Authors document Robinson Forest in the hope of preserving it

May 7, 2013

 

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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.

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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.”

 


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.

 


As you reflect on civil rights history, imagine the future

January 19, 2013

When I was a child, many white Americans, and most of them in the South, considered Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists to be radicals and trouble-makers. Some even called them “communists.”

Almost everyone now considers them heroes. Ideas about racial equality and justice that were then controversial are now common sense.

Segregationist leaders such as George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Orval Faubus are now remembered with contempt, when they are remembered at all. We pity the average people who enabled the bigots, either with their actions or their silence.

On Monday, we mark the 27th annual holiday honoring King, as well as the second inauguration of the nation’s first president of African descent. Looking back, it is amazing how much changed in so short a time. Racism still exists, to be sure, but it is no longer acceptable in mainstream society.

It makes me wonder: What controversial ideas today will seem like common sense in just a few years?

The first that comes to mind is gay rights. It is today’s most controversial civil rights issue, yet the nation has clearly turned the corner. You can tell it the same way you could tell by the early 1960s that we had turned the corner of black civil rights. The groundswell of support wasn’t just coming from the victims of discrimination, but from others who realized it was wrong and found the courage to say so.

If there has been a consistent theme of social progress during my lifetime, it is this: discrimination against any group of people because of who they are is un-American.

We saw an example of that last week when the small Perry County town of Vicco became the fourth municipality in Kentucky to ban discrimination against gays, joining Lexington, Louisville and Covington. Vicco officials said they weren’t endorsing homosexuality; they just thought discrimination was wrong.

Most opposition to gay rights comes from religious conservatives. During King’s lifetime, many white Christians found Biblical justification for segregation and discrimination, just as their great-grandfathers had for slavery. Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs. What is problematic is when they try to impose them on others.

Wendell Berry, the renowned Kentucky writer and lifelong Baptist, made that point and many others to Baptist ministers meeting at Georgetown College on Jan. 11. Coverage of his talk has attracted a lot of attention. (Read more about what he had to say on my blog.)

When I think of other controversial issues that will seem like no-brainers in a few years, the reasons for our clouded judgment have more to do with economics than religion.

Kentuckians’ disregard for the environment reminds me of our willful ignorance about the health and social costs of tobacco just two or three decades ago. Only after the price-support system that made tobacco an economic mainstay of family farms was abolished did we stop trying to deny the obvious and defend the indefensible.

More than 30 local governments in Kentucky now have public smoking bans, and some legislators are pushing for a statewide version to curb soaring health-care costs. Restricting smoking in most public places is now common sense, yet it would have been unthinkable in Kentucky a generation ago.

Sit back for a moment and try to imagine conventional wisdom a few years from now. For one thing, I think, discrimination based on sexual orientation will be as unacceptable then as discrimination based on race, gender or national origin is now.

I also can imagine hearing comments like these:

Why did people back then allow the beauty and future economic viability of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains to be destroyed just so coal companies could extract the last measure of profit in return for a declining number of short-term jobs?

How could people back then have denied the scientific consensus about climate change and refused to act when the signs — melting glaciers, the increasing frequency of killer storms and droughts, year after year of record-high temperatures — were so obvious?

What were they thinking?

As we honor civil rights heroes Monday, and pity the bigots and their enablers, let us also give some thought to the future. Who will people honor then, and who will they pity?

And ask yourself: which side of history will I be on?


‘War on coal’ avoids the real challenge, responsibility

June 12, 2011

Did you hear we are at war? I don’t mean the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the covert wars in Libya and Yemen or even the nebulous wars against terrorism and drugs.

I mean the “War on Coal.” All of Kentucky’s politicians are talking about it — at least all of those who want campaign contributions and support from the coal industry.

“They have declared war, war on Kentucky’s coal industry,” U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a speech to the Kentucky Coal Association earlier this month. The U.S. Senate’s Republican leader claimed the EPA wants to see the “coal industry driven out of business altogether.”

The next day, state Rep. Jim Gooch, a Providence Democrat who heads the state House Natural Resources Committee, went even further as he complained about the EPA’s efforts to make coal-fired power plants reduce their air and water pollution.

“This is a war on Kentucky,” Gooch exclaimed during a hearing, “because what we’re talking about is totally destroying our economy.”

And don’t forget Gov. Steve Beshear’s tantrum against the EPA during his State of the Commonwealth address in February. “Get off our backs!” Beshear bellowed. “Get off our backs!”

So what is this War on Coal? A lot of baloney, that’s what. It is a public relations campaign by an industry with a long history of maximizing profits by disregarding environmental stewardship and mine safety.

