Take a Walk on the Wild Side
by Randy Weckman
Experts in economic development sometimes advise community leaders
to look at what they already have that could serve as a basis
for economic development before they worry about what they don't
have. After all, they reason, you don't decide what you're going
to have for supper by making a list of what you don't have in
Using that positive approach, the people of Letcher County spied
a potential crown jewel in their own backyardPine Mountain,
which is both historic and ecologically significant and a potential
renewable resource for tourism. But how would they move from idea
That's where Cooperative Extension Agent Shad Baker entered the
picture. Four years ago, Baker responded to community interest
in developing a hiking trail through the area a hiking
trail that would allow local and maybe some regional hikers to
enjoy the wilderness of Pine Mountain.
Baker worked with interested local leaders to form a committee
to explore the concept of a simple hiking trail.
Committee: Promote, Protect
The committee, small at first and comprised mostly of people interested
in hiking, quickly expanded to include other local leaders who
realized that Pine Mountain, if properly promoted and protected,
would be the economic shot in the arm they needed to offset dwindling
Economic incentive is pretty strong in Letcher County. After
all, its major industry, coal mining, has had its shares of ups
and downs. Some 50 percent of jobs in the mining industry evaporated
between 1990 and 1995, leaving county people in need of jobs.
Per capita income ranks at just 54 percent of the national average.
Baker knew firsthand the riskiness of depending on coal for long-run
economic stability; both his mother and father were coal miners.
"But coal isn't the only blessing we have in this mountain,"
Because he grew up in Jenkins, Baker is no stranger to Pine Mountain.
"My grandpa taught me to squirrel hunt on Pine Mountain,"
he said. "I think if you're from the area, Pine Mountain
always rests in your soul."
Baker, like many a mountain boy, plays modest about his role
in taking the community leaders' concept and making it a reality.
"I did what Extension agents do. I helped the people of
Letcher County think through their idea. I connected them with
experts who could help them hone it into a package that would
serve the county's interest in ecotourism while protecting the
ecological uniqueness of the mountain," Baker said. "They
did the work; I just gave them ideas on how to organize their
One of the first things the local committee did was take stock
of what Pine Mountain offered for tourists. They found one main
attraction a 60-foot waterfall, Bad Branch Falls. The falls
was known locally but probably not on any list of must-see spots
for tourists, although visitors seldom fail to be awestruck by
its majesty and the peaceful wilderness surrounding it.
"We believed that the number of tourists coming to view
Bad Branch Falls would be enhanced if we developed a hiking trail.
People could do both when they visited Letcher County," Baker
said. And the more tourists visit, the more money they spend,
which boosts the local economy.
With enthusiasm running on high, the committee added more members
who could help flesh out a plan. With about 150 members, it became
the Pine Mountain Trail Conference Inc., a more formal organization
that would take the idea to the next step
a plan of action.
From Simple to Spectacular
As the local leaders talked about their dreams of sharing Pine
Mountain with the rest of the world, they broadened their initial
concept of the simple, relatively short hiking trail into a spectacular
nature trail not quite as extensive as the Appalachian
Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine, but a nature trail long
enough to be significant to backpackers, hikers, and nature enthusiasts.
Their plans included a 120-mile-long trail from Breaks Interstate
Park (on the Kentucky-Tennessee-Virginia border) to Cumberland
Gap National Historic Park (near Middlesboro) that would include
the picturesque vistas and panoramas that only Pine Mountain could
offer. Their trail would be a very narrow corridor trail
sometimes only 250 feet wide, sometimes 1,000 feet wide
that would feature natural treasures including upland bogs, pine
barrens, meadows, and pioneer homesteads.
are set right smack dab in the middle of the Pine Mountain Corridor
and a stone's throw from Breaks State Park," Baker said.
