Kentucky priest thankful for Pope Francis’ environmental message

July 18, 2015
Father Al Fritsch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, stands on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Father Al Fritsch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

RAVENNA — Pope Francis’ pronouncements about the immorality of social injustice and environmental degradation have rattled economic conservatives worldwide, and nowhere more than in King Coal’s Appalachia.

But the message isn’t new for Catholics in some parts of Kentucky, where Albert Fritsch — Jesuit priest, scientist and activist — has been writing, preaching and teaching for nearly four decades.

“I call myself a true conservative,” Fritsch, 81, said when I visited him at his home beside St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Estill County. “I am fiscally and socially conservative.”

But the jovial minister with a shock of white hair, who most people call Father Al, has always been a critic of economic conservatism. Now, he has some powerful backup.

Pope Francis, the Argentine cardinal elected pope in March 2013, issued an encyclical, or statement of church doctrine, last month that sharply criticized capitalism, consumerism, pollution and denial of human-induced climate change.

These are not political issues, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics said, but moral and religious issues. Christians must start behaving differently, he said, or risk destroying the Earth.

Father Al Fritch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, stands on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

I thought this would be a good time to visit Fritsch. As expected, he is pleased with Pope Francis’ leadership. “What he says is, to me, great stuff,” he said. “We need him in this age very badly.”

Fritsch said his interest in the environment began on his family’s farm near Maysville, where his father grew their food and cared for the land. His love of nature led him to science.

Fritsch earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Xavier University and a Ph.D. in chemistry at Fordham. He did post-doctorate research at the University of Texas.

But Fritsch became disillusioned that advances in chemistry were being used and abused for corporate profit. He went back to school to become a priest, studying theology at Bellarmine and Loyola universities.

Fritsch threw himself into advocacy, first as a science adviser with Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law and then, in 1971, as a co-founder and co-director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

By 1977, Fritsch decided he could have more impact in Kentucky. He moved to Mount Vernon and started Appalachia Science in the Public Interest, which focused on environmental issues.

Since 2002, Fritsch has ministered to Catholic congregations in Frankfort, Somerset and, currently, Ravenna and Stanton. But half his time is still spent on environmental work through his non-profit Earth Healing Inc.

He has authored or contributed to dozens of books and articles. Berea College Special Collections recently came to get his personal papers for preservation.

Fritsch writes daily reflections and records videos for his website, Earthhealing.info. His website manager thinks that Francis, before his election as pope, was among Fritsch’s online readers.

laudato-si400-255x363By focusing on wealth and its moral consequences, the Pope has made a lot of powerful people nervous. “The system that we have today, the capitalistic system as such, is really a state religion,” Fritsch said.

Pope Francis’ message is especially tough to hear in Kentucky, where the coal industry has a big influence in politics and the economy.

“A lot of Catholics are not taking this too well,” Fritsch said. “So many of them are committed to their way of life. One fellow got up and called me a communist and walked out.”

The man came back, Fritsch said, and asked him to lead a series of congregational meetings to discuss the encyclical. They begin next month.

Fritsch said one of the things that frustrates him most is that environmentalism has been politicized.

“When I started in environmental work in 1970, both Democrats and Republicans were in favor of the environment,” he said, noting that Republican Richard Nixon presided over creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. “Only after Reagan and with time did it become a partisan issue.”

The real issue is money, which is why Fritsch thinks politicians in both parties and institutions that depend on corporate money are dragging their feet. Renewable energy threatens investments in fossil fuels.

The Pope’s encyclical doesn’t offer solutions. Rather, Fritsch said, it calls for society to change and for people to frankly discuss these problems and seek solutions.

“We need to do a lot of talking in Kentucky,” he said. “This is a new frontier in theology, that we have a duty to save an earth that is threatened with destruction. Our grandparents didn’t have this. It’s a secular thing, but it’s also deeply religious.”

The biggest challenge, Fritsch thinks, is that the pace of climate change leaves us no time to waste.

“Things are changing, and we’ve got to be prepared for these changes,” he said. “I think that’s what Pope Francis is trying to say. And I think people are listening, because there’s a whole world out there that knows something is deeply wrong.”


New MACED president says timing right for new ideas in E. Ky.

March 14, 2015

Peter Hille first came to Eastern Kentucky the day after he graduated from high school. He and other members of his Missouri church youth group piled into vans and drove to Breathitt County to run a summer camp for kids.

“I had this image in my head, probably from watching CBS documentaries on the War on Poverty, that Appalachia was black and white,” he said. “I got down here, and, of course, it was green.

“It was the first week in June,” he said. “You know how the mountains are the first week in June: fireflies all over the hillsides and locusts singing. I thought, I love this place!”

Hille, 59, has nurtured that love for more than four decades, and he is now in a unique position to express it: as the new president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a non-profit organization based in Berea that works throughout southern Appalachia.

Hille, a graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, moved to Eastern Kentucky in 1977 and spent more than a dozen years as a woodworker, cabinetmaker and home builder. It gave him an appreciation for the challenges so many Appalachians face.

“They know this is where they want to be,” he said. “But it’s real challenging to figure out how to earn a living.”

150315PeterHilleHille got into community work and spent 22 years at Berea College’s Brushy Fork Institute, which develops community leaders.

He served nine years on MACED’s board and was chairman until he joined the staff three years ago as executive vice president. He was named president last month, succeeding Justin Maxson, who left after 13 years to become executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Hille is currently chair of the Eastern Kentucky Leadership Foundation, a board member of the Central Appalachian Institute for Research and Development and an advisory board member for the Institute for Rural Journalism. In the 1990s, he was facilitator for the Kentucky Appalachian Task Force.

“I do feel like everything I’ve done up to this point has been leading up to this,” said Hille, who lives with his wife, artist Debra Hille, in a passive solar house on a wooded farm near Berea.

Founded in 1976, MACED has become a respected voice in discussions about Appalachia’s economic transition. It promotes enterprise development, renewable energy and sustainable forestry. MACED also has become an influential source of public policy research through its Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

“We are at such an exciting time in Eastern Kentucky,” Hille said. “The challenges are as great as they’ve always been, but I think we’ve got some opportunities now that we haven’t always had.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity, Hille said, is the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative launched by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers in 2013.

“It is the kind of clarion call for unity that we so badly need in the region,” he said.

Another opportunity is the Obama administration’s proposal to release $1 billion in Abandoned Mine Lands funds for environmental reclamation and economic development in mining regions.

“We would have to scramble to figure out how to make good use of that money,” he said. “But I think there are a lot of ways to do it.”

While coal will continue to be important to Eastern Kentucky for decades, it will never be what it was, Beshear and Rogers have said. That acknowledgment creates an opening for new and creative thinking, Hille said.

More emphasis should be put on developing renewable energy sources and focusing on energy efficiency. MACED has worked on home energy-saving retrofits for years.

“However much we can scale that up, that is money that is invested in the region, that stays in the region, that is paid back from the savings in the region,” he said.

But the biggest goals should be creating more entrepreneurs and businesses in Eastern Kentucky, and attracting more investment capital. Hille thinks the place to start is by looking at the region’s needs, such as better housing and health care.

“All of those needs represent economic development opportunities,” he said. “What are the opportunities to meet those needs in the region? Or is the first step in health care getting in the car and driving to Lexington?”

Another focus should be on regional assets, such as forested mountains that could be sustainably managed for long-term jobs in timber, forest products, agriculture and tourism. “We haven’t invested in enough possibilities,” he said.

Part of the challenge is changing century-old attitudes about work.

“Instead of trying to find somebody to give you a job, it’s about creating a job for yourself,” he said. “It’s about feeding that entrepreneurial spirit in young people, and then creating the entrepreneurial ecosystem that is going to support those budding entrepreneurs and encourage them to stay here.”

When a region is economically distressed, it means markets are broken in fundamental ways. Government and non-profit assistance may be needed to fix them. But long-term success will only come with the development of strong markets and capital within Eastern Kentucky.

“With economic development, you’ve always got to ask, ‘Where does the investment come from? What kind of jobs are being created?'” Hille said. “In the long run, if we’re only creating jobs and we’re not building assets, if we’re not creating durable capital in the region, if we’re not building sustainable businesses and industries, then outside investments may or may not serve the needs of our communities.”


Plans for East Kentucky future must include repairing coal’s damage

February 10, 2015

130214MountainRally0378 copyHundreds will march to the state Capitol  Thursday for the 10th annual I Love Mountains Day protest of destructive strip-mining, as they did in this 2013 photo. Below, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers attend the first SOAR summit, Dec. 9, 2013. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Two large public gatherings are planned in the next week by groups trying to create a brighter future for Eastern Kentucky.

They come from different sides of the “war on coal” debate that has polarized discussion of these issues, but they have more in common than you might think.

The first event, Thursday in Frankfort, is the 10th annual I Love Mountains Day, organized by the citizens’ group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. (Information and registration: Kftc.org.)

