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

 

Click on each photo to see larger image and read caption:


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.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo and read caption:


How about some real leadership rather than a phony ‘War on Coal’

July 13, 2013

Kentucky has plenty of politicians and business executives. But at this critical moment in history, what it really needs are leaders.

President Barack Obama recently decided to bypass a dysfunctional Congress and have the Environmental Protection Agency enforce the Clean Air Act by setting limits on carbon pollution from coal-burning power plants. It was about time.

Scientific consensus is overwhelming that man-made carbon and other pollutants are warming Earth’s climate with disastrous results — floods, droughts, monster storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. It already has inflicted billions of dollars worth of damage, and it threatens many aspects of civilization.

The nation’s 600 or so coal-burning power plants produce about 40 percent of our carbon pollution. Plus, studies increasingly show other tolls that coal mining and burning take on our land, water, air and health.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will shape the global economy of the future. The sooner the United States gets behind that trend, the more economically competitive it will be. But changing the status quo is hard, especially when entrenched special interests have much to lose.

Most Kentucky politicians’ reaction to Obama’s call for a less-polluted nation was predictable: “War on coal!” they screamed.

A few of our more willfully ignorant legislators voiced skepticism about climate change, or implied that it was somehow God’s will. Most others just complained that improving public health and protecting Kentucky’s land, water and air would cost too much money and eliminate some existing jobs.

The coal industry has long been one of the most powerful forces in Kentucky. And it has resisted every significant effort to limit the environmental damage it does. The multimillion-dollar public relations campaign built around the “war on coal” theme is just the latest example.

But the current slump in Appalachia’s coal industry is largely the result of cheap natural gas, rather than government regulation. And with the richest reserves already mined, many Kentucky coal operators must resort to ever-more costly and destructive methods of surface mining to claw out what remains.

When the coal is all gone in the not-to-distant future, what then? Will Kentucky be positioned for future success? Or will it simply be left with a lot of damaged land, water and people as the world’s economy moves on?

Leaders would approach this problem much differently than most Kentucky politicians and executives are. Since Kentucky still has coal, and coal will by default be a big part of the nation’s energy mix for decades to come, leaders would champion efforts to mine and burn it more responsibly. They also would double down on research to see if “clean coal” technology can become a reality rather than an oxymoron.

Leaders would lobby the Obama administration and Congress for funds to help Kentucky make the transition, soften costly adjustments and create sustainable energy jobs. Remember how tobacco-settlement money helped reshape Kentucky agriculture? What similar models could be created for coal counties and utility customers?

Ambitious leaders might even set a goal to make Kentucky a manufacturing center for solar panels or energy-efficient modular homes. At the least, they would set out to make Kentucky the nation’s energy-efficiency leader through smarter design of new buildings and retrofitting of old ones. Kentucky already leads the nation in energy-efficient school construction, including several of the first school buildings to generate more electricity than they consume.

The General Assembly missed an opportunity for leadership last year when it failed to pass House Bill 170, which would have required electric utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and do more to help customers cut energy consumption. Leadership is needed to pass a version of that bill next year.

Simply allowing citizens and businesses to profit, rather than just break even, by feeding power they produce into the utility grid could make a big difference. With photovoltaic panel prices falling all the time, many people might be willing to invest in solar-panel systems if it could be profitable. Germany now generates 22 percent of its energy from renewable sources — much of it solar — despite having less sunshine than Kentucky.

Each major environmental regulation since the 1960s — from acid-rain legislation to auto-emissions standards — has been met with predictions of economic doom that never materialized. Instead, those regulations not only cleaned up the environment but they also provided the poke private industry needed to innovate.

The stakes of climate change are greater than anything we have faced before. We can’t risk being distracted by the fearmongers. We owe it to ourselves and our descendants to try to limit potential disaster.

Market-based solutions would be preferable to government regulation. But after the demagoguing that so-called “cap and trade” proposals got a few years ago, that seems politically impossible. Industry needs a powerful nudge to innovate, wherever it comes from.

Rather than fighting a war against progress that cannot be won, Kentucky should reinvent itself as an energy innovator. We should show the world that a state settled by pioneers can pioneer again. But that will take leadership, not business and politics as usual.

 


Holler Poets celebrates 5 years of showcasing Kentucky writers

May 25, 2013

130510HollerPoets0018

Eric Sutherland, founder of the monthly Holler Poets series, poses outside Al’s Bar at the corner of North Limestone and East Sixth Streets. The series will celebrate its fifth year, and 60th session, on May 29. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

As the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War approached in March 2008, Eric Scott Sutherland was frustrated and angry. So he fought back the best way he knew how: with poetry.

The writer organized Poets for Peace, a protest reading in the newly reopened Al’s Bar at the corner of North Limestone and East Sixth Street. The event featured an all-star lineup of local literary talent, including Jane Gentry Vance, who was then serving as Kentucky’s poet laureate. Nearly 100 listeners packed the house.

“It was just electric,” Sutherland recalled. “You could sense it.”

Sutherland had tapped into more than public outrage over a tragic, costly and unnecessary war. People seemed hungry for poetry and a venue for self-expression.

“There was pent-up demand for what this guy was doing,” said Josh Miller, one of the bar’s owners. So Miller’s brother, Lester, asked Sutherland if he would organize an event like that at their bar every month.

The Holler Poets Series was born.

