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.”

 


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?


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:


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.