In what has become an annual rite, hundreds of people will march to the Capitol steps and urge the governor and General Assembly to stop the coal industry’s most destructive surface-mining practices. And they will be ignored.

Few legislators will come out to hear them. Neither will the governor, nor any candidate for governor who has any chance of being elected. Most politicians think they must be unequivocal “friends of coal” to get elected, regardless of the toll on Kentucky’s land, air, water and public health.

131209SOAR-TE0093 copyThe other event, Monday in Pikeville, is the second summit meeting of Shaping Our Appalachian Region. SOAR is a bipartisan effort to improve life in Eastern Kentucky that was launched in 2013 by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers. (Information and registration: Soar-ky.org.)

Eastern Kentucky’s coal industry has been eliminating jobs for decades as mines were mechanized, coal reserves depleted and deep mining replaced by “mountaintop removal” and other forms of surface mining.

But the job losses have mounted in recent years because of cheap natural gas, cheaper coal from elsewhere and the Obama administration’s better-late-than-never actions to fight pollution and climate change.

Politicians and business leaders have had to admit that most of Eastern Kentucky’s coal jobs are never coming back, and that new strategies are needed to diversify the economy.

That led to the creation of SOAR, whose 12 working committees have spent the past year conducting more than 100 “listening sessions” throughout the region to hear public comments, gather ideas, assess needs and set priorities.

Strategy Summit attendees will review the committees’ findings and discuss next steps. How those discussions play out could determine whether SOAR can build enough public credibility to make change.

An early criticism of SOAR was that its leadership was drawn almost exclusively from Eastern Kentucky’s power elite. There was little or no representation from coal industry critics or grassroots groups such as KFTC.

The question hanging over SOAR is whether leaders who have done well in Eastern Kentucky’s status quo can be expected to change it. We should get some indication of that Monday, when there will be at least a couple of elephants in the room.

Eastern Kentucky is one of America’s least-healthy places, with high rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and drug abuse. Smoking, obesity, poverty, poor eating habits and lack of exercise are to blame for much of it. But not all of it.

One of the biggest concerns citizens expressed in the health committee’s listening sessions was the health effects of surface mining. Scientific studies have increasingly found high rates of cancer, birth defects and other problems in mining areas that can’t be dismissed by other factors. Will SOAR explore that issue, or ignore it?

Another elephant in the room will be President Barack Obama’s Feb. 1 proposal to release $1 billion in abandoned mine land funds to create jobs on environmental cleanup projects.

The long-overdue action could be a huge boost for Eastern Kentucky. But many politicians have reacted cautiously, since it comes from a president they love to hate. This proposal should be a big topic of discussion at the summit. But will it be?

Eastern Kentucky needs many things to have a brighter future: better schools, better infrastructure, less-corrupt politics, more inclusive leadership and a move diverse economy. And, as much as anything, it needs a healthier population and a cleaner environment.

Coal mining has done some good things for Eastern Kentucky over the past century. Although its role will continue to diminish, coal will be an important part of the economy for years to come. But the coal industry’s damage must be reckoned with. The best way to start cleaning up a mess is to stop making it bigger.


Black History Month founder was also an Appalachian coal miner

February 3, 2015

For several years, I have written a series of columns each February about little-known aspects of the history of Kentucky citizens of African descent.

So it seemed fitting to begin this year’s series with a look at the man who created Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson. A prolific author, historian and activist, he was the key figure in the recognition of black history as an academic specialty.

150204Woodson0002But before all of that, Woodson grew up in Appalachia, worked as a coal miner and began his academic career as a student at Berea College.

Many people don’t know about Woodson’s Appalachian roots, said Alicestyne Turley, director of Berea’s Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education and an assistant professor of African and African American Studies.

“In fact, I never knew he had been a student at Berea until I came here,” she said. “It just never came up on the radar.”

Woodson was born in 1875 near New Canton, Va., the oldest of nine children of former slaves. After the Civil War, his parents moved to West Virginia when they heard Huntington was building a high school for blacks.

Woodson studied on his own while working as a coal miner. He wasn’t able to enter that high school until he was 20, but it took him only two years to earn a diploma.

“He had everything you would normally think of in an Appalachian background — except that he was black,” Turley said.

“Honestly, historians have not done a lot of work on his early life,” she added. “I wonder: what was he doing then besides working in the coal mines?”

After high school, Woodson began teaching in Winona, W.Va., at a school that black coal miners started for their children. But he wanted more education, and Berea College seemed a logical choice.

Berea was founded in 1855 by abolitionist John G. Fee on land given him by Cassius Clay of Lexington, an outspoken emancipationist newspaper publisher. It became the first non-segregated, co-educational school in the South.

Woodson commuted from West Virginia by train and only studied part-time. Still, he managed to earn a bachelor’s of literature degree in 1903. His timing could not have been better.

150204Woodson0001The next year, Kentucky’s General Assembly passed the Day Law, which prohibited blacks and whites from attending school together. That law wasn’t repealed until 1950, and during the decades in between, Berea shifted its focus to white Appalachian students of modest means.

Woodson went on to earn another bachelor’s and a master’s degree in European History from the University of Chicago, and he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1912, he became the second black person, after W.E.B. Du Boise, to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.

Frustrated that white scholars were either ignoring or misrepresenting the history of his people, Woodson started what is now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which celebrates its centennial this year.

The association sponsored conferences, primarily to teachers of black children. Woodson edited the association’s Journal of Negro History until he died in 1950.

Woodson founded Associated Publishers in 1920, which was the nation’s oldest black-owned book publisher when it was dissolved in 2005.

In 1926, Woodson launched Negro History Week, sandwiched between the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass on Feb. 12 and Feb. 20.

“He had to fight to get that week,” Turley said. But the concept gained acceptance and spread, eventually becoming Black History Month.

Woodson, who spent most of his academic career at Howard University in Washington, D.C., also became a political activist and a regular columnist for Marcus Garvey’s weekly newspaper, Negro World.

He wrote more than two dozen influential articles and books, the most famous of which was “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” published in 1933.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” one of the book’s frequently quoted passages says. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

After Woodson left Berea, he continued a correspondence with the college’s president, William Frost. Turley said those letters are revealing.

“He often talks about what he learned at Berea,” she said. “He understood Berea’s commitments of learning, labor and service. Those were things that stayed with him the rest of his life.”


Wendell Berry: Is anyone listening to Kentucky writers’ warnings?

January 31, 2015

150128KyWriters0027After being the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, Wendell Berry, right, talked with Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. At left is writer Jason Howard,  editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly. Behind them, writer Bianca Spriggs. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Elizabeth Hardwick was the eighth of 11 children born to a Lexington plumbing contractor and his wife. She grew up in a modest home on Rand Avenue and graduated from Henry Clay High School and the University of Kentucky.

From this ordinary Kentucky childhood, she went on to become a leading East Coast intellectual: an award-winning critic, essayist, novelist and founder of The New York Review of Books.

Hardwick earned a lengthy obituary in The New York Times when she died in 2007 at age 91. But if you stopped people on the street in Lexington today, I’ll bet at least nine out of 10 would never have heard of her.

That’s one reason the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning created the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame three years ago.

“This state has so many negative stereotypes that we have to battle every day,” Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen said in remarks at the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony Wednesday. “But the truth is, we have one of the finest and richest literary heritage traditions in the nation.”

Hardwick was one of six inductees at the ceremony, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd that included several acclaimed Kentucky writers likely to be chosen for the Hall of Fame someday.

Four other deceased writers inducted this year were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created “gonzo” journalism; Guy Davenport (1927-2005) of Lexington, a UK professor and MacArthur “genius” grant winner; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County whose work filled three books and was published in Harper’s Weekly magazine; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996), who taught at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.

They joined 13 other writers of the past inducted during the Hall of Fame’s first two years, including Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Merton, Jesse Stuart and James Still.

Most of the crowd Wednesday was there to honor Wendell Berry, the first living inductee. Berry, 80, of Henry County, has written more than 50 books of poetry, fiction and polemics. In the process, he has become an international icon in the land conservation and sustainable agriculture movements.

Luallen, who was appointed lieutenant governor two months ago after Jerry Abramson took a White House job, was probably a better representative of state government at this ceremony than Gov. Steve Beshear would have been.

Berry joined protesters who camped outside Beshear’s office in 2011 to protest state government collusion in the coal industry’s destruction of Kentucky’s mountains and streams. (Not that Beshear is unique; Kentucky’s governor and General Assembly have long been wholly owned subsidiaries of the coal industry.)

Luallen’s comments echoed the sentiments of many Kentuckians.

“When there are moments of darkness felt by those of us who cherish this land, a light has shown through that darkness, and the light has been the words of Wendell Berry,” she said. “Inspiring us, rekindling our spirit and reminding us of what we have lost as a people and what, without careful judgment and good reason, we have yet to lose.”

But in his acceptance speech, Berry gave a glum assessment of Kentucky writers’ consequence.