The series celebrates its five-year anniversary, and 60th session, on Wednesday. The free event will begin, as always, with an open microphone for any writer wanting to share his or her work.

Then there will be the featured writers. This month’s are Frank X Walker, Kentucky’s current poet laureate, and his fellow Affrilachian poet, Mitchell Douglas. The evening concludes with a musical act. This month’s is Christian hip hop artist Justin Long, who performs under the name JustMe.

Holler’s format has changed little since the series began in 2008 with the award-winning poet Maurice Manning, who now teaches at Transylvania University. Since the beginning, events have been promoted with unique posters created by artist John Lackey, whose Homegrown Press Studio is a couple of doors down from the bar.

About 80 writers have been featured at Holler, including other well-known Kentucky names such as Nikky Finney, Silas House, Richard Taylor, Erik Reece, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, Crystal Wilkinson, George Ella Lyon, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Bianca Spriggs and Leatha Kendrick.

Lexington’s poetry scene has flourished in recent years. Holler Poets — some of whom were born in mountain “hollers” or like to speak loudly — is a big reason why.

Since the beginning, Holler’s goal has been to both raise the profile of experienced poets and encourage the development of new ones. “The open mic has inspired a lot of people to develop their craft, given them something to work toward every month,” Sutherland said.

“Holler Poets has been extremely important in encouraging new voices to emerge, to go from writing for themselves to writing for an audience,” said Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, a Bulgarian-born poet, WRFL radio host, and owner of the Lexington poetry book press Accents Publishing.

“I thought I would go and mingle with like-minded people,” said Tina Andry, who had written poetry all her life but mostly kept it to herself. “Everyone was so welcoming, and the next thing I knew I was publishing a book.”

The Poets for Peace event on March 30, 2008 was followed a year later by Peace in the Mountains, where writers decried what environmentally destructive methods of surface mining for coal is doing to Kentucky’s land, water and air. Holler readers frequently critique an American society that values money more than people. Several of the events have been fundraisers for peace and environmental groups.

“For me, everything is political,” said Sutherland, 41, a Shelbyville native who studied natural resource conservation at the University of Kentucky and has earned his living as a baker and arborist. “It has been rewarding to use art as a way to inform people about what’s going on.”

Sutherland has been surprised by Holler’s popularity. He can’t remember an event where Al’s Bar wasn’t filled with people.

“I knew that our literary heritage would support it and that it was needed,” he said. “But I didn’t know it would catch on. I think the time was just right.”

Sutherland knew he had arrived when, at Holler’s three-year anniversary, Lester Miller surprised him on stage with a fancy certificate proclaiming him as the poet laureate of Al’s Bar.

Accents Publishing will soon publish Sutherland’s fourth poetry collection, Pendulum, inspired by his experiences working at the lobby café of Lexington’s downtown Central Library. Books are important, but Sutherland thinks Holler shows that performance can make poetry a more powerful artistic medium.

“When you hear people up on stage baring their soul, which takes a lot of courage, it ignites something in the listener,” he said. “I think people yearn to feel connected to other people. Poetry is really the last vestige of a direct expression of humanity.”

If you go

Holler Poets 60Five-year anniversary

When: 8 p.m., May 29

Where: Al’s Bar, 601 N. Limestone

Who: Affrilachian poets Frank X Walker and Mitchell Douglas, hip hop performer JustMe. Open microphone for other poets, with sign-up beginning at 7 p.m.

Cost: Free.

More information: EricScottSutherland.com

Click on each thumbnail to see larger photo and read caption: 


Authors document Robinson Forest in the hope of preserving it

May 7, 2013

 

130502RobinsonForest-TE0106

In their new book, “The Embattled Wilderness,” Erik Reece and James Krupa write this: “To look out over the forest’s steep ridges — slopes that novelist James Still called ‘a river of earth’ — is to understand that Robinson Forest is simultaneously one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in North America and one of the most threatened.” Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

JACKSON — As we hike uphill through beech and yellow poplar trees, a wild turkey flies out of the woods and across the trail in front of us. A few hundred yards higher, Erik Reece stops suddenly and points at a scarlet tanager foraging among the oaks.

At the crest of the ridge, we climb an old fire tower and are rewarded with a spectacular view of Robinson Forest. On this clear, spring morning, the forest looks like a rolling “river of earth,” as James Still described the natural landscape of Eastern Kentucky in his classic 1940 novel, River of Earth.

The green waves roll out in every direction until they suddenly stop at Robinson Forest’s boundary. Beyond the boundary are huge, gray scars from surface mining and the flattened, denuded remnants of “reclaimed” coal-mine land, now struggling to support foreign grasses and scrubby trees.

“We hope more people will go to Robinson Forest, but a lot of Kentuckians won’t, so we wanted them to experience it vicariously,” said Reece, co-author with James J. Krupa of the new book,The Embattled Wilderness: The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future (University of Georgia Press, $24.95).

Reece will sign copies of the book from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

130502RobinsonForest-TE0070

Erik Reece on Lewis Fork creek in Robinson Forest.

Reece is a UK English professor best known for his award-winning 2006 book, Lost Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. Like Lost Mountain, this book has a forward by renowned Kentucky author Wendell Berry.

Krupa is a UK biology professor who over decades of study has explored every ridge and valley of the main 10,000-acre block of the 14,786-acre forest, which contains some of the state’s cleanest streams.