"We thought if we connected the dots, so to speak, with a
nature trail along the spine of Pine Mountainbetween Breaks
State Park and the lower end of the mountain 120 miles southwest
at Cumberland Gap near Middlesborowe could have an ecotourism
attraction that would lure many tourists to the region."
Because of the plans of the Pine Mountain Trail Conference, the
traileven though still just an idea (although a great idea)
was named one of 16 Millennium Trails by the White House Millennium
Council in 1999, which selected trails that were both ecologically
and historically significant. Extension agent Baker completed
the application for the honor.
First Dollars, Then Work
Just two years after a few local people asked Baker to help them
put together a simple hiking trail, the plans were under way for
a major ecotourism draw. And the Pine Mountain Trail Conference,
bolstered by the Millennium designation, applied for a grant of
$1 million to start buying land and easements for the trail's
head in Letcher County. By 2000, the grant was earmarked for the
Pine Mountain Trail Conference in the federal transportation budget,
in large measure through the efforts of Rep. Hal Rogers.
With the grant, the conference began construction of the trail
from U.S. 23 near Jenkins to Cumberland Gap. Locals call this
stretch of Pine Mountain the Birch Knob section. When this first
leg of the trail was completed, the conference, with the help
of the Letcher County Cooperative Extension Service, published
a trail guide for would-be tourists. The 60-page guide describes
the local flora and fauna and provides maps of points of interest
in Letcher County.
Because of its early success, the enthusiasm of Letcher County
leaders, and the promise of economic development coming to the
area with the Pine Mountain Trail project, Gov. Paul Patton asked
to meet with representatives from the group to explore crafting
a bill to establish the corridor needed to complete the trail.
And, he allocated $600,000 to match $600,000 provided by the Department
for Local Government to start purchasing privately held land to
augment the public land that makes up much of the trail.
March 2002, Gov. Patton signed the bill establishing the corridor
into law. The $1.2 million Patton provided, in addition to the
$1 million received through the federal transportation grant,
put really sturdy legs on the plan.
And to further help Letcher County's local leaders, the governor
asked for $1.2 million from the T21 fund, a federal program to
enhance transportation in the 21st century.
Today and Tomorrow
Already, four years after the first community leaders asked Baker
for help in thinking through their idea, the Pine Mountain Trail
is a reality, with 32 miles of trails established. The currently
open stretch starts at Breaks Interstate Park in Elkhorn City
and meanders along the ridge of the Virginia side of Pine Mountain
and back into Kentucky at U.S. 23 above Jenkins. Another 90 miles
of trail will be designated within the next decade.
Will the trail make a difference in the county's economy in the
next few years?
UK Cooperative Extension tourism specialist Rick Bates said that
the economic difference the trail will make will resonate throughout
the local economy. He estimates that the average tourist spends
about $50 per day for food, lodging, and incidentals.
Baker estimates that the finished trail will attract between
100,000 and 200,000 tourists each year, although only a small
number of them will hike the entire 120 miles of the trail. That
yearly estimate rivals the 250,000 pioneers who crossed west to
the frontier through the Cumberland Gap throughout its entire
use from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s.
The effects of that number of tourists spending $50 per day will
be big for a county where unemployment and underemployment are
high. Not only will more tourists mean more dollars coming into
the county, but there will be more jobs as business activity expands
to provide food, lodging, and hiking equipment for the tourists.
Baker is proud of the Letcher County leaders' accomplishments
with the ecotourism project.
"This project shows that Extension is the art of the possible,"
Pine Mountain Trail State Park became
official March 30, 2002. On hand to
mark the day were, from left to right,
Leonard Fleming, Kentucky Department
of Transportation; Shad Baker, Kentucky
Cooperative Extension Service;
Randy Tackett, Letcher County attorney;
and Gov. Paul Patton.
An Old Concept with a New Name
Kentuckians are not strangers to ecotourism, even though the term
is relatively modern. From the 1850s on, Kentucky had abundant
forms of it, from the strange to the still popular. Many other
states did, too. Recall Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Ruby Falls
in Tennessee, and the La Brea Tar Pits in California, to name
just a few.