The state is “gravely and lastingly fragmented by divisions that are economic, social, cultural and institutional,” he said. “These divisions have given us a burdening history of abuse — of land abuse but also and inevitably of the abuse of people, for people and land cannot be destroyed or conserved except together.”

Berry complained that many good books by Kentucky writers critiquing the state’s problems have not received the media attention or sparked the public debate and policy changes he thinks they should have.

“This public silence ought to be a worry, especially to writers,” he said. “What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — ‘Night Comes to the Cumberlands’ or ‘Lost Mountain’ or ‘Missing Mountains’ or ‘The Embattled Wilderness’?”

Afterward, Luallen said she thinks Berry underestimates those books’ impact. Without them, she said, things would be worse.

Berry’s speech gave a healthy edge to the evening’s celebrations. That was good, because another of the Carnegie Center’s goals for the Hall of Fame is to elevate the visibility and influence of writers in Kentucky’s public life.

Wendell Berry and his fellow writers are the conscience of Kentucky, not beholden to money or power. If we refuse to listen to them, we do so at our peril.


Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: clean environment is good economic policy.

January 17, 2015

KennedyRobert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at Transylvania. Photo by Mark Mahan.

 

It was a breath of fresh air, especially after an election in which Kentucky politicians of both parties competed to see who could be the biggest sock puppet for the coal industry.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke at Transylvania University on Wednesday about “Green Capitalism: Why Environmental Policy Equals Good Business Policy.”

Kennedy, 61, son of the slain presidential candidate and nephew of the slain president, is an accomplished environmental lawyer, anti-pollution activist and partner in a renewable-energy investment firm.

Kennedys are like Bushes; most people either love them or hate them on principle, without actually listening to what they say. But this talk was worth listening to, because Kennedy clearly explained our nation’s biggest problem, what could be done to solve it and why that isn’t happening.

Surprisingly, his message had as much appeal for libertarians as liberals. Conservatives could find a lot to agree with, too, if they care about conserving anything besides the status quo.

Kennedy’s main point was that Americans don’t have to choose between a clean environment and a strong economy. In fact, the only way to have a strong economy in the long run is to take care of our nation’s air, water and land.

The best way to do that, he said, is a combination of true democracy and free-market capitalism. Trouble is, polluters have used their money and influence to corrupt the political process and distort free markets.

“You show me a polluter, and I’ll show you a subsidy,” he said. “I’ll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and forcing the public to pay his production costs. That’s all pollution is.”

Kennedy told how he started his environmental career working for commercial fishermen on the Hudson River in New York. Their industry was devastated by General Electric, which for three decades dumped more than a million pounds of cancer-causing PCBs into the Hudson.

“They saw their fishery destroyed, not because they had a bad business model, but because somebody had better lobbyists than they did,” he said.

“One of the things I learned from them was this idea that we’re not protecting the environment so much for the sake of the fishes and the birds; we’re protecting it for our own sake,” he said. “Nature is the infrastructure of our communities.”

Kennedy said we are now seeing a struggle between rich, old-energy industries that create a lot of pollution — coal, oil, gas and nuclear — and new, renewable-energy technologies that are cleaner and increasingly cheaper.

Pollution destroys our natural infrastructure and creates huge public health costs, both in terms of dollars and lives. “It’s a way of loading the costs of our generation’s prosperity onto the backs of our children,” he said.

Fossil fuel industries also receive more than $1 trillion in annual taxpayer subsidies, ranging from direct payments and tax breaks to the huge military presence in the Middle East to secure oil-production assets. Meanwhile, these industries lobby to eliminate the small subsidies offered to encourage alternatives.

If a truly free market forced the oil industry to internalize its costs, gasoline would sell for $12 to $15 a gallon. “You’re already paying that,” he said. “You’re just paying it from a different pocket.”

Kennedy argued for more market-based systems, such as cap-and-trade, to account for the hidden costs of fossil fuels. That would expose their inefficiencies and waste and level the playing field for solar, wind and geothermal.

“You need to devise rules for a marketplace that allows actors in the marketplace to make money by doing good things for the public, rather than forcing them to make money by doing bad things to the public,” he said.

Kennedy likened it to the abolition of slavery in Britain and the United States in the 19th century, a moral decision that helped spark an explosion of innovation in labor-saving technology and wealth that we now know as the Industrial Revolution.

The biggest barrier to renewable energy replacing fossil fuels is the lack of a modern national electric grid, he said. Government investment in that grid would create opportunities for entrepreneurs to flourish, just as previous investments in the Internet, interstate highways, railroads and canals did.

A good way to start would be laws to allow homeowners and businesses to profit, rather than just break even, from electricity they generate with solar panels and wind turbines and sell to utilities.

“It will turn every American into an energy entrepreneur, every home into a power plant, and power this country based on American imagination and effort and innovation,” he predicted.

It also would be good for national security. “A terrorist can blow up one power plant,” Kennedy said, “but he would have a hard time blowing up a million homes.”

Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy will be complicated. “But it’s not as complicated as going to war in Iraq,” Kennedy said. “It’s something that we can do. We just need the political will.”


Wendell Berry first living inductee in Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame

January 10, 2015

111218WendellBerryTE0032AWendell Berry at home, December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning announced plans in July to select the first living member of its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, I wrote that the process should be a search for Wendell Berry.

Kentucky has many fine writers working today, but none can match the range, craftsmanship and international acclaim of Berry, 80, who writes and farms in Henry County, where his family has lived for five generations.

So the Carnegie Center’s announcement this week should come as no surprise. Berry will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 along with five deceased writers, who will be identified that night.

The ceremony at the Carnegie Center, 251 West Second Street, is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Kentucky Educational Television plans to live-stream the event on Ket.org.

“To be recognized in that way at home is a very pleasing thing,” Berry said when I talked with him by phone last week. “And a relieving thing, actually.”

The Carnegie Center, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy education, reading and writing, created the Hall of Fame three years ago to draw attention to Kentucky’s rich literary legacy.

In its first two years, 13 deceased writers were honored: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

hall-of-fame-logo-final-300x165Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center, said about 200 members of the public nominated more than 75 writers for the honor this year, including about 25 living writers. A short list was sent to a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council, which made the selections along with the Carnegie Center staff.

“Everybody pretty much said, ‘It’s going to be Wendell, right?'” Chethik said. “His command of all three major areas of writing — fiction, non-fiction and poetry — and his influence statewide and internationally brought us to him.”

Chethik said future classes of inductees may include a living writer, but not always. The criteria for all nominations is that a writer must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a strong tie to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

All of which makes Berry a natural for the honor. The former University of Kentucky English professor has written more than 60 volumes: novels, poetry, short-story collections and essays. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he received the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The major theme of Berry’s work is that people should live and work in harmony with the land and their community. “He is so rooted in Kentucky,” Chethik said. “He speaks for a lot of Kentuckians.”

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Berry’s 1971 book, The Unforeseen Wilderness helped rally public opposition to a plan to flood Red River Gorge. His 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, is a bible of the international movements for sustainable agriculture and locally produced food.

Over the years, Berry has participated in protests against nuclear power and coal strip-mining. He was among a group of environmental activists who camped in Gov. Steve Beshear’s outer office in 2011 to protest state government support for the coal industry’s destruction of Eastern Kentucky mountains.

A year earlier, Berry cut his ties to UK and withdrew his papers to protest the university’s renaming of the basketball team residence hall Wildcat Coal Lodge in exchange for $7 million in donations from coal executives.

“The actual influence of writers in Kentucky is in doubt,” Berry said when I asked about his activism, and whether he thought it would ever sway public policy.

“As far as the future is concerned, I don’t sit around and think about the future in regard to what I’ve done,” he said. “It seems to me to be a distraction from the things I ought to be doing.”

Berry said he has been busy writing poetry and working on several long-term projects. He also is writing a short speech for his Hall of Fame ceremony about “Kentucky writing and what it means to be a Kentucky writer.”

“Kentucky writers over the years have given us a kind of record of life in this state, what it has been like to live in it,” he said. “Sometimes they have given us very important testimony about things that were wrong.

“They have been an extremely diverse set of people, and I think the quality of their work has been remarkable,” he added. “I don’t think there’s any worry about it continuing.”


Urban-rural divide will challenge Kentucky economy in 2015

January 5, 2015

141231Downtown0113b21C Museum Hotel is expected to open in late 2015 after renovation is completed on the century-old First National Building, right. But the old Fayette County Courthouse, left, will be one of Lexington’s biggest redevelopment challenges. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

As a recent economic study notes, Kentucky’s economy is really nine very different regional economies that reflect a national trend: urban areas are doing well, but rural areas are struggling.

Lexington and Louisville together accounted for 45 percent of the state’s job growth over the past five years, according to a study by economist Paul Coomes for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

That means Central Kentucky this year should continue to capitalize on several sources of momentum, including manufacturing growth, entrepreneurship and urban redevelopment, as well as Lexington’s growing reputation as a good place to live, work and visit.

