William H. Martin: E. Ky. tourism future rooted in use of its forests

William H. Martin is emeritus professor of biology and director of the Division of Natural Areas at Eastern Kentucky University.
William H. Martin is emeritus professor of biology and director of the Division of Natural Areas at Eastern Kentucky University.

The Oct. 30 article summarized a study of tourism potential in Eastern Kentucky that points out the lack of a critical mass of visitor activities, using Gatlinburg, Tenn., as an example of success. Nearby Pigeon Forge could also be included in the analysis.

The reason that Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have successfully developed is because of the presence of the 500,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park — a public land that is preserved in perpetuity, protecting an outstanding example of forests that have occupied the southern Appalachian highlands for thousands of years.

Indeed, the exceptional, internationally recognized biological diversity of the forests and variation in topography and relief of the mountains are the foundation of the area's designation as a national park.

Eastern Kentucky does not have such a large tract of preserved public land that serves as the anchor of a tourist destination and it might not be realistic to consider acquiring such a large forest block.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park developed over the early decades of the 20th century with sustained cooperation and millions of dollars contributed by Tennessee and North Carolina; money collected from individuals, groups and even contributions by thousands of schoolchildren in both states; and a final matching grant by the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund.

That totaled $10 million in the time of the Great Depression. Imagine the amount required to create the park today.

Most of the rugged landscape of Eastern Kentucky is clothed by the beautiful Appalachian forests that are world famous for their biological complexity and diversity. The trees of this magnificent, resilient and renewable resource literally built this part of Kentucky. Wood and other forest products have supported landowners, communities and industries from the 18th century. Today's forest products industry contributes thousands of employees and billions — not millions — to the state's economy.

There is no question that these forests are also the foundation of the current tourist industry in the region and can play the keystone role of any plans developed to provide for individual and group hiking, camping, wildlife watching, photography and guided tours. These woodlands and the thousands of acres of surface-mined land can also support hunting, fishing, horseback riding, ATV and mountain bike enthusiasts.

So, Eastern Kentucky can consider what it already has accomplished in preserving its forests and plan to build upon these accomplishments.

Our state parks are already nationally recognized for their scenic and relaxing value. Our state forests, wildlife management areas, nature preserves and local preserves also provide public lands for visitation and passive and active recreation. Lakes constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers and their surrounding forested watersheds are also available.

The Daniel Boone National Forest, including the Red River Gorge Geological Area and other sites; Cumberland Gap Historical Park; and Big South Fork River and Recreational Area are all federally-owned, mostly forested lands that add nearly 1 million acres for similar activities.

Forests that are conserved as public lands can be increased in large blocks with planning, funding and appropriate management. Conservation easements on private lands can also be acquired to provide landscape protection while continuing to provide forest products for decades and centuries with appropriate management. The Kentucky Division of Forestry can provide professional assistance to landowners to help them manage their land, with or without easements.

Tourism in Eastern Kentucky is intimately connected to these forests, their native plants and animals, and their health and well-being through time.

We need to recognize this fact and be ready and willing to provide the necessary funding that will support a viable tourism industry, which will increase if we have paid attention to this landscape and the associated, developed infrastructure that we plan and construct.

There has to be sustained political will and collaboration among individuals, local businesses, large corporations and government officials at the local, county, regional and state levels.

In the spirit of the substantial and committed labor required to make the vision of a Great Smoky Mountains National Park a reality, will Kentuckians come together to assure a sustainable future for the local and regional economies of Eastern Kentucky?

The economic, recreational, cultural, ecological, and, yes, spiritual values of our forests can certainly contribute to forming the critical mass of a favorite destination for millions of tourists.

At issue: Oct. 30 Herald-Leader article, "Study: Eastern Kentucky could create 'modern, well-planned Gatlinburg'"

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