The coal industry is apoplectic because federal regulators are doing their jobs more aggressively now than they did during the Bush administration. The EPA is enforcing the Clean Air Act by requiring industries to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change. The agency also is trying to curb destructive surface-mining practices and reduce water pollution.

Some politicians and business executives have responded by claiming that climate change is a myth, despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary. Others just fear costs. But the costs of pollution have always existed; we just haven’t paid enough of them with our power bills and corporate bottom lines. We pay for them with sickness, premature death and degradation of our fragile planet.

I was encouraged to see that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has invited journalist James Fallows to be a keynote speaker at its annual meeting July 12 in Louisville. He will talk about his December cover story in The Atlantic magazine, Why the Future of Clean Energy is Dirty Coal.

Fallows’ article — click here to read it online at TheAtlantic.com — is excellent. For one thing, it punctures illusions on both the political right and left. Yes, climate change is real and carbon emissions must be dramatically reduced to avert disaster. No, renewable energy cannot replace coal — at least not in our lifetimes.

Because coal will be essential to civilization for generations, the sensible thing is to figure out how to mine and burn it more cleanly, Fallows wrote. Most of that responsibility must fall to the United States and China, which together produce more than 40 percent of man-made greenhouse gasses and bring different strengths to the fight to reduce them.

Fallows profiled U.S. and Chinese scientists who are working on innovative solutions. The most intriguing experiment may be “underground coal gasification.” Jets of oxygen, mixed with steam or chemicals, are blasted into coal seams deep underground. That creates a chemical reaction, producing a gas that can be piped out and burned to create electricity. The process avoids the need for traditional mining and leaves most of coal’s nasty by-products underground.

Kentucky politicians and business leaders could learn a lot from Fallows’ thinking, which transcends ideology to see the coal issue for what it really is — a technology problem to be solved.

Rather than fighting a “war” to protect pollution, Kentucky’s leaders should look past political clichés and entrenched economic interests.

They should position Kentucky to be a leader in meeting the technical and economic challenge of making “clean coal” a reality instead of an oxymoron. It won’t be cheap, easy or painless for anyone, but it is the smart thing to do.


Digging for coal? No, for Wildcat Coal Lodge

March 30, 2011

Construction crews worked Tuesday to dig out rock and dirt for the foundation of Wildcat Coal Lodge, the new $7 million home for the University of Kentucky’s basketball players. Photo by Tom Eblen


Coal’s ‘sanctuary’ state? Kentucky always has been

February 26, 2011

Kentucky’s legislators have shown unusual willingness this year to waste their time and taxpayers’ money.

Keep teenagers in school? Protect the elderly in nursing homes? Create a more fair and adequate tax system? Can’t get it done. But lawmakers have plenty of time to push legislation that belabors the obvious.

Republicans want schools to set aside time for children to say the pledge of allegiance, which, by law, they already do. Democrats want a constitutional amendment to protect the right to hunt and fish, which has never been threatened.

Most telling of all, two lawmakers want to proclaim the right of Kentucky’s coal industry to do as it pleases. Kentuckians know the coal industry has always done that, with plenty of help from our politicians.

Rep. Jim Gooch, a Providence Democrat and climate-change denier, proposed legislation that would exempt coal mining from the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental regulations if the coal never leaves Kentucky.

Even more ridiculous is a Senate joint resolution calling for Kentucky to be a “sanctuary state” for the coal industry, freeing it from regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That proposal was made by Sen. Brandon Smith, a Hazard Republican who once managed a company the EPA went after for spilling 7,000 gallons of oil into a Laurel County creek.

Gooch and Smith say the coal industry should only be regulated by the state. But what they really want is no effective regulation at all. Too often, they amount to the same thing.

Consider this example from last week’s headlines: State regulators must submit a plan to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining by April 1 to raise the cash bonds coal companies must post to ensure that land is reclaimed after mining. In dozens of cases since 2007, companies shut down and left a mess that their bonds didn’t begin to cover. This time, as previously, state regulators are raising bonds only because federal regulators are forcing them to.

The coal industry is freaking out about federal regulation more than usual. That is because, for the first time since the Clinton and Carter administrations, the federal agencies charged with protecting the environment and regulating mine health and safety are being allowed and encouraged to do their jobs.

The proposed state legislation is especially embarrassing because Gooch and Smith are chairmen of the House and Senate committees that oversee Kentucky’s natural resources. But Steve Beshear, a usually sensible governor, managed to outdo them both in pandering to the coal industry. In his State of the Commonwealth address, Beshear colorfully called for less federal regulation of coal. “Get off our backs!” he shouted. “Get off our backs!”