The biggest manufacturing news this year is likely to be Toyota’s new Lexus assembly line. When the $531 million Georgetown plant expansion is finished late this year, 600 additional workers will make 50,000 Lexus 350 ES cars a year, in addition to the current Camrys, Avalons and Venzas.

But as manufacturing becomes more automated, the demand for higher-skilled workers increases. “Having a skilled work force is going to be a huge factor” in future growth, said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

Central Kentucky continues to see an influx of workers and professionals from elsewhere. That is helping to fuel not only manufacturing, but business and professional services and entrepreneurial efforts, Quick said.

That also is good news for Lexington’s urban redevelopment initiatives, which finally seem to be hitting their stride. While the public’s attention was focused in recent years on the long-stalled CentrePointe project, a lot of good things were happening.

Victorian Square was renovated and rebranded as The Square, breathing new life into the downtown retail-restaurant development. This year will be a test of whether that concept can succeed.

A lot of small-scale urban redevelopment has been happening in places such as the Jefferson Street restaurant corridor, whose latest addition is the Apiary; the East End; National Avenue; South Limestone and North Limestone areas.

This could be a big year for the Newtown Pike corridor between downtown and the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus. Developers of Thistle Station, a proposed 16-story apartment building, hope to begin construction this year and open in fall 2016.

While the Rupp Arena and convention center reconstruction have been put on hold, city officials continue to move forward on Town Branch Commons, an innovative plan to create a linear park downtown that could attract new development.

“You’re seeing a deeper bench for the strategy of downtown,” Quick said. “Even when the Rupp piece didn’t work, we didn’t lose our downtown vision.”

Late this year, the 21C Museum Hotel should open after an extensive renovation of Lexington’s first skyscraper, the century-old First National Building.

But 21C is across the street from downtown’s biggest redevelopment challenge: the old Fayette County Courthouse. It was shuttered in 2012 because of lead contamination and structural problems from years of neglect. Officials this year need to come up with a plan for renovating and reusing this landmark.

The Breeder’s Cup at Keeneland Oct. 30-31 could pump $50 million into the local economy. It also should provide an incentive to finish a variety of projects, just as the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games did in 2010.

Kentucky’s biggest trouble spot is Eastern Kentucky, where the coal industry is in permanent decline. Will the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative this year create jobs in Eastern Kentucky, or just more talk?

Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said everyone also will be watching to see how Ft. Knox and Ft. Campbell fare as the military downsizes after long, costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Adkisson thinks Kentucky exports will remain strong. One of the fastest-growing exports is likely to continue to be bourbon whiskey, which is enjoying global popularity.

But international trade has been both a blessing and curse. The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy estimates that 41,100 jobs have been lost in the state since 2001 because of America’s growing trade deficit with China.

Will Congress and the president finally address China’s currency manipulation and other unfair trade practices? Or will new global export agreements now in the works simply ship more Kentucky jobs overseas?

One of the biggest issues facing every Kentucky region is the lack of real wage and per-capita income growth, which is below the national average and a drag on the economy. House Democrats have talked about raising the state’s minimum wage this year, but business groups and Republicans oppose it.


Lessons for Appalachia in Wales’ recovery from coal’s collapse

September 29, 2014

SouthWalesThe Tower Colliery near the village of Hirwaun, in Glamorgan, South Wales, in 2009. Tower Colliery was the oldest continuously worked deep-coal mine in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world. Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press. 

 

People in the remote hills and valleys were subsistence farmers before the mining industry came. For generations afterward, King Coal provided most of the decent jobs and dominated almost every aspect of life.

But mechanization gradually eliminated tens of thousands of mining jobs. When economic and political conditions suddenly changed, most of the coal industry shut down. Communities were left with high unemployment, a ravaged landscape and an uncertain future.

This is the story of Eastern Kentucky. It also is the story of South Wales.

These two regions separated by the Atlantic Ocean share many traits and experiences. Community leaders working to create a post-coal economy in Central Appalachia think there are lessons to be learned from Wales, which has been dealing with many of the same challenges for three decades.

Two longtime coal community leaders from Wales will be in Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 7 to speak about their experiences. The 7 p.m. program at Appalshop Theatre, 91 Madison Avenue in Whitesburg, is free and open to the public.

Hywel Francis and his wife, Mair, are no strangers to Kentucky. They have been coming here for years as part of a community exchange program started in the 1970s by Helen Matthews Lewis, a well-known Appalachian scholar and activist.

“The interest between these two areas has been there for a long time, but it has really picked up as we’ve seen the sudden decline of mining jobs here,” said Mimi Pickering of Appalshop. “We think this is an exciting opportunity for folks to talk with people from another place who have been though this.”

Francis is a member of the British Parliament, a college professor and labor historian. His wife is a founder of Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise, known as the DOVE workshop, a women’s education and job-training organization.

South Wales was a few decades ahead of Central Appalachia, both in the development and collapse of its coal economy.

Beginning in the early 1800s, coal mines in South Wales fueled Britain’s industrial revolution and, in many ways, the British empire. At the industry’s peak just before World War I, more than 250,000 men labored in nearly 500 Welsh deep mines and open pits.

As in Appalachia, mechanization steadily reduced mine employment. After World War II, British mines were nationalized. In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed unprofitable mines, sparking a bitter miners’ strike. The industry all but collapsed and 85,000 miners lost their jobs. Only a few hundred miners still dig coal in South Wales.

Tom Hansell, a filmmaker and professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is finishing After Coal, a documentary comparing the experiences of coal communities in South Wales and Central Appalachia. He said it will be shown on Kentucky Educational Television next year or in 2016.

Hansell also helped organize a program in Elkhorn City two weeks ago about what Eastern Kentucky could learn from Wales’ tourism industry, which now employs 30,000 people.

A third forum will be at 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Harlan campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College. Richard Davies of College Merthyr Tydfil in Wales will lead a conversation about the role of youth and the arts in preserving vibrant coalfield communities.

While working on his film, Hansell said he made three trips to Wales. He noted that some of its circumstances are different than in Central Appalachia.

Because Welsh mines were owned by the government, laid-off miners got good severance payments to help them start businesses or train for new jobs. Britain also has a stronger social safety net than the United States, including a public health care system.

But Hansell said there is one smart thing Britain did that the United States could emulate: the government invested heavily in environmental reclamation, cleaning up the mess from generations of coal mining.

“There were jobs created with that, but more importantly it provided a foundation for future economic development,” he said.

Another good strategy: community funds have been created around major industrial investments, such as a wind turbine farm built by a Swedish company. The funds are similar in some ways to Kentucky’s coal severance tax, but transparently managed by local community boards rather than state and local politicians.

Wales has a focus on entrepreneurship and small-business development, which organizations such as Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. have done here. Everyone realizes that the future is lots of small employers rather than a few big ones, Hansell said.

“It would be misleading to say that Wales has solved all their economic problems,” he said, noting that unemployment remains high and many people in former mining communities commute to jobs in coastal cities. “But towns have found ways to survive and find creative ways to re-invent themselves.”


Eastern Kentucky jobs outlook: health care and more broadband

August 11, 2014

crouch1Ron Crouch is the director of research and statistics for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet in Frankfort. He says a growing health care industry in Eastern Kentucky should help offset jobs lost to coal’s decline. Photo by Mark Mahan

 

There is more talk than usual about the need to create jobs and a more diverse economy in Eastern Kentucky because of the coal industry’s decline.

It made me wonder: what are the latest trends? For some answers, I called Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. He previously headed the Kentucky State Data Center for two decades and is better than anyone I know at analyzing this sort of information.

People are alarmed because coal-industry employment in Eastern Kentucky has dropped to about 7,300 — half what it was five years ago. Coal-mining jobs have been important to the region because they pay well: about $65,000 a year.

President Barack Obama’s critics have blamed stricter environmental regulations for the sudden drop in coal employment. But the biggest factors have been cheap natural gas and the fact that Eastern Kentucky’s best coal seams have been depleted over the past century; the coal that is left is more costly (and environmentally damaging) to mine.

But Crouch notes that coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been declining steadily for more than six decades — even accounting for periodic booms and busts — mainly because of mechanization. Coal production peaked in 1990, but coal employment peaked in 1950, when there were 67,000 miners.

Some Eastern Kentucky leaders have pursued manufacturing as a source of new jobs. But Crouch says the long-term prospects for manufacturing aren’t too good, either, also because of automation.

“Manufacturing is coming back to the United States, but not necessarily manufacturing jobs,” he said. “We’re producing far more goods, but with far fewer workers.”

Still, Crouch sees hopeful signs for Eastern Kentucky.

While the region still lags the state in college degrees, high school graduation rates have improved significantly, as have the number of people completing other levels of training between high school and a bachelor’s degree. Many new, good-paying jobs are for people with that level of education.