“It is one of the last and largest examples of the oldest, most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America — the mixed mesophytic,” the authors write in their introduction.

“Unfortunately, industrial development has churned under the mountains surrounding these 14,000 acres, turning Robinson Forest into an island of biological diversity surrounded by an ever-expanding desert,” they write, adding that there is every reason to believe that coal and timber interests want to plunder this land, too.

Reece and Krupa are both fine writers. In this small, engaging book, they alternate chapters, explaining the natural and human history of this unique corner of Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties and making a case to preserve it.

Krupa describes the geological history of Robinson Forest and the surrounding Cumberland Plateau, which was formed before there were dinosaurs, mammals or even flowering plants. These mountains were once covered by a shallow inland sea and then swamps. Dead ferns and trees sank to the bottom for thousands of years, forming peat and eventually bituminous coal.

Krupa also discusses his research into the ecological diversity of the current forest. Who knew lichens and wood rats could be so fascinating?

Reece’s chapters describe the forest’s human history, from settlement to the early 20th century, when Cincinnati business partners F.W. Mobray and E.O. Robinson bought the forest and cut virtually all of its timber.

In 1923, Robinson gave the wasted land to the University of Kentucky for research to “tend to the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky.” Under UK’s stewardship, most of the land has regenerated over the past 90 years into a second-growth version of the biologically diverse, native forest.

But coal operators, who wield considerable clout, have periodically pressured UK to allow mining in the forest. Reece said he and Krupa decided to write this book after the UK Board of Trustees’ controversial 2007 decision to clear-cut 800 acres of the main forest.

Although the forest recovered from clear-cutting a century ago, critics doubt that can happen again because of the extensive surface mining on surrounding land and the planting of invasive species as part of mine “reclamation.”

Reece said he and Krupa hope their book will prompt UK officials to rethink their management strategy for Robinson Forest and embrace a broader ecological research mission. A part of such a mission could be helping Kentucky adapt to climate change.

Specifically, the authors urge broader input into decision-making about the forest. Currently, Robinson Forest is managed by UK’s Forestry Department. Also, they want UK to separate research and revenue goals, so that there is not periodic temptation to log or mine Robinson Forest to make money for the university.

Reece is up for tenure this year, and he acknowledges this book won’t be popular in some corners of the university. But he thinks Robinson Forest is worth fighting to preserve.

He said the book was inspired by The Unforeseen Wilderness, which UK commissioned Berry to write in 1971. It advocated for preservation of the Red River Gorge at a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to destroy it with a flood-control dam.

“We want to give readers a sense of why Robinson Forest is worth saving,” Reece said. “If you can convince people to love something, they won’t destroy it.”

Click on each thumbnail to see larger photo and read caption:

Excerpts from the final chapter of The Embattled Wilderness

“Robinson Forest is many things: it is one of the most important eco-systems in Appalachia, it is a laboratory for crucial research and teaching, and it is a gift held in trust for future generations of Kentuckians. But it is also a model for how we must proceed in our habitation of the natural world. In fact, Robinson Forest represents a model for an entirely new definition of “economy,” whereby our American systems of exchange, both of wealth and energy, are brought in 130508ReeceBookCover001line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.”

“What we as 21st century Americans must finally come to understand is that the economy of consumption operates in direct opposition to, and at the peril of, the economy of nature. … Kentucky should look to Robinson Forest as a model for a sustainable, post-coal economy. We must replace the industrial logic of the strip mine with the much more ancient wisdom of the forest.”

“To abandon wilderness places like Robinson Forest would be to abandon ourselves. To ignore the natural laws of its watersheds for the logic of our own industrial imagination would be to abandon our better selves — to abandon a sustainable future for the sake of short-term avarice and indulgence. But to preserve the world will mean learning the lessons of Robinson Forest, and in doing so learning to preserve that embattled wilderness.”

 


Conference reflects on issues raised in landmark Wendell Berry book

April 9, 2013

130406BerryConf-TE0351

Wendell Berry, right, joined conference attendees on a tour Saturday of the farm at St. Catharine College in Washington County. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Wendell Berry is a true conservative. He believes in conservation, the idea that God gave us the Earth to sustain our lives and the responsibility to care for it so it can sustain the lives of future generations.

Four decades ago, the writer and farmer was alarmed by the methods and economics of modern farming and mining, which were (and still are) destroying land, water and rural communities. So he wrote his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, which has become an international classic.

That book and Berry’s subsequent work did much to spark the sustainable agriculture and local food movements, just as Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring in 1962 helped spark the environmental movement.

So it was no surprise that 300 people from 35 states and several foreign countries came to Louisville and Springfield last weekend for a sold-out conference revisiting the book. Well-known speakers discussed both progress and challenges, and they pondered this question: What will it take to resettle America?

The conference was organized by the Berry Center in Henry County, which is run by Mary Berry Smith to promote the philosophy of her father, as well as her uncle and late grandfather, both farmers, lawyers and conservationists named John Berry.

On Saturday, the conference was at St. Catharine College in Springfield, where the Berry Center has just begun a partnership to create undergraduate degree programs in ecological agriculture. The Catholic college campus includes an 800-acre farm the Dominican Sisters of Peace have operated since 1822.