I’m sure the coal barons loved Beshear’s performance. It reminded me of a previous generation of Southern governors, railing against the feds for insisting that their states acknowledge black citizens’ civil rights. It was Beshear’s George Wallace moment.

The truth is, we must mine and burn coal for years to come until sustainable energy technology is ready to replace it. But coal must be used responsibly, because we also need clean air, clean water and land that is capable of supporting life and an economy long after the coal is gone.

Not all coal companies are bad actors. But the industry as a whole has always cared more about big profits than protecting miners’ health or respecting the environment. Reform has never come without federal regulation, and the industry has usually fought it every step of the way.

Thankfully, the legislation proposed by Gooch and Smith won’t amount to much, except a waste of public time and money. States cannot just ignore federal law — that issue was settled pretty clearly by the Civil War.

The lawmakers say they want to “send a message” to Washington. They’re sending a message, all right. The message is that King Coal has the best Kentucky politicians money can buy, and the rest of us need the feds to protect us from them.


While praising coal, UK must tell the whole story

February 12, 2011

Rendering of what the proposed Wildcat Coal Lodge may look like.

Not only will the University of Kentucky’s proposed Wildcat Coal Lodge honor the mining industry, it apparently must praise it.

UK has agreed to create an exhibit in the new basketball dormitory’s main lobby to serve as “discussion of and tribute to the importance of the coal industry to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

Who must approve the tribute’s content? Joseph W. Craft III, the head of Alliance Coal Co., who organized the donors who gave UK at least $7 million to build the lodge. Craft also was a major donor to the Joe Craft Center, which houses UK’s basketball practice facility and athletics offices.

The Wildcat Coal Lodge has stirred controversy ever since UK’s Board of Trustees agreed in 2009 to accept the donations and the strings attached to them. (The name itself is ironic: in addition to being UK’s mascot, “wildcat” is an old nickname for irresponsible mining.)

Critics have accused UK of selling out to the coal industry to create an even more lavish athletics program, which often seems to overshadow the university’s academic mission. The writer Wendell Berry, a retired UK English professor and critic of mountaintop-removal coal mining, withdrew his academic papers in protest.

But the public learned this latest wrinkle in the deal only last week, after Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford used the state Open Records Act to obtain a copy of the agreement between UK and the Craft group.

It made me wonder: assuming this tribute provides less than a complete picture of Kentucky’s coal industry, how does UK plan to tell the rest of the story? Should a second exhibit be planned elsewhere on campus to provide balance?

Perhaps UK could memorialize Kentuckians who have died in mining accidents by putting each of their names on a seat in Rupp Arena. Or it could dedicate a wing of the new UK Hospital to miners who have suffered and died from black lung disease.

Water in one of UK’s fountains could be made to run orange occasionally, to remind people of what surface mining sometimes does to Eastern Kentucky’s streams.

E-mail me any suggestions you have, although I’ll say up front that I don’t think it would be a good idea to strip-mine The Arboretum.

Seriously, UK’s apparent willingness to cuddle up to the coal industry in return for money — as it did years ago with the tobacco industry — raises questions of intellectual honesty and independence, which is something a university should care about.

Kentucky has an old and complex relationship with coal and the industry that mines it. It is a story complicated by tradeoffs.

Coal really does “keep the lights on,” as the industry says. Mining provides many good-paying jobs in poor mountain counties, although the number has been declining for years. Because we have never accounted for coal’s true costs, cheap electricity rates have enabled Kentucky to develop important manufacturing industries.

But coal mining also has damaged Kentucky’s land, water and people — often irreparably so. The industry has created some multi-millionaires, but it also has contributed to some of the nation’s worst pockets of poverty.

Can UK tell a balanced story of coal? It can, and it has. One of the best summaries of this complex story is a documentary film, Coal in Kentucky, produced last year by UK’s College of Engineering and the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. If you haven’t seen it, you should, no matter which side you are on.

Somehow, though, I don’t think this is the kind of “tribute” the coal industry has in mind.

Pork futures

It is ironic, and in an odd way reassuring, that the Kentucky Republican known as the “Prince of Pork” has become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee at this moment in time.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers

The GOP’s Tea Party wing in Congress seems to want to all but eliminate taxes, spending and government regulation to create some kind of Ayn Rand fantasy land of right-wing economic theory. Their pledge to immediately slash $100 billion in federal spending, if enacted, would wreck the country.

Rogers’ new job is ironic because his skill over the years at securing earmarks for his southeast Kentucky district is just the sort of thing GOP hotheads are now vilifying — with some justification. Still, Rogers also knows how important much of the government’s spending actually is to public well-being.