Those areas include health care as well as professional, scientific and technical services. Some of these jobs pay well. For example, the number of registered nursing jobs, which pay about $55,000, is growing significantly.

Eastern Kentucky’s health care industry should see big growth in coming years. One reason is demographics. Baby Boomers are now entering their 60s and 70s and will require more health services. Another reason is the Affordable Care Act.

“You’re going to see a huge increase in the number of people in East Kentucky who have health insurance,” Crouch said.

Because Eastern Kentucky families are smaller than in the past, there will be less pressure for young people to leave.

“You now have a population with more people in their 40s, 50s and 60s than in their teens and 20s,” Crouch said. “If those young people can get the education and training they need after high school, there will be jobs for them in East Kentucky.”

But many of the growing economic sectors in the region, such as health care, have traditionally been dominated by women, while shrinking sectors, such as mining and manufacturing, have been mostly male. In some Eastern Kentucky counties, women now have higher employment rates than men.

“The good news is the economy has been transitioning to a broader economy,” Crouch said. “But how do you transition a population of males who have been involved in mining and manufacturing to jobs in professional, technical services and food services and health care, which have largely been female?”

Crouch said improving broadband service in Eastern Kentucky, which has the state’s poorest connections to the Internet, is vital.

“That would accelerate the growth in higher-skilled jobs,” he said.

Crouch is troubled that many Eastern Kentucky counties have high percentages of working-age people not in the formal labor force. He thinks many are “getting by” in the cash and barter economy, some of which is illegal.

He also is concerned that much of the job growth has been in low-wage service industries. Because the legal minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, full-time work in many low-wage jobs doesn’t produce a living wage for a family.

“The good news is that East Kentucky is not having a brain drain, despite what people think; it’s having a brain gain,” he said. “But, as the saying goes, we’re halfway home and have a long way to go.”


Kentucky needs leadership for change, not the politics of fear

June 8, 2014

I have had mixed emotions since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its long-awaited plan to reduce coal-fired power plant pollution, setting a goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

I felt happy that my government was finally taking some action to fight manmade climate change, which threatens humanity’s safety, prosperity and future.

But I felt sad as I watched a bipartisan majority of Kentucky politicians fall all over each other to condemn this long-overdue action. Pandering to public fear may be good politics, but, in this case, it is an irresponsible failure of leadership.

SenateCandidatesRepublican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul called the EPA’s plan illegal and vowed to repeal it. (It is legal, according to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.)

Not to be outdone, McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Allison Lundergan Grimes, launched an ad blitz repeating the coal industry’s “war on coal” talking points.

“The Obama administration has doubled down on its war on Kentucky coal jobs and coal families,” said another industry parrot, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican from Lexington.

State House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, called the pollution-cutting plan “a dumb-ass policy.”

Let us review the facts:

An overwhelming majority of climate scientists think manmade carbon pollution is contributing significantly to climate change. We are already seeing the disastrous results: more frequent killer storms, droughts, shrinking glaciers and rising seas.

Public opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Americans, even in coal-dependent states, understand these realities and want stricter carbon limits.

In addition, health experts say the EPA plan will reduce cancer, heart disease and lung disease through fewer emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. The American Lung Association says the plan will prevent as many as 4,000 premature deaths in its first year alone.

So why all the political nonsense? It’s simple: the coal, utility and business lobbies that fund these politicians’ campaigns will see their profits suffer, at least in the short term.

The coal industry’s disinformation campaign portrays the desire for cleaner air and water as a “war on coal.” In reality, there are two “wars” on coal, and environmental regulation has only a minor role in each.

The first “war” is one on coal-company profits. It is being waged largely by natural gas companies, whose fracking technology has produced cheaper energy and hurt coal sales. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources pose another threat.

The second “war” is being waged by coal companies and their political allies against miners and their communities. Kentucky lost about 30,000 coal mining jobs between 1979 and 2006, mostly because of industry mechanization. Add to that a historic disregard for mine safety. Kentucky legislators recently cut the number of state safety inspections at mines from six per year to four.

It is worth noting that the EPA’s new rule could have hit Kentucky much harder had it not been for the coal-friendly administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat. Energy Secretary Len Peters pushed a plan, which the EPA adopted, to give states flexibility in achieving carbon-reduction goals. It set different targets for each state. Kentucky will be required to cut power-plant emissions by 18 percent, much lower than the national average of 30 percent.

Kentucky now gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal. The state has some of the nation’s cheapest power because the true cost of coal mining and burning to our health and environment has never been reflected in the rates.

America is gradually moving away from coal toward cleaner energy sources. This will happen no matter how loud and long Kentucky politicians scream. Unless this state acts aggressively to develop alternative energy sources to eventually replace diminishing coal reserves, Kentucky will be left behind — again.

Entrenched business interests have always predicted that each new environmental regulation would destroy the economy. It has never happened. Instead, regulation has sparked innovation that created new jobs and economic opportunities and made America a healthier place to live.

More limits on pollution will raise electricity rates in the short term. But Kentuckians will be rewarded with better health, a less-damaged environment, more innovation and a stronger economy in the future.

Change is hard, but it is necessary. Forward-thinking business people and citizens must demand that our politicians stop pandering to fear and become the leaders we need to make this inevitable transition as painless as possible. A brighter future never comes to those who insist on living in the past.


War on Poverty vets see lessons for today’s Appalachia reformers

May 13, 2014

BEREA — The War on Poverty’s 50th anniversary has reignited debate about its effect on places such as Eastern Kentucky, where President Lyndon B. Johnson famously came to launch the “war” from a Martin County laborer’s front porch.

Like the real wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to declare the War on Poverty a costly failure. America still has plenty of poor people. Eastern Kentucky continues to lag the nation in education, health care and job prospects beyond a boom-and-bust coal industry where little of the wealth ever trickles down.

Declaring failure is easy, but it isn’t accurate. The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a study that estimated without the government anti-poverty programs since 1967, the nation’s poverty rate would have been 15 percentage points higher in 2012.

140409WarOnPovVets0026A

Bob Shaffer of Berea holds a photo of himself with a mule presented to the Republican Governors Conference in Lexington in May 1969 by Wanita Bain, Knox County, Secretary of the Kentucky Poor People’ s Coalition, which he organized and advised. Photos by Tom Eblen

Eastern Kentucky is significantly better off than it was a half-century ago, thanks largely to government-funded infrastructure and assistance. But the question remains: Why wasn’t the War on Poverty more successful?

I recently posed the question to two aging veterans of that war. Their observations offer food for thought as Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers ramp up their Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative, the latest in a long series of efforts to “fix” Eastern Kentucky’s economy.

Robert Shaffer, 84, is retired in Berea. In 1963, he accompanied his father to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was inspired to public service by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

The next year, after the Economic Opportunity Act was passed, Shaffer began working with poor people in new community action agencies in his native New Jersey. He was recruited to Washington, but wanted to work on the front lines instead. After reading Harry Caudill’s book,Night Comes to the Cumberlands, he told federal officials, “I’ll take the job if you’ll send me to Kentucky.”

Hollis West, 83, is retired in Lexington. A coal miner’s son from southern Illinois, he served in the Air Force and went to college on the G.I. Bill. He worked in community action and job-training agencies in Michigan, New York and West Virginia before coming to Knox County in 1965.

Although the War on Poverty is often portrayed as welfare, Shaffer said, “It wasn’t welfare. It was using social services for economic development and ownership.”

West and Shaffer worked with community groups to start small, worker-owned companies, mostly in furniture, crafts and garment-making and train workers to do those jobs. They said they created hundreds of jobs, although many were later lost as U.S. manufacturing jobs moved overseas.

Their biggest accomplishment was creating Job Start Corp. in 1968. It evolved into Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., which has created more than 18,000 jobs and is recognized as one of the most enduring legacies of the War on Poverty.

“I think we made a significant change in parts of Eastern Kentucky,” West said. “I brought the toughness, and Bob brought the brains.”

Toughness was important. West said he often traveled with an armed bodyguard. A key principle of War on Poverty programs was that poor people should have a voice in decisions that affected them. Local politicians and power brokers saw that as a threat.

Hollis West

Hollis West

“These people weren’t used to other people having money to work with that they didn’t control,” Shaffer said. “It was a pretty hostile environment.”

Shaffer said Gov. Louie B. Nunn stymied War on Poverty efforts and tried to get West fired. Officials resisted giving poor people a voice on the Area Development District boards that allocated federal money. Then, as now, many of those boards were controlled by good ol’ boy networks.

Shaffer and West think the War on Poverty would have had a bigger impact had Richard Nixon, a Republican, not been elected president in 1968 and scuttled his Democratic predecessor’s programs. But the ideas behind the War on Poverty still have value today, they said.

“You’re never going to change the culture of Appalachia until you have a legitimate organization of the poor and their allies,” Shaffer said. “The majority of the people in the mountains are just as capable as anyone else if they have the same education and economic opportunities as anyone else.”