The conference included an on-stage interview of Berry by veteran journalist Bill Moyers, who will use it on one of his Public Broadcasting System programs. Other speakers included Bill McKibben, the best-selling author and climate change activist; Wes Jackson, a MacArthur “genius” award winner and founder of The Land Institute, a leading sustainable agriculture organization; and Vandana Shiva, a renowned author, scientist and environmentalist in India.

In his interview with Moyers, Berry blamed many of today’s ecological problems on industrialization, unbridled capitalism and political systems that favor wealthy corporations, which make big political contributions to reap far bigger returns in taxpayer subsidies and lax regulation.

“There’s no justification for the permanent destruction of the world,” Berry said. “It’s not economically defensible. It’s not defensible in any terms.”

Berry, 78, lamented that the three and a half decades since his book’s publication have been marked by further environmental degradation, from strip mining and soil erosion to water pollution and accelerating climate change.

“It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that is not in danger,” he said.

Berry noted that black willows no longer grow beside his Henry County farm on the banks of the Kentucky River, 13 miles from where it empties into the Ohio River, but still flourish just upriver on the Ohio. There seems to be something in the Kentucky River’s water they can no longer tolerate.

“If the willows can’t continue to live there, how can I be sure that I can continue to live there?” he asked.

Berry, a lifelong Baptist, said the unholy alliance between corporate capitalism and many conservative Christians is “a feat which should astonish us all.”

“A great mistake of Christianity is speaking of the Holy Land as only one place,” he said. “There are no sacred and unsacred places; only sacred and desecrated places.”

But Berry noted that many faith communities are beginning to heed the Bible’s call to environmental stewardship and justice. That gives him hope, as does the growing popularity of organic food, local farmers markets and the sustainable agriculture movement.

“I don’t like to talk about the future, because it doesn’t exist and nobody knows anything about it,” Berry said. “The problems are big, but there are no big solutions.”

Berry said he thinks “resettling America” will require enough people living on and being able to earn a living from the land to take care of it. That will take individual initiative, better government policies and the political will to deal with urgent global threats such as climate change. Can it succeed?

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not,” Berry said. “We only have a right to ask what’s the right thing to do and do it.”

130406BerryConf-TE0207

Journalist Bill Moyers, left, and writer Wendell Berry autograph books after Moyers filmed an interview with Berry. It was part of a two-day conference revisiting Berry’s landmark 1977 book, “The Unsettling of America.”  Photo by Tom Eblen


Capitol Education Center shows progress can penetrate coal politics

February 17, 2013

A group of Louisville high school students in Frankfort to attend the I Love Mountains Day events toured the Capitol Education Center roof, which has solar panels, a wind turbine and a roof garden. Below, an interactive exhibit inside shows how much less power LED and compact florescent lights use than traditional incandescent bulbs. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

FRANKFORT — Each year, I notice more young people attending I Love Mountains Day. The rally against mountaintop-removal coal mining is organized by the citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and it has been a Valentine’s tradition since 2006.

The young people join hundreds of their elders from across Kentucky in marching to the Capitol steps to hear speakers that have included writer Wendell Berry and actress Ashley Judd. This year’s main speaker was writer Silas House.

Before the speeches, many marchers visit legislators and urge them to curb the coal industry’s worst environmental abuses, to no avail.

But this year, there was something new for the young people to see: the Capitol Education Center, which had its grand opening Feb. 8. The center was the brainchild of First Lady Jane Beshear, and it is located in a formerly vacant building beside the Capitol that once housed heating and cooling equipment.

Beshear thought the 60,000 students and teachers who visit the Capitol each year needed a place to rest and eat their lunch. Then, the former teacher realized that this recycled building could play a role in teaching students about one of the most important issues facing Kentucky’s future: environmental sustainability.

The building got a “green” renovation that included recycled materials and energy-efficient technology. Solar panels and a wind turbine that feed into the utility grid were installed on the roof. Rain water is recycled to water a roof garden that will provide food for the Governor’s mansion kitchen.

The Kentucky Environmental Education Council coordinated a dozen universities and state agencies in developing interactive multimedia exhibits for the building. They teach students about Kentucky history, civics and geography — but mainly about energy efficiency and alternative energy sources.

The project was funded with $1.1 million from the Finance Cabinet and a $250,000 donation from Duke Energy. General Electric donated appliances for a commercial kitchen that Beshear hopes to use for demonstrations of healthy cooking and eating. (For more information, go to: Cec.ky.gov.)

In an interview, Beshear said these issues are “so important for the future. The more we as a state get into energy efficiency and alternative sources, the better off we’ll be.”

This education center is outstanding, and the First Lady’s vision for it is inspired. But it was hard to ignore the irony when I took a tour on I Love Mountains Day.

That event was created eight years ago to push for the so-called “stream saver” bill, which would ban coal companies from burying streams with mining debris. KFTC says the practice has obliterated more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian waterways.

But thanks to the coal industry’s enormous clout in Frankfort, the proposed legislation has gone nowhere. Most elected state officials proudly call themselves “friends of coal”. That friendship, which comes with lots of campaign cash, has always meant that public health, mine safety and environmental stewardship take a back seat to coal company profits.

Kentucky’s coal industry is in decline because of depleted reserves, cheap natural gas and the Environmental Protection Agency’s newfound willingness to do its job. But, like the National Rifle Association, the coal industry has always fought every attempt at common-sense regulation. Anyone who threatens the industry’s freedom to mine with impunity is branded as an enemy of coal.