In Kentucky, sulfur baths were popular respites for mid-19th
century Kentuckians at least for the landed gentry and
their coterie. Called "taking the waters," these mini-vacations
included a strong dose of attention plus bathing in and drinking
water from naturally-occurring mineral springs. Evenings at these
tourist stops may have been spent at a cotillion the place
to see and be seen by those who could afford it.
While scientists today would ascribe little to the curative
powers of such mineralized waters, it is likely that the
dosage that made the difference to those who felt the cure
was due to the tender loving care "patients" received
at the hotels rather than the water they bathed in or drank.
The revelry that accompanied taking the waters may well
have been the efficacious tonic the patrons needed.Lodging,
food, and trinkets to take home to attest to one's good
style in visiting the caves became a regular source of economic
stimulation. Mammoth Cave alone is said to provide more
than $96 million in economic activity annually to the surrounding
The Mammoth Cave area was an early 20th century ecotourism
stop. The vast underground caves, replete with stalactites
and stalagmites, lured thousands of people each year to visit
the area as the caves still do. It didn't take a Wall
Street banker to figure out that visitors to the caves spent
far, far more money locally than the simple cost of a ticket
into the underground warrens. By the 1880s, guides were hired
to shepherd visitors throughout the caves. For a price, tourists
could visit various rooms of the caves that were embellished
by fanciful names such as the Gothic Chapel, the Maelstrom
Pit, and the Bridal Altar.
The Pine Mountain Trail will serve as the modern economic
catalyst for tourism. Its ecotourism appeal is to conservationists,
nature lovers, and those who want to enjoy the ecology of
the mountain. And while the trail will mean big business,
it will also be compatible with conservation and preservation
of an ecologically important area.
If you want to know more about hiking the Pine Mountain
Trail or want to see the beauty of the trail, log onto the
Web at: www.pinemountaintrail.com
Information about Bad Branch Falls can be accessed on the
Web at: www.KYnaturepreserves.org/
When Continents Collide
Sometime after the primordial mist had settled and about 50 million
years before dinosaurs, the great land masses of the Americas,
Europe, and Africa collided. The force of the collision, which
took millennia to finish (the collision occurred so slowly that
your fingernails grow at a faster pace) was so full of energy
that it uplifted and tilted one set of rock layers over another,
creating the Appalachians, including Pine Mountain of Kentucky.
And thousands of miles to the east, the Himalayas in Asia were
created at pretty much the same time and by the same forces.
Kentucky's Pine Mountain, on the Kentucky-Tennessee-Virginia
border, displays its history on its western shoulder, where visitors
can see the swell of the layers of rock set at 40 degrees to the
horizontal. The layers of the northwestern edge of Pine Mountain
were pushed up about 2,000 feet eons ago. Since that time, wind
and water have reduced that amount by half. At one strategic point,
now called the Cumberland Gap, erosion was sufficient for passage
of both people and migrating animals.
The 120-mile-long Pine Mountain (it reaches from near Jellico,
Tenn., through Pound, Va., northward to Pikeville) was so named
because of large stands of pine trees scattered throughout its
length, in sharp contrast to other nearby mountains that have
few pines, including Black Mountain and Cumberland Mountain. The
pine stands on the mountain are due, it is thought, to its thin,
sandy soil. It isn't just pines that make Pine Mountain distinctive.
The other flora and fauna on the mountain are unusual, too. One
source says that the mountain is home to more than 90 species
of rare plants and animals. Several of these are known nowhere
else in the world. Of the more common species, deer (and now elk),
bear, and other small mammals, along with raptors and other high-flying
birds, use the 120-mile-long narrow corridor to move between feeding
Ecotourists will be able to experience the wilderness of the
mountain as they hike its trails and imagine the area a hundred,
a thousand, a million years ago.