Here’s hoping Rogers can give the Tea Partiers some much-needed adult supervision.


Ashley Judd speaks out on mountaintop mining

February 17, 2009

As I drove to Frankfort early Tuesday, punching the buttons on my car radio, I came across one of those feel-good spots from the Kentucky coal industry. It ended with this line: “Never underestimate the power of coal.”

That’s been good advice in this state for more than a century. And never more true than inside the marble walls of the building where I was headed.

I came to the state Capitol on this sunny day to witness a different kind of power — the growing public sentiment against coal-mining methods that blast away mountains and fill headwater streams with the debris.

More than 500 Kentuckians — from toddlers on their parents’ shoulders to seniors in their 80s — marched up Capitol Avenue and gathered on the Capitol steps for the annual I Love Mountains Rally. The citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth organized the rally to push for legislation that would ban the burying of headwater streams with mining waste.

The marchers carried signs proclaiming “topless mountains are obscene” and urging “not one more mile” of streams be destroyed. They lacked the coal industry’s economic or political power. Instead, they sought to harness moral power.

Ashley Judd added glamour to the event. The Kentucky actress, famous for reciting other people’s words in movies, gave a 20-minute speech of her own that was passionate and eloquent. It was no celebrity puff piece, but a sharp critique of mountaintop-removal mining, the coal industry and the endless cycle of poverty she said coal has brought to Appalachia.

“There is no doubt that there is a crisis in Eastern Kentucky,” Judd said. “The crises are systemic, and the system at the root of our 100-year-long crisis is the unchecked power of the coal companies.

“They assured us that each reform … would be the end, the death of the coal industry,” Judd said. “Well, by golly, what do you know. Here the coal companies still are — bigger, and badder and richer than ever. … Make no mistake about it: The coal companies are thriving. Even in this bleak economy, they are thriving. What is dying is our mountains. And they are dying so fast, my friends, so shockingly fast.”

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville pledged to fight mountaintop-removal mining through federal clean-water legislation. That may be necessary. The state “stream saver” bill, sponsored by Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington and Rep. Don Pasley of Winchester, is getting the usual cold shoulder from legislative leaders with close ties to the coal industry.

Silas House, a best-selling author from Eastern Kentucky, said he was disappointed Gov. Steve Beshear declined to attend the rally, even though it was just a few steps from his office.

“I think Gov. Beshear is a good man and I don’t understand why he won’t come out and listen to us,” House said, noting that many of his neighbors also are afraid to cross King Coal. “We’ve had a hundred years of being told not to speak out against the coal industry. It’s hard to break out of that culture. We’ve been taught to feel powerless.”

Mickey McCoy, a high school teacher from Inez in coal-rich Martin County, agreed: “It’s a terrible thing when you can’t get a single senator or representative from the coalfield counties to represent anything but the coal industry.”

Beshear’s spokesman, Jay Blanton, said the governor was in an important economic development meeting that had been scheduled weeks earlier, but left it to meet with Judd and a small group of KFTC members after the rally. Blanton said Judd spent Monday night at the governor’s mansion where she and Beshear “talked at some length about these issues.”

KFTC said nearly 500 Kentucky mountains have been destroyed by mountaintop-removal mining. It cited figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that more than 1,400 miles of headwater streams in the state have been buried or damaged by mining since 1981.

The coal industry, which says it provides 17,000 jobs in Kentucky, argues that the “stream saver” legislation would virtually halt surface mining in Eastern Kentucky. And it notes that coal provides more than 90 percent of Kentucky’s electricity at some of the nation’s cheapest prices.

There’s no doubt Kentucky needs coal — at least until we can develop alternative energy sources, hopefully before all of the coal runs out. But that doesn’t mean coal must be mined by the most environmentally destructive methods. Electricity is cheap only if you don’t include all of the hidden costs to Kentucky’s land, water and people.

In the short run, economic arguments always seem to trump moral arguments, even when people know in their hearts what is right. In the long run, though, moral arguments usually prevail.

A few decades ago, it was blasphemy to speak out against the health dangers of smoking, because tobacco was so important to Kentucky’s economy. A century and a half ago, many people argued that the economy couldn’t survive without slavery.

“The environment is not a place where we go hiking; it’s a place where we live,” said Sam Avery, who came to the rally from Hart County, where he lives in a solar-powered home.

“When you grind up a mountain just for the coal, you destroy the trees, the animals, the insects, the water supply. The living world is that much smaller,” Avery said. “From a Biblical perspective, it’s an abomination to the creator.”

Click on photos below to enlarge