There was an added emphasis for this year’s I Love Mountains Day: House Bill 170, which would require utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and put more emphasis on energy-efficiency programs.

In short, this bill, sponsored by Democrats Kelly Flood of Lexington and Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, would put into law some of the good ideas showcased at the new Capitol Education Center.

Change is hard, and progress can be slow. But I can’t help but be encouraged when I attend I Love Mountains Day or see something like the Capitol Education Center. Politicians will always be captive to power and money, I suppose, but it is good to see other Kentuckians working for a better future.

Few legislators have the courage to attend I Love Mountains Day, and the coal industry would go after any governor who dared show his face there.

But it is perhaps worth pointing out what Gov. Steve Beshear was doing shortly before the crowd arrived for I Love Mountains Day. He was in the Capitol rotunda with former Wildcat basketball star Derek Anderson, calling for legislation to create a statewide public smoking ban.

If you had told me 20 years ago that a Kentucky governor would do such a thing, I would have said you were crazy.

 


Photos from today’s ‘I Love Mountains’ rally in Frankfort

February 14, 2013

I went to the annual “I Love Mountains” march and rally at the State Capitol today to gather material for my Sunday column — and to take photos. Here are a few of them:

 

Kentucky author Silas House, center, led the annual “I Love Mountains Day” march down Capitol Avenue to the State Capitol. The event was sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in opposition to mountaintop-removal and other destructive forms of coal mining. Several hundred people attended. Many marchers this year were advocating for two pieces of proposed legislation: one would limit coal mine waste dumped into streams; the other would require more use of renewable energy by utilities in Kentucky.

Many children brought homemade signs. 

Eric Sutherland of Lexington, center, was among those cheering the rally’s speakers.

Writer Silas House, on the steps of the State Capitol, urged citizens to “clean this house” of politicians who do the bidding of the coal industry at the expense of Appalachia’s people and communities. 

Kentucky author Wendell Berry, right, shares a laugh with disabled coal miner Carl Shoupe of Harlan County, who spoke at the rally.

Ella Corder, a student at Meece Middle School in Somerset, waited for applause to die down so she could read the essay that won her a contest sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

Kentucky writers Bobbie Ann Mason, left, and Ed McClanahan were among hundreds who participated.

Daniel Mullins, 10, of Berea, makes his feelings known.

A Valentine’s Day reminder 

 


We can learn some lessons from the pre-election hurricane

November 4, 2012

It didn’t take long for a couple of fringe preachers to proclaim that Hurricane Sandy was God’s retribution for homosexuality and other aspects of society they don’t like.

Such freakish, attention-seeking claims have become as common as the freakish weather that inspires them. But that doesn’t mean God or the forces of nature aren’t trying to tell us something.

There are a couple of obvious lessons in this pre-election hurricane, which killed at least 40 people and caused perhaps $50 billion worth of damage in the Northeast.

The first lesson is that Americans and their leaders should stop ignoring climate change and its increasingly disastrous effects. As the new cover of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine says in bold letters above a news photo of a flooded cityscape, “It’s global warming, stupid.”

Scientists say climate change can’t be directly blamed for any particular storm, or even hurricanes in general. But there is strong scientific evidence that man’s carbon emissions have increased the frequency and severity of destructive weather.

Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and that magnified the storm surge responsible for so much of Sandy’s destruction.

Yet, climate change has barely been mentioned during the presidential campaign of 2012, which may end up being the warmest year on record. You can attribute that to willful ignorance and complacency on the part of a large segment of the population — and the encouragement of that ignorance and complacency by powerful business interests and the politicians who do their bidding.

You can find some of the most blatant examples of this in Kentucky, where the coal industry and its favored politicians have waged a “war on coal” propaganda campaign, which in reality is a campaign against clean air, clean water and public health.

Appalachian coal reserves are dwindling and cheap natural gas has eroded coal’s markets, but the industry seems determined to extract every last bit of profit from Kentucky, no matter how much damage it does.

The lack of action to address climate change underscores a failure of leadership in both government and business.

President Barack Obama rarely spoke about climate change during this campaign, because he knew it would hurt him politically. Instead, he trumpeted domestic oil drilling and “clean coal” technology, which is still more oxymoron than reality.

Challenger Mitt Romney was even worse. At the Republican National Convention, he mentioned climate change only mockingly. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” he said. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

There is strong scientific consensus on climate change, but acknowledging and addressing it remains politically controversial. That is because fighting climate change would threaten economic interests invested in the status quo — and because it would require citizens and businesses to make some sacrifices. Heaven forbid that any American should be asked to sacrifice, even if the future of mankind may depend on it.

And that brings us to a second obvious lesson from Hurricane Sandy.

For at least three decades, many political leaders — especially Republicans — have won elections by offering simplistic and unrealistic solutions to increasingly difficult problems. Tell voters what they want to hear, then blame the consequences on the other guys.

Storms such as hurricanes Sandy and Katrina underscore the inadequacy of our aging national infrastructure — and the likelihood that climate change will force us to repair and rebuild it more frequently in the future.

Rather than cutting taxes, piling up debt and wasting money on unnecessary weapons systems and wars of choice, we should be investing in the physical and human infrastructure that will keep America safe, secure and economically prosperous in the future.

Natural disasters remind us that sufficient and efficient government is essential. During the GOP primary, Romney suggested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s work could be turned back to the states, or even privatized.

