Tom Eblen

Beshear, Mongiardo are on target about 'adventure tourism'

I was encouraged by the column in Monday's Herald-Leader by Gov. Steve Beshear and Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo. It sought to calm the fears of environmentalists and others about plans for developing "adventure tourism" in Kentucky.

"Some people have misinterpreted our enthusiasm," the state's top two elected officials wrote. "They hypothesize that we intend unrestrained ATV use in even delicate environments and at the expense of other activities. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"In seeking to encourage exploration of Kentucky's beauty, we must not destroy it," they wrote, adding that they hope to find the resources for stricter enforcement of laws that protect sensitive natural areas.

And here was the most encouraging part: As state officials survey state lands to determine appropriate places for new ATV, horse, mountain bike and hiking trails, they will seek public participation. "Kentuckians will have their say," they wrote.

I think Beshear and Mongiardo are on to a great idea.

As they point out, Kentucky's natural beauty could be more effectively leveraged to improve the economy. They wrote that tourism is already a $10 billion industry in Kentucky, and it could be a lot bigger. I think they're right.

Every time I take visitors biking, hiking or just sight-seeing, they're impressed by Kentucky's beauty and distinctive culture. And not just in the wild places. For example, the new Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which helps visitors tour distilleries, should have been organized years ago.

I go on a weeklong bicycle tour every summer in a different part of rural Virginia. More than 2,000 people come from all over the country to ride, and they pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into Virginia's economy.

Each year, I return home from Bike Virginia thinking, why doesn't Kentucky do this? Sure, we might need a few highway improvements in some rural areas, but we all know Kentuckians can pave anything if we put our minds to it.

In addition to capturing out-of-state dollars, adventure tourism could have an even bigger benefit: It could make Kentuckians appreciate their state's environment more, and learn to take better care of it.

Our commonwealth has an old and ugly legacy — the notion that natural resources are something to be pillaged and exported for short-term profit, rather than developed for long-term sustainability. You know the mind-set: Sell the family farm for a subdivision, or let a coal operator strip-mine the holler great-granddaddy bought a hundred years ago. If we make enough money, we can retire and move to Florida.

Imagine: If more Kentuckians appreciated the beauty of our mountains, it might become harder for coal companies to bulldoze them.

Besides, Kentuckians are among the nation's least healthy and most obese people. If there were more opportunities for us to enjoy the outdoors, we might get in better shape, live longer and reduce the financial burden on our health care system.

But, like anything, the devil is in the details. The success of adventure tourism in Kentucky will depend on diverse and thorough public participation in the planning and execution.

The new Kentucky Recreational Trails Authority has begun mapping the trails that now exist, and it is asking for the public's help. People with global-positioning satellite equipment who are interested in mapping their favorite trails can get more information here: http://kygeonet.ky.gov/crosskytrail/.

The authority also is trying to identify areas that could be good for new recreational trails of various kinds — and areas where trails should not go, or should be restricted, such as in nature preserves.

One piece of the authority's work is a study that will examine the damage done by misuse of all-terrain vehicles on state land and what should be done to stop it. That study is just beginning, and it is scheduled to be completed by Dec. 15.

Senate Bill 196, which created the authority earlier this year, called for it to include a variety of interested parties, from coal companies to hiking groups. The authority hopes to bring even more organizations and individuals into the discussion through working groups and public meetings.

This could be a good test for Kentucky. Will the decision-making process be inclusive and transparent? Can diverse interests work together on a plan that balances environmental stewardship against the historic temptations of politics and short-term profit?

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