sociologist.

Q: You’ve participated in a study that makes the case for rock climbing, and the Red River Gorge as a viable sustainable source of economic activity. The area is home to six of the poorest counties in the country.

James Maples EKU.jpg
James Maples

A: It is. And this is an area that is experiencing several events happening at once: the decline of manufacturing and the decline of coal. These places are seeing depopulation. There’s an extreme situation with the poverty there.

That said, rock climbers in our study were spending $3.8 million a year which is no small sum and it’s a very conservative measurement, it’s probably more than that. But, that’s a lot of money being dropped in an area that really only has a couple of businesses really interested in serving their needs. Same goes for all kinds of outdoor recreation. You know aside from a few camping stores, you don’t really see a ton of people looking to support outdoor recreation in the Red River Gorge.

It could be a really big plus for the area and it’s not just going to be where the Gorge is. Climbing is over a much larger area. “The Red” is only Powell, Wolfe, and Manifee counties, but that whole area has so many more outdoor recreation opportunities. This could be something that could be of help. Is it going to be the singular focus of the economy? Probably not. I think that we too often go on the idea that we can make outdoor recreation tourism into something akin to Dollywood.

Q: You bring a certain personal perspective to this.

A: Yes. Being from East Tennessee growing up in a rural area and being a first generation college student, my whole perspective on Dollywood is a little different.

We hear people talking about making the Red River Gorge the next Dollywood, I get a little worried because (a) we’ve got a Dollywood, we don’t need two of those in the world. But, (b) when we start to develop too much of an over concentration in tourism, it’s a bad thing.

If you look at places like Pigeon Forge where all that tourism is located, there’s not really much there for local residents. And I don’t think we want to have a Red River Gorge where we change it so dramatically that we run out all the local residents. That would be a bad thing. In fact, climbers have complained about that. One of the big push backs against the climbing research I’ve done is people saying, look, we don’t want to change The Red a whole bunch. We want the people who are there to be there. We want it to feel and look the same. We don’t want a dramatic change.

So, I think we have to find that balance between economic development and protecting these outdoor areas. We have to bring local community members into that conversation. And that’s something that I’ve tried to do in all my research: make sure that local voices are represented and that we don’t damage those areas by running local residents out.