Since Hurricane Sandy, though, he has ignored reporters’ questions on the subject.

If religious leaders are seeking sermon topics from this pre-election hurricane, here are a few possibilities: greed, selfishness, complacency and why leadership matters.

 


Blaming coal’s problems on regulators is a strategy for losers

August 12, 2012

We curse the cop when we see lights flashing in our rear-view mirror.

Kentuckians are an independent people. We have good reasons to speed! Besides, speed limits restrict our “freedom” and take away our “liberty.” They are downright un-American, forced upon us by politicians and government bureaucrats.

Of course, we know in our heart that the cop is just doing his duty for our own good. Without speed limits, crashes would claim a greater toll than the already obscene 32,000 deaths nationally each year, one-third of which are caused by speeding.

It is harder to visualize the tens of thousands of people who die prematurely or are sickened by air and water pollution caused by irresponsible coal mining and burning. This is a largely hidden toll, with no graphic video for television newscasts. But health researchers can prove and document it.

The National Resources Defense Council reported last week that Kentucky is the worst state in the nation for toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants. It blamed that fact on state officials doing too little to force utilities to clean up.

The coal industry acts as if it is above the law. Kentucky government too often behaves as if it is owned and operated by coal interests.

Politicians love to rant about the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

What they mean is that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Surface Mining and other federal agencies are, for the first time in years, being better cops. They are enforcing environmental-protection laws, and they are trying to make state regulators enforce them, too.

Consider this recent example, at a joint meeting of the General Assembly’s Natural Resources and the Environment committee on Aug. 2.

The issue at hand was OSM’s demand that Kentucky follow the 1977 federal surface-mining law and require mining companies to post adequate reclamation bonds. If a company cleans up mined land as required by law, its bond is refunded. If it goes broke before the work is done, the bond is supposed to pay for cleanup.

The federal government has for years urged Kentucky to require higher bonds because in many of the 15 to 25 bond forfeiture cases each year there is too little money to do the work.

The Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reported that in an average year, the state Division of Abandoned Mine Lands faces more than $4 million in unfunded reclamation costs because bonds are too small. Land is left scarred, and neighbors’ property values are diminished.

The Beshear administration says that requiring adequate bonds would be “impractical and unaffordable” for many coal companies. The state Energy and Environment Cabinet has proposed raising bond requirements and creating a pool financed by fees on coal operations to help pay costs when an individual company’s reclamation bond falls short.

That seems like a reasonable solution, but you can bet it won’t happen unless federal regulators keep up the pressure. Most of us would find it reasonable to require an industry to clean up after itself. But to coal-industry apologists, it’s war.

“There is an assault on Kentucky, and really our way of life,” Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, complained at the Aug. 2 meeting.

“I don’t want to roll over dead and play stoolie in front of the federal government, either,” said Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, “because I believe in states’ rights.”

Despite earning their livings from coal-related businesses, Gooch and Hall are the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Natural Resources and the Environment committee. No conflicts of interest there.

Federal regulators are not waging a “war” on coal. They are enforcing laws designed to limit pollution, sickness and premature death, which study after study have attributed to irresponsible coal mining and burning.

In the short term, the coal industry will find plenty of allies in this phony “war on coal.” Kentucky miners are desperate for jobs, and other businesses like having electricity that has always been artificially cheap because the full cost of producing it hasn’t been taken into account.

Western coal, cheap natural gas, renewable energy technology and the reality of climate change cannot be ignored. If Kentucky’s coal industry wants a future, it must clean up its act and find ways to reduce the health and environmental damage of its product.

The coal industry faces inevitable change, the kind of seismic economic shift that Kentucky slaveholders and tobacco growers once faced. Continuing to blame the environmental cops whose lights are now in the rear-view mirror is a strategy for losers.

 


A coal supporter talks straight with the industry

June 28, 2012

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WVa. Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press.

 

Americans heard something on the U.S. Senate floor last Wednesday that they haven’t heard for nearly three years: a coal-state senator and longtime supporter of the coal industry speak eloquent truth to power.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s 16-minute speech was remarkable for its wisdom and candor. It echoed a similar address in 2009 by another West Virginia Democrat and longtime coal-industry champion, the late Sen. Robert Byrd.

They both sounded like old friends trying to warn an alcoholic that his behavior had become unacceptably destructive, both to himself and to others.

The occasion for Rockefeller’s speech was a resolution before the Senate to disapprove of new Environmental Protection Agency rules reducing coal-fired power plants’ emissions of mercury and other toxic pollution.

The resolution was sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and climate-change denier, and endorsed by coal industry lapdogs including Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky.

“Coal has played an important part in our past and can play an important role in our future, but it will only happen if we face reality,” Rockefeller began. (To watch the video, go to Youtu.be/ErN9v3e7zro)

“The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions,” he said. “Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and, worst of all, coal miners’ hopes.”

Rockefeller then outlined some inconvenient truths that coal industry leaders gloss over when they attack environmental-protection laws and government regulation.

“First, our coal reserves are finite and many coal-fired power plants are aging,” he said. “The cheap, easy coal seams are diminishing, and production is falling — especially in the Central Appalachian Basin in Southern West Virginia. Production is shifting to lower-cost areas like the Illinois and Powder River Basins.

“Second, natural gas use is on the rise. Power companies are switching to natural gas because of lower prices, cheaper construction costs, lower emissions and vast, steady supplies,” he said.

