Op-Ed

Goodbye, cubicle. Hello, hills.

Sunrise from Pine Mountain State Park.
Sunrise from Pine Mountain State Park.

I’ve been thinking, what if I had just one last opinion to write for the Herald-Leader? In 20-plus years of editorializing, what have I not said, or not said clearly enough? My heart keeps taking me to this:

Please (pretty please), don’t build that federal prison in Letcher County. (Next to Lilley Cornett’s old-growth woods, no less, on the way to Bad Branch and Pine Mountain.)

Don’t tear up the foot of Black Mountain to scrape out a few more tons of coal, a few more paychecks.

After 100 years of trading resources for poverty, this country can afford to put something better than a prison back into a place that has sacrificed so much.

Kentucky’s eastern coalfield, scarred and poor, is also wild. Honor that wildness. There’s no quick way to monetize it, but time — and climate disruption — will only increase the value of the extraordinary biodiversity and other wonders no computer can simulate.

Ask any Republican in Frankfort why Tennessee surpassed Kentucky economically and you’ll hear about no state income tax. In truth, the credit goes to massive investment by the federal government — TVA, Great Smoky Mountains, Oak Ridge National Lab.

There’s probably 100 years of work in Kentucky — for college grads and blue collar laborers — healing wounds left by 100 years of extraction — if only we had another FDR to champion some kind of, oh, Green New Deal. Imagine earning a living restoring streams, planting trees, creating trails and parks, developing community-based water and energy systems. Knitting an economy from the forest floor up.

Around the country rural counties are losing population — with one exception, places that have “recreation-based economies,” according to a study recently reported by The Daily Yonder. Growth in places with hiking, climbing, wildwater, four-wheeling can’t match metro areas. But counties with wild places to walk and play are gaining people, and the newcomers bring higher incomes than those moving to other rural counties.

Tourism jobs are no panacea. But a place that attracts vacationers is usually an inviting place to live and start small businesses.

What’s lacking — besides money in a region where people and governments feel their economic footholds crumbling — is leadership, from Congress on down. There are notable exceptions, but most of those in power offer only variations of what worked for them in the past, though obviously, those things have failed in a larger sense.

Long before the slump-to-end-all-coal-slumps, Letcher County pooh-bahs were lobbying for a prison, not so much to employ coal miners or young people, but to profit from real estate deals. A former strip mine that nature and Kentucky Fish and Wildlife restored to wildness will give way to a fenced-off, flood-lit concrete box, even though the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons have said the $444 million price tag would be a poor use of tax money. The state is taking federal funds that could provide decent water to people desperate for it, and, instead, funneling $4.5 million into building water lines to the prison. I hope Congressman Hal Rogers is wrong when he says his pet project is a “done deal” and that Congress or a president will nix it. And I apologize for not railing about this monthly.

Meanwhile, in Harlan County, Revelation Energy (sounds apocalyptic) is chomping to strip and scar the landscape surrounding historic coal towns Benham and Lynch, threatening a good supply of water from Looney Creek. State government can and should protect these places, nestled in the shadow of Kentucky’s highest point and cherished far and wide by Appalachia’s diaspora.

I know this sounds simplistic, but the mountains have earned some kindness. Let’s do things that will make newcomers want to put down roots, even if it’s just letting some places be.

This is is the last opinion piece I’ll write for the Herald-Leader before my retirement when I hope to spend more time among rhododendron and hemlock, panting up steep slopes, enjoying the views, resting by tumbling creeks and maybe even tubing the flat stretch of the Russell Fork near Pikeville.

The psalmist who wrote “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills” was on to something.

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