What are the lessons of the War on Poverty? Not that poverty can’t be overcome, or that government efforts won’t work. It is that change will never come from people with a vested interest in the status quo.


If SOAR wants to get off the ground, it needs diverse leadership

March 25, 2014

When Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Hal Rogers launched their Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) project last year, they promised it would be different.

They said SOAR would succeed in bringing economic vitality and diversity to long-troubled Eastern Kentucky, where so many past efforts have failed, because it would seek new ideas and leadership from a broader representation of the region’s people.

So far, it isn’t looking much different. Beshear and Rogers announced a leadership team Monday to guide the SOAR process. The list raised eyebrows not so much because of who was included as who was excluded, which was pretty much everybody outside Eastern Kentucky’s establishment power structure.

“It was a missed opportunity, for sure,” said Justin Maxson, president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Development, which has been working on innovative economic development strategies in Central Appalachia since 1976.

SOAR_logoMaxson would seem a logical choice for SOAR’s 15-member executive committee or to chair one of its 10 working groups. But the only person with ties to MACED on the SOAR leadership team is Haley McCoy of Jackson Energy, an electric cooperative in Jackson County, who also happens to serve on MACED’s board.

Maxson praised McCoy’s selection, and that of SOAR’s interim executive director, Chuck Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute. “He understands that a region needs a diverse set of economic development strategies,” Maxson said of Fluharty. “But it’s unclear what his role will be.”

If Beshear and Rogers really want new ideas, MACED would be a good place to look. “We’re not afraid to say hard things,” Maxson said. “Most of the solutions the region needs are not going to be easy.”

Excluded from SOAR’s leadership is anyone from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a citizens group with more than 8,000 members statewide. KFTC has been working effectively in coal-dominated Eastern Kentucky since 1981.

“I’m trying to be nice about this, but everything they do, it seems like it’s the same old, same old bunch,” said Carl Shoupe of Harlan, a KFTC executive committee member. “We’re a little bit too progressive for them, maybe.”

In addition to McCoy, SOAR’s executive committee, co-chaired by Beshear and Rogers, includes coal executive Jim Booth of Inez; Pikeville banker Jean Hale; Rodney Hitch of Winchester, economic development manager for East Kentucky Power; entrepreneur Jim Host of Lexington; Tom Hunter of Washington, D.C., retired executive director of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission; Ashland lawyer Kim McCann; and Bob Mitchell of Corbin, Rogers’ former chief of staff and a board member of the Center for Rural Development that Rogers created in Somerset.

Four elected officials are ex-officio members: House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Floyd County; Senate President Robert Stivers of Clay County; and county judge-executives Albey Brock of Bell County and Doc Hardin of Magoffin County.

Former Gov. Paul Patton, 76, of Pikeville, leads the Futures Forum committee “responsible for framing and advancing the long-term vision of the region.”

Among the 10 people appointed to chair working groups is Phil Osborne, a Lexington public relations executive. He chairs the Tourism, Including Natural Resources, Arts & Heritage group. Osborne is a talented marketing executive, but his appointment to head that group sends a strong message of its own.

Osborne was a key leader in Faces of Coal, the coal industry’s multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign to block federal enforcement of environmental laws related to mining. The “war on coal” divisiveness that campaign fueled in the region is one of many obstacles SOAR must overcome.

In an interview, Shoupe of KFTC read key passages from the report by SOAR’s consultant on takeaways from a public forum Dec. 9 in Pikeville, where more than 1,500 people gathered to launch the initiative:

“People appreciate the governor and congressman, but fear entrenched interests will wait them out. … Folks want the dialogue deepened and broadened. … Next generation leadership is essential. The young men and women of this region must feel a stronger sense of SOAR engagement than is currently evident, moving forward. Specific leadership attention to this dimension of governance and program design and delivery is so critical to SOAR’s mission achievement.”

“And what did they do?” Shoupe said of the leadership appointments. “They did everything backwards.”

Maxson and Shoupe said they have been assured that SOAR working groups will listen to everyone’s ideas and perspectives. That’s not good enough, and Beshear and Rogers should know it.

If they want new ideas and the broad public support and credibility SOAR needs to succeed, they must be willing to give some seats at the decision-making table to people besides Eastern Kentucky’s Old Guard. Otherwise, SOAR won’t be any different than the failed efforts of the past.

 


Voters should push back against pro-pollution politicians

February 17, 2014

Politicians say a lot of dumb things. What’s puzzling, though, is how much we listen to them.

Some of the dumbest things politicians say these days involve criticism of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal environmental watchdogs. These politicians are indignant that “regulators” are enforcing the laws they and their predecessors passed to keep air fit to breathe and water safe to drink.

The Democrats and Republicans who passed those environmental laws and created the watchdog agencies during the last half of the 20th century were smart enough to realize that pollution spoils our nation, makes us sick and, in the long run, is bad for business.

So why are many politicians today fighting for more pollution? It’s really very simple: Companies pay them to.

If you look at these politicians’ campaign funds, you will see big contributions from polluters: coal companies, chemical companies, electric utilities and other corporations that make more money when they can push the environmental costs of their businesses off on the public.

The politicians who complain loudest about environmental regulation tend to get the most money from polluters. Funny how it works that way.

When these politicians can’t repeal or ignore environmental laws and regulations, they argue that they should be enforced by state rather than federal agencies. That’s easy to understand, too: the smaller the watchdog, the easier it is to muzzle.

Federal prosecutors last week launched a criminal investigation into the relationship between North Carolina regulators and Duke Energy after 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled into the Dan River on Feb. 2. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

The Associated Press reported last week that North Carolina regulators repeatedly thwarted attempts by environmental groups to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke to clean up leaky coal ash dumps near its power plants.

Two recent incidents in West Virginia, another state where politicians are frequently hostile to environmental regulation, also has raised questions about cozy political relationships with polluters.

The water supply for more than 300,000 people in nine counties around Charleston hasn’t been right since Jan. 9. That’s when storage tanks owned by Freedom Industries leaked as much as 7,500 gallons of coal-processing chemicals into the Elk River.

Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy protection to avoid lawsuits. The spill will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Then, last Tuesday, a pipe ruptured at a Patriot Coal processing plant about 18 miles from where the chemical spill occurred. It sent more than 100,000 gallons of coal and chemical slurry into Fields Creek, a Kanawha River tributary. State officials said the spill “wiped out” six miles of stream, causing “severe, adverse environmental impact.”

We’ve heard these stories many times before. Remember the 2008 coal ash pond collapse in East Tennessee that released 5 million cubic yards of ash and cost $1.2 billion to clean up? Or the spill in Martin County, Ky., in 2000 that sent 306,000 gallons of coal sludge into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River? And there are many more smaller incidents that never make headlines.

Does this sound like environmental regulation that is too strict, or too lax?

Many Kentucky politicians like to complain about the “war on coal” — a phrase coined for a well-financed industry propaganda campaign. But the real war is being waged against Kentucky’s land, water, air and public health by companies that want more freedom to blast mountains, bury streams and release toxins into the environment.

Many people support polluters because they buy into the argument that you can’t have both a strong economy and a clean environment.

Sure, sometimes environmental regulation does cost jobs and raise costs in the short run. But history has shown that it has always been good for the economy in the long run because it creates a healthier environment and sparks job-creating innovation. Perhaps the best example is government fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which over several decades have given us better cars and cleaner air.

How long will some politicians keep fighting for more pollution? As long as polluters keep paying them to. And as long as we keep listening to and re-electing them.


Could Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields learn from Eastern Germany?

January 25, 2014

140123Doering12

An old mine in eastern Germany is used for a film screening.  The metal construction is the retooled front end of an overburden spreader that will function as a pier once the lake in the former mining pit has filled.  Photo by Frank Doering

 

Coal is still mined in this region, but the industry employs only a fraction of the people it did for more than a century. Huge tracts of damaged land must be reclaimed. Leaders struggle to build a new economy, create jobs and keep young people from leaving.

Eastern Kentucky? No, eastern Germany.

Frank Doering, a German-born freelance photographer who has lived in Lexington for nearly two decades, spent three years documenting the land and people of eastern Germany’s Lausitz region.

Except for the flat topography, this area the size of Rhode Island has much in common with the coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia. And it could offer a few ideas for Kentucky leaders grappling with the same issues, Doering said.

Coalscapes, an exhibit of Doering’s compelling photographs, opened last Thursday at Institute 193, the small, nonprofit gallery at 193 N. Limestone. The free show continues through Feb. 26.

140123FrankDoering0006Doering, 55, grew up in western Germany and earned degrees in German literature, history and philosophy. He came to this country to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Wallis Miller, an architectural historian.

They lived for several years in Europe, where Doering worked as a cognitive science researcher at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Miller was hired in 1994 by the University of Kentucky, where she is an associate professor of architecture.

Doering taught philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati before quitting in 2000 to pursue photography, a hobby since his youth. He now works on personal projects between commercial commissions.