“Third, the shift to a lower-carbon economy is not going away, and it’s a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is,” Rockefeller said. “Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment.”

Rockefeller, who was West Virginia’s governor from 1977 to 1985 and has been a senator ever since, said that in 2010, he proposed a two-year suspension of EPA carbon rules to try to help the coal industry adapt. Instead, the industry has fought all attempts at compromise. “This foolish action wastes time and money that could have been invested in the future of coal,” he said.

Rockefeller said the EPA’s actions are in the best interest of his state’s citizens.

“The annual health benefits of the rule are enormous,” he said. “EPA has relied on thousands of studies that established the serious and long-term impact of these pollutants on premature deaths, heart attacks, hospitalizations, pregnant women, babies and children.”

If coal is to have a future, it must solve its environmental challenges rather than keep trying to avoid them, Rockefeller said.

“It’s not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future,” he said. “Discard the scare tactics. Stop denying science. Listen to what markets are saying about greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns, to what West Virginians are saying about their water and air, their health, and the cost of caring for seniors and children who are most susceptible to pollution.

“And unless this industry aggressively leans into the future, coal miners will lose the most,” he said. “We have the chance here to not just grudgingly accept the future, but to boldly embrace it.”

I’m sure Rockefeller’s speech angered the coal barons, just as Byrd’s speech did in December 2009. Coal industry leaders don’t seem interested in listening to reason, even from politicians who have supported them for decades. They’re probably already raising money to try to defeat Rockefeller in his next election. After all, there’s no shortage of politicians willing to take the coal industry’s money and do its bidding, in Kentucky and in West Virginia.

If Rockefeller’s words have any impact, it is likely to be with the coal industry’s declining work force, and with coal-state citizens who are getting fed up with poisonous air, polluted water and higher incidences of sickness and disease. Coal will never have a bright future as long as its leaders cling to a dirty past.

Watch Rockefeller’s speech here:


Wendell Berry gives lecture America needs to hear

April 29, 2012

Wendell Berry at his home near Port Royal, Ky., December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen

I spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon in December talking with Wendell Berry at the kitchen table of his Henry County farmhouse. He told me he was hard at work on an essay. “I’m in need of a lecture,” he said.

America was in need of a lecture, too. On Monday, Berry gave it.

The National Endowment for the Humanities chose the Kentucky farmer, poet, essayist, novelist, activist and philosopher to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It is the federal government’s highest honor for scholarly contributions to the humanities.

Berry’s selection had not been announced when we met, so he was vague about what he was up to. But I had the sense he was up to something big. As I listened last week to the recording of our interview, Berry’s answers to my questions were filled with themes and phrases that found their way into his lecture essay.

Berry, 77, delivered a searing indictment of corporate domination and the industrial economy, saying it has abused the land and people and threatens our survival. You can — and should — watch the video of Berry’s lecture and read the full text of his essay, titled “It All Turns on Affection.” Both are online (click here).

Among Berry’s touchstones in the essay are E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howard’s End, an early exploration of the effects of industrialization on society, and the story of his own tobacco-farming grandfather’s struggle against the monopolistic power of James B. Duke’s American Tobacco Co.

Ironically, Berry said, Duke is remembered now as a philanthropist, the benefactor of Duke University in North Carolina. “If you can appropriate for little or nothing the work and hope of enough small farmers, then you may dispense the grand charity of ‘philanthropy,’” he said.

Quoting his former teacher, the late writer Wallace Stegner, Berry said Americans have always tended to fall into two camps: boomers and stickers. “The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property and therefore power,” Berry said. “Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”

Boomer ideals dominate America’s economy and culture now, he said. Almost everything has been reduced to statistics. Like corporate ownership, as compared to individual ownership, big numbers distance us from the consequences of our actions.

“Now the two great aims of industrialism — replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth in the hands of a small plutocracy — seem close to fulfillment,” Berry said. “At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny.”

Even the term economy has lost its original meaning, which had to do with household management and husbandry, he said. Most economists now “never ask, in their professional oblivion, why we are willing to do permanent ecological and cultural damage ‘to strengthen the economy.’”

Corporate industrialism, he said, “has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature.”

Industrialism’s effects are often defended as the “price of progress” or “creative destruction,” Berry noted.

“But land abuse cannot brighten the human prospect,” he said. “There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers. The penalties may come quickly to a farmer who destroys perennial cover on a sloping field. They will come sooner or later to a land-destroying civilization such as ours.”

Who is to blame? “We are all implicated,” Berry said. “By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we are all boomers.”

How can it be changed? By having more respect for our fellow humans and the land, Berry said. By focusing on long-term sustainability — things like local food, soil conservation and renewable energy. And by rediscovering the importance of affection.

“Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time,” he said. “Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope. … And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind and conserving economy. … We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong.”

Since Berry began making these arguments in his 1977 book The Unsettling of America, critics have dismissed him as unrealistic, nostalgic, even anachronistic. But more people are listening. Indeed, this seems to be Wendell Berry’s time.

As “local food” and “buy local” movements have sprung up everywhere in recent years, Berry’s books have attracted an international following. His lectures are packed, often by young people.

Can America change before it is too late? It can, Berry told me, if sustainability becomes a bigger part of the public conversation. “The only way to do that,” he said, “is to make as much sense as you possibly can.”

