Air Date: Week of August 16, 1996
In the eastern United States, old-growth forests south of where the glaciers ended are fragments of an ecosystem perhaps a hundred thousand years old. In Southeastern Kentucky, a 2300-acre tract known as Blanton Forest is just such an ecosystem — and state and private organizations want to turn it into a nature preserve while developing eco-tourism for the region. John Gregory reports.
CURWOOD: Despite heavy logging for centuries, there are still pockets of old growth forest in the eastern United States. Perhaps the oldest can be found in southeastern Kentucky, deep in the heart of Appalachian coal country. It's called Blanton forest. And in one sense it's tiny, about 2,300 acres. But it is big enough to give a real taste of the original wild America, where giant sloths and even tigers might have roamed. Now state and private organizations in Kentucky are working to purchase Blanton forest. They want to turn it into a nature preserve and help local citizens develop eco-tourism enterprises in this economically depressed region. John Gregory has our report.
EVANS: Okay, we'll get moving in a ways. This is flat, and when we start going up the mountain, well, you'll know it.
(Footfalls and ambient conversation)
GREGORY: On a steamy, late summer afternoon, botanist Mark Evans leads a tour through a portion of Blanton forest. The trail starts out easy, but soon gets steeper as it ascends the southern slope of Pine Mountain near Harlan, Kentucky. The air in these woods is thick, still, and quiet, trapped between the dense rhododendron thickets that blanket the ground and the treetop canopies some 150 feet above us. Evans greets the trees like old friends, gently patting and rubbing them as he walks along the trail.
EVANS: This right here is an American chestnut. This is all that remains of what was once a very mighty forest tree that grew very, very large. It was a very important tree, so with the demise of the chestnut that greatly altered our forests.
GREGORY: Evans says Blanton is the way a forest should look: a chaotic jumble of lush undergrowth, massive rocks, and huge trees. Some straight and tall and others dead and decaying. He identified this old growth forest 3 years ago while conducting a state-wide inventory of natural areas for the Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission. As the trail crosses a rock outcropping, Evans points to an expansive view of the Cumberland Mountains.
EVANS: Everything you're seeing here is old growth, original forest. This is the same thing that Daniel Boone saw, Simon Kenton, everybody else, all those other good explorers.
GREGORY: The forest is named for Grover Blanton, a local dry goods store owner who bought the property around the turn of the century. It's said that Blanton liked to visit his woods on Sunday instead of going to church. He gave the land to his children, urging them to protect it from people wanting to mine coal around it or cut trees off it, and as the timber boom swept across the Appalachians from the 1880s to the 1930s, Blanton Forest was one of the few relatively large and fairly accessible pockets of old growth that remained uncut. Again, botanist Marc Evans.
EVANS: A lot of the old growth forests that are left are high elevation, spruce-fir forests, which have stunted trees and were not economically important in terms of logging, when the big logging boom went on.
GREGORY: Blanton, on the other hand, has 23 species of commercially viable trees, some as much as 300 to 400 years old. Evans credits the survival of the forest to the Blanton family and to the rugged topography that made the woods difficult to log. Because of its pristine nature and scientific value, he was immediately concerned that Blanton should be protected from logging and from damage done by all-terrain vehicles being driven around the forest. Evans helped start a $4 million fundraising campaign to purchase Blanton and surrounding lands. It's the single largest conservation effort in Kentucky history.
(Traffic, church chimes)
GREGORY: Blanton forest is just a few miles outside of Harlan, Kentucky, population 2,686. At noon the bell tower of the Methodist church serenades the townspeople with a favorite hymn. They call Blanton forest "the jungles," and it's been a favorite campground for local Boy Scout troops for generations. Harlan Mayor Danny Howard develops a boyish grin as he recalls his own youth in the jungles searching for bears, cougars, and Indians. As an adult, though, he recognizes the financial benefits to developing an eco-tourism industry based around Blanton forest.
HOWARD: We need every job that we can get in this area. So right now, any outlook of putting people to work, you know, we're just tickled to death. We're just trying to keep our heads above water.
GREGORY: Harlan was once known as the coal capitol of Kentucky, but the industry is now in a steep decline and the area has an unemployment rate that is more than twice the national average. But state tourism officials estimate that promoting Blanton forest as a travel destination could bring more than $2 million a year into the local economy. And it could help generate new jobs in hotel, restaurant, and recreational facilities. Harlan Mayor Danny Howard.
HOWARD: For kids to come out of school and be able to stay in the area and work, I hope will be very, very rewarding for the area.
GREGORY: The trick, though, says Amanda Hilee, is creating the kind of jobs that will provide long-term growth for the area. Hilee is the development director for the Blanton Forest Project and a consultant with the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, or MACED. The group helps local people build sustainable communities in Kentucky's Appalachian Mountain region, and it's one of several organizations that have joined the state in the fundraising effort.
HILEE: If it results in more people owning small businesses, to have a piece of the tourism industry like a bed and breakfast, like a local camping equipment rental place or canoe equipment rental, where a lot of different people have a real piece of the economic design, that's the kind of development that MACED would like to see the most.
GREGORY: Even though the property is not yet open to the public, Harlan has already seen some benefit from Blanton Forest. Scientists traveling to the woods to do research have kept the local hotel nearly full. State officials are eager to provide an economic boost to the area, but they say their first priority is to protect the woods, even if that means eventually limiting visitors. And as much as he wants his community to benefit, Mayor Danny Howard doesn't want Harlan to become too commercialized. More than 23,000 people drive through this region each day on Interstate 75, and some local people fear Harlan could become another highly developed tourist town like nearby Gantlenburg, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains. In the meantime, though, Howard says he's happy the Blanton forest itself will be preserved.
HOWARD: To be back in that area as a child, you know, you can, your imagination just runs wild with you, and in my older years and going back in there there's a peace and serenity that you can get from a day's walk back in -- in that hilly, wooded area, that I don't think you can find in a lot of places.
GREGORY: About half of Blanton forest has already been purchased by the nature preserve's commission and officials are working to acquire the other half as well as a 4,400-acre buffer zone around the old growth tracks. It's hoped that parts of the preserve can be open to the public within the next 2 years. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory.
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