The Coalscapes project grew out of a 2004 trip to Canada, where the couple visited a huge, open-pit asbestos mine.

“It was visually overwhelming,” Doering said. “I’ve always been interested in the industrial underpinnings of society and the scale on which it happens. This was a chilling landscape because it was all manmade.”

The experience made Doering want to photograph large surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but the mountain topography and lack of access made that difficult.

When Miller made a research trip to Berlin, Doering discovered the Lausitz region, less than two hours away. It had been an industrial powerhouse of the former East Germany, but state-owned industries there all but collapsed after German reunification in 1990.

Only three of 17 former mines still operate there, he said, but they are vast. More than 136 villages have been obliterated by mining, and more are targeted by Germany’s decades-long mine-planning process.

The region has some of the world’s richest deposits of lignite coal, used primarily to fuel nearby electric power plants. Despite Germany’s ambitious commitments to solar and wind energy, it uses a lot of coal and will for decades.

Still, Lausitz is economically depressed. Since the Berlin Wall fell, many former miners have been employed by the government, which has spent billions to dismantle old industrial plants and reclaim former surface mines.

“Many people there feel they have gotten the short end of the stick since reunification,” Doering said, adding that the region has a stigma within Germany similar to what Appalachia has in this country. “There is a distrust of outsiders.”

But the more trips Doering made to Lausitz, where he rented an apartment, the more locals opened up to him and the better his pictures got. The project was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

Although initially attracted by the raw landscape, he said, “The project took on much more of a human side. The industrial history and the people’s life stories are unbelievably interesting.”

Doering’s photographs document efforts to restore old mine pits as lakes that will attract tourists. Former mines have even been used for concerts and film screenings, and even public art installations.

There is also a push for “industrial” tourism — with mining companies building observation platforms so visitors can watch the mining process, which Doering said is fascinating because it is done on such a super-human scale. For example, the conveyor assemblies that remove soil above the coal seams are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.

“People from different backgrounds come and look at stuff they wouldn’t normally look at,” he said. “It starts some unexpected conversations” about balancing energy needs and the environment — conversations that rarely happen in an Appalachia polarized by “war on coal” rhetoric.

One metal fabricating company, which used to make industrial buildings, now makes innovative housing for locals and vacation rentals. It reminds Doering of the UK College of Design’s efforts to retool idled houseboat factories near Somerset to make energy-efficient modular housing.

Doering said his photos have been used in Germany to both document and promote the sparsely populated region, where leaders realize they must rebuild to high standards. “It had better be cutting-edge stuff, because that’s the only way to attract outsiders who might pour some money into the area,” he said.

Doering said he doesn’t know enough about Eastern Kentucky to say what lessons its leaders might learn from Germany. But he said the keys to progress there have been locals and outsiders overcoming traditional fault lines to find creative solutions.

“They have forged some odd alliances,” he said. “They have found a way to work together and get stuff done.”

 

If you go

  • What: Coalscapes, a photography exhibit
  • Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone.
  • When: Now until Feb. 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and by appointment. Admission is free.
  • More information: Institute193.org, Coalscapes.com, Doeringphoto.com
Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/01/25/3052745/tom-eblen-eastern-germany-eastern.html#storylink=cpy

 

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Will SOAR be a new beginning, or just more talk about Appalachia?

December 8, 2013

You have to wonder: Will the Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit Monday in Pikeville be the start of something big, or just another feel-good effort that doesn’t amount to much?

More than 1,500 people have registered to attend the conference called by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who said they wanted ideas from throughout Eastern Kentucky for strategies to diversify the region’s economy.

There have been dozens of conferences on this topic over the years, but this one offers some hopeful signs. For one thing, it is the first high-level, bipartisan effort. Politicians who usually dance to the tune of the all-powerful coal industry are actually asking other people what they think.

But once the talking is over and the reports are written, will leadership, public investment and private capital get behind the good ideas? Will anything really change?

soarlogoCreating a sustainable, broadly prosperous economy in a region that has never really had one will be a monumental challenge.

Eastern Kentucky has never lacked for intelligent, hard-working people. But it has been handicapped by isolation, lack of education and opportunity, corrupt politics and powerful economic forces beyond its borders and control.

Since the late 1800s, the region has gone from subsistence farming to large-scale timber extraction to increasingly destructive methods of coal mining. The result has been a classic colonial economy, where most of the wealth flowed out of the region, or to a small local elite, while a large underclass survived on welfare and charity.

This cycle of poverty and dependence has led to hopelessness, drug abuse and other social problems, as was outlined in the most recent chapters of the excellent series Fifty Years of Night, by Herald-Leader reporters John Cheves and Bill Estep.

Can a new and different chapter be written for Eastern Kentucky?

In calling this summit, Beshear and Rogers cited the loss of more than 6,000 coal jobs over the past two years. But they wisely avoided their usual “war on coal” rhetoric, which blames the industry’s problems on long-overdue environmental regulation and enforcement.

The main reasons for declining coal production are cheaper Western coal and even cheaper natural gas. Besides, coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been falling for three decades, from a high of 37,505 in 1981, primarily because of industry mechanization and a shift from deep to surface mining.

Eastern Kentucky’s current coal employment is 7,951, the lowest in generations, and that is unlikely to improve much. Coal will continue to be a presence. But because the large, easy-to-mine reserves are gone, most of the coal jobs will never return.

There are no “magic bullet” solutions to replacing Eastern Kentucky’s coal-based economy. (Not that coal itself was ever a magic bullet. Even when coal employment and production were at their peaks, the coal counties were still among the nation’s poorest.)

The citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has some good ideas about what a new Eastern Kentucky economy should aspire to. Those principles would be a good starting point for Monday’s conversations.

KFTC’s vision calls for a “just” transition that promotes “innovation, self-reliance and broadly held local wealth.” It urges more citizen participation in decision-making, and calls for restoration and protection of the environment and public health. It also urges leaders to “consider the effects of decisions on future generations.”

Tourism and outdoor recreation are often mentioned as potential economic opportunities, but that will require cleaning up some of strip mining’s environmental damage. Kentucky should lobby for money to do that work from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, which could keep thousands of former coal miners employed for years.

Home-grown entrepreneurship and technology jobs are other often-mentioned possibilities to building Eastern Kentucky’s middle class, but they will require serious state investments in education and infrastructure to attract private capital. Kentucky’s tax-phobic politicians and the citizens who elect them have never been willing to make such serious investment, and that must change if anything else is to.

Shaping a new Eastern Kentucky economy will require a lot of creativity, commitment and hard work, not to mention leadership, inclusion and accountability.

There will be many obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is cynicism. It will be a long process. But Monday in Pikeville is as good a time and place to start as any.


UK historian Ron Eller leaves big shoes to fill; who will?

November 13, 2013

Ronald Eller, a University of Kentucky history professor and outstanding writer who has focused on Appalachia, was honored last Friday as he donated his papers to UK Special Collections in preparation for his retirement at the end of the year.

ellerEller came to UK in 1985, succeeding Harry Caudill, the Eastern Kentucky lawyer whose 1962 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, focused national attention on the exploitation of Appalachia. Eller picked up where Caudill left off, analyzing the forces that have shaped Appalachia’s evolution.

Eller’s 1982 book, Miners, Mill hands and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A 2008 book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, is the best book I know of about the region’s modern history.

No word yet on the Appalachian scholar UK will hire to succeed Eller in the history department, but he or she had better be good. We cannot really understand modern Kentucky without understanding Appalachian history.


A beautiful state, forever challenged to live up to its potential

September 28, 2013

Indian Fort Mountain, Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

The view from Indian Fort Mountain near Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Every state is unique. So what makes Kentucky so special?

To begin to answer that question, you must go back to 1750, when the first land-hungry white Virginians crossed the Appalachian mountains to see what was on the other side. What they found created quite a buzz.

John Filson, who published the first book about Kentucky in 1784, boasted that it was “the new Eden … like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey.” A frontier preacher is said to have explained heaven to his flock as “a Kentucky of a place.”

Of course, this was long before strip mining and strip malls.

Still, people continue to be awed by Kentucky’s beauty: lush mountains, rolling meadows, scenic rivers, vast limestone caves and manicured horse farms.

Kentucky’s fertile land has always made it an agriculture powerhouse. The Bluegrass region’s karst geology and calcium-rich soil is the foundation for two signature industries: strong-boned horses and pure water for bourbon whiskey.

Originally, Kentucky was considered the West. When the Civil War came, this citadel of slavery remained in the Union. Once the Union won, many Kentuckians sided with the Confederacy. Go figure.

But Kentucky has often been a paradox. For example, 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey (and, really, all that’s worth drinking) is made in Kentucky. Yet, you can’t legally buy it in more than one-third of the state’s 120 counties. Of course, that doesn’t mean a lot of it isn’t consumed there.