 


What else Nikky Finney had to say about mountains

February 12, 2012

One of the challenges of newspaper writing is deciding what to cut. With any good topic, there is always more interesting information than newsprint space. My Sunday column about Kentucky’s fine writers mentioned many of them, past and present. But within minutes of it being posted online, readers were pointing out other good writers I left out.

What I really hated to leave out of the piece — but did, both for space and because it was a slight diversion from topic — was everything poet Nikky Finney had to say about the influence of the mountains on Kentucky and Kentucky writers.  Here are Finney’s full comments, which were sent as an email following up on our conversation the evening before:

 When speaking of the greatness of Kentucky writing I often hear people say, “must be something in the water!” I don’t think so. I think it’s in great part due to the mountains that rise and stretch out all around our homes and farms. Our greatness as writers has to do with the land. Our connection to it. A wonderful old man in South Carolina once told me this wonderful thing, “God ain’t making no more land.” He was right. He was trying to tell me to remember what was important in this life. We don’t really own the land. The land owns us. Mountains that have been with us here in Kentucky for a million years. We never credit the mountains enough for helping shape who we are, for giving us a specific lens through which to see the world, a lens to nurture what we have to say about our human presence in it. We never credit the mountains enough. We think that they are tough and resilient and can take care of themselves but more and more we know that is not true. We have to be better caretakers of this landscape that is so particular to our sensibilities. We act as if the mountains will always be there — surrounding, protecting, helping to situate our contemplative nature, and yet we know it just takes a little dynamite and greed to change all that. The history of Kentucky writing has been what it has been because the mountains that inhabit so much our our particular skyline have long been our favorite horizon; that wondrous place where our eyes land and lift.

If you agree with Finney about the importance of protecting Kentucky’s mountains from destructive surface-mining, you might want to be in Frankfort on Tuesday for the annual I Love Mountains Day march and rally. Click here for more information.

 

 


Nebraska echoes coal lodge flap; results different

October 26, 2011

Does this sound familiar?

An energy industry is controversial because of its environmental impact. So a company tries to buy public goodwill by donating money to the state university’s most popular athletic program.

I’m not talking about the Wildcat Coal Lodge, the new on-campus luxury dormitory for the University of Kentucky’s basketball team. The lodge’s name — plus a shrine to the coal industry that will be in its front lobby — were requirements of an $8 million donation from coal industry executives.

The university’s 2009 decision to accept the donation with those strings attached created controversy. That is because surface coal mining has caused extensive damage to Appalachian Kentucky’s land, air and water.

I’m also not talking about the $85,000 the industry group Friends of Coal is spending to sponsor three athletic events, including the UK-University of Louisville football game and Big Blue Madness.

No, the scenario I am referring to played out recently in Nebraska. That is where TransCanada is trying to build a pipeline across that state and several others to carry oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

The pipeline is controversial in Nebraska because the company insists on building it through the porous soil of the state’s Sandhills region and the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water to large areas of Nebraska and parts of seven other Western states. A pipeline leak in those areas could create an environmental disaster.

TransCanada has refused to change the pipeline route. On Monday, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman called a special legislative session for Nov. 1 to address the issue.

University of Nebraska football is a religious experience in that state, similar to UK basketball in Kentucky. But the Lincoln Journal-Star reported that cheering turned to boos when a highlights video of the Cornhuskers’ 1978 conference championship team began showing on Memorial Stadium’s huge HuskerVision screen during the Sept. 10 game against Fresno State.

The video was titled “Husker Pipeline” and seemed to be as much an advertisement for TransCanada as a tribute to the team. Four days later, after fans complained, the university ended TransCanada’s football sponsorship.

“I want to make it clear that the athletic department has no position, either pro or con, regarding the proposed TransCanada Pipeline,” Athletic Director Tom Osborne, a former Republican congressman and Nebraska head football coach, said in a statement.

The university explained that IMG College — the same marketing firm that works with UK Athletics — had signed the deal before the pipeline controversy erupted.

“Our athletic events are intended to entertain and unify our fan base by providing an experience that is not divisive,” Osborne said in his statement.

It is unclear what the TransCanada football sponsorship was worth to the university. Pipeline opponents estimate the company has spent several hundred thousand dollars on pro-pipeline advertising in Nebraska.

The Nebraska and Kentucky situations make for interesting comparisons.

In both states, the essential debate is about whether creating short-term jobs is worth the potential for long-term environmental damage. But the situations get more complicated from there.

TransCanada has had a presence in Nebraska for only about three decades. King Coal has ruled Kentucky politics for more than a century. Few Kentucky elected officials are brave enough to buck the cash-rich coal industry.

In Nebraska, the pipeline would be an environmental threat only if it leaks. (Building it would have some environmental impact, but, in the long run, that impact would be less than trucking millions of barrels of oil cross-country.)

In Kentucky, though, coal’s environmental damage has been real and apparent for decades, especially as surface mines have gotten bigger and more destructive. The beautifully reclaimed meadows and real estate developments the coal industry likes to brag about represent only a tiny fraction of mined land. Mine-related air pollution and water pollution have been significant.

You could argue that it was easy for the University of Nebraska to take a principled stand. The thousands of dollars it stood to gain from the TransCanada sponsorship paled in comparison to the millions the coal industry gave UK for its tribute lodge.

But that brings us to a question: Is the issue one of principle, or merely price?