Kentuckians love to eat, too, from spicy Western Kentucky barbecue to the delicately flavored cucumber spread of Louisville known as benedictine. Ask people on the other side of the world what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply: “Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”

Kentuckians tend to be friendly, independent, fun-loving, stubborn and resistant to change. The local cultures we have created vary widely from the Cumberland mountains to the Jackson Purchase. The common denominator seems to be a passion for basketball.

Unless we are from one of the state’s larger cities, Kentuckians tend to identify themselves by their native county. And we have more and smaller counties than almost any state.

But we still love our little towns. We have given many of them colorful names, such as Red Bird, Hi Hat, Cutshin, Mousie and Fancy Farm. Occasionally, imagination has failed us and we have copied the names of European cities, but we have insisted on pronouncing them differently.

During its first decades of statehood, Kentucky was often a national leader and innovator. But the state seems never to have fully recovered from the Civil War and the human slavery that caused it. For a century and a half, Kentucky’s progress has always seemed like three steps forward, two steps back.

Still, some of us think Kentucky is capable of being a national leader rather than a persistent laggard. Kentuckians are hard workers, blessed with a central location, abundant resources and a beautiful place to live — when we don’t insist on messing it up.

The name Kentucky is derived from languages of the American Indian tribes we took this land from, but nobody is sure what it really meant. Some say it meant “dark and bloody ground.” Others say, “the land of tomorrow.” While a lot has happened to support the first theory, I choose to believe the second.

Now, would somebody please pass the barbecue and freshen my bourbon? We have a lot of work to do after dinner.

 


How to improve Appalachia? Create more local entrepreneurs

July 21, 2013

Thomas F. Miller thinks he knows how to make Eastern Kentucky’s economy more vibrant, diverse and sustainable: create more entrepreneurs. How could that be done? Well, he has some ideas about that, too.

Miller, 67, has been thinking about these issues since 1971, when he left a Big Eight accounting firm to move to Eastern Kentucky and work for what is now Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp.

From 1973 to 1981, Miller was president of Kentucky Highlands, one of the most successful initiatives to come out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty.” Miller later worked in economic and community development in San Francisco, his native Tennessee and for the Ford Foundation in New York and Africa.

130717TomMiller0010Miller recently sent me a report that summarizes his four decades of thinking about Eastern Kentucky’s economic challenges. We met last week in Berea, where he has lived since retirement, to talk more about it.

“I can’t let go of the big conclusions I’ve come to about the development challenges around here,” Miller said.

Eastern Kentucky’s economy has been dominated for more than a century by extractive industries — coal, timber, oil and gas. Production costs were kept low and most profits went elsewhere.

Those dominant industries and geographic isolation limited diversification and civic engagement. Eastern Kentucky’s economy became almost solely dependent on the boom-and-bust coal industry — and government transfer payments.

Efforts to bring industry from elsewhere into Appalachia has had limited success for a variety of reasons, and most of those jobs have paid low wages. Many of Appalachia’s talented and ambitious entrepreneurs have left for better opportunities elsewhere.

You can’t just throw money at the problems, Miller said. That’s why the billions of public and private dollars that have gone to Appalachia in the past half-century haven’t solved the problems. More important than having capital, he said, is having people who know how to successfully put capital to work.

Kentucky Highlands and other similar organizations in Central Appalachia have done some good work in this area. But they simply haven’t been big enough to make the impact that is needed, he said.

Miller proposes creating an Eastern Kentucky Venture Fund, led by a half dozen or so senior Kentucky business people with exceptional talents. They would need to raise at least $250 million in public and private equity and debt to create and nurture entrepreneurs and to invest in new businesses, often through existing organizations such as Kentucky Highlands.

And an important focus would need to be creating businesses that bring new money into the region by producing products sold elsewhere.

“While government has a role to play, this kind of development strategy can’t be led by government,” Miller said. “Government is about trying to please a lot of constituencies. Private investment is about saying ‘no’ 99 percent of the time.”

Because this kind of fund would be more about regional development than quick profits, it would be hard to attract most private equity. But, with the right kind of leadership and vision, Miller thinks, a number of big foundations would be willing to invest. So would regional corporations and utilities that stand to benefit from an improving Eastern Kentucky economy.

“We must make the most of the entrepreneurs we have, bring more of them into the region and grow them at home,” Miller said in his report.

The best Eastern Kentucky entrepreneurs are likely to be homegrown ones — people who have a passion for the region and don’t want to live anywhere else, he said.

This effort would require culture change in a region where work has often meant working for someone else. And it would require extensive training in economics, entrepreneurship and business skills, from elementary school through college, both in the classroom and through extracurricular activities such as Junior Achievement.

“You would try to do everything you can do to increase people’s ability to think like entrepreneurs and, more importantly, give them opportunities to practice,” Miller said.

“There are no silver bullets,” he said. “It’s probably a 50-year strategy, at best, and the first 10 years aren’t going to be pretty. But we know that this investment strategy works in Eastern Kentucky, that betting on the people here is the thing to do.”


Whippoorwill Festival teaches skills for back-to-nature living

July 16, 2013

130712WhippoorwillFest-TE0005

Dave Cooper, right, organizer of the Whippoorwill Festival last weekend near Berea, stirs a pot of pinto beans while Carol Judy, center, of the Clearkfork Community Institute in Eagan, Tenn., leads a workshop on roots and other non-timber forest products. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

BEREA — How do you describe the Whippoorwill Festival? It is part Scout camp, part folkways festival and part family reunion, straight out of the pages of the old Whole Earth Catalog.

However it’s described, the third annual event brought more than 300 people from across the region to rural Madison County last weekend. They came for 3½ days of camping, communal eating, conversation, education, music, dancing and fun in a family-friendly atmosphere.

“It attracts an eclectic, interesting group of people,” said organizer Dave Cooper of Lexington, an environmental activist and former mechanical engineer. “You put them all together and interesting things happen.”

The Whippoorwill Festival is held at HomeGrown HideAways, a 100-acre farm and eco-friendly campground west of Berea that is tucked away below tree-covered hills.

The festival is one of three that owners Nathan and Jessa Turner host each year. HomeGrown HideAway also has the PlayThink Movement & Flow Arts Festival in June and the Holler in the Holler music and arts festival, Aug. 9-11.

Most people came to the Whippoorwill Festival to learn “skills for earth-friendly living,” Cooper said. There were more than 75 classes and demonstrations.

Many classes harked back to Appalachia’s pre-industrial lifestyle and heritage: cooking and bread-making over an open fire, making soap from goats’ milk, beekeeping, composting, starting a fire without matches, making paper, banjo playing and ballad singing.

130712WhippoorwillFest-TE0006Johnny Faulkner, a retired archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service at Red River Gorge, was teaching and demonstrating skills that Kentuckians were using long before the first white pioneers and settlers arrived.

He used a small billet made from a deer antler to chip or “knap” flint to make arrow and spear points for hunting. After he finished one, he showed me how they were attached to a spear made of native river cane and hurled at high speed with the help of a short stick called an “atlatl.”

“With that, they could throw a spear at 100 miles an hour,” he said. “I sure wouldn’t want to be hit by one.”

Norm Adkins of Richmond demonstrated a similar technique, but with materials beyond the traditional flint that Native Americans used. He had one bright green arrowhead he made from fiber optic plastic.

Other classes focused on food: oyster mushroom inoculation, hunting wild mushrooms, growing herbs and strawberries, making sauerkraut, growing nut trees, starting a community garden, composting, saving seeds and raising backyard chickens.

And still others were about skills for low-cost and back-to-nature living: basic bicycle and auto repair, wildflowers, spinning wool, knitting, making sandals and shoes, natural childbirth, stargazing through a telescope, hitchhiking and wilderness first aid.

“We live in Berea, and this is one of our favorite things to do every year,” said Chris Smith, an emergency room nurse who taught the wilderness first aid class and came for the weekend with his wife, Katie Gardner, and their two sons.

They were staffing a first aid station among the tents of several social activists groups, including Appalachian Water Watch, Kentucky Heartwood, the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition and Kentucky Mountain Justice.

“People see a lot of old friends here,” Smith said. “It gives them a break from protesting what they don’t like and learning more about what they do like.”

There was a contra dance on Thursday night and traditional music concerts Friday and Saturday evenings. Pam Gadd of Nashville came to perform with the New Coon Creek Girls string band and teach workshops on banjo playing and songwriting. She also wanted to take the composting workshop.

Wendy Welch of the Tale of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore in Big Stone Gap, Va., led a “running a successful small business in Appalachia” workshop, a skill Cooper wants to emphasize more at future festivals.

“Many workshop leaders come to the festival and talk about whatever their passion is, and often they are making a little business out of it,” said Cooper, who is trying to start a new organization, the Appalachian Small and Micro Business Alliance.

“It would be kind of a chamber of commerce to help nurture and grow these small startup businesses in the region,” Cooper said. “As we look toward the end of coal, we’re going to need lots of ways to create new economic models in Appalachia.”

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