Will we love the Red River Gorge to death?

Published on Winchester Sun, by Pete Koutoulas, October 25th 2019.

I grew up in Wolfe County, literally a stone’s throw from what would eventually become Muir Valley and on the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Although I live in Winchester now, the Gorge will forever be a part of my heritage and a large piece of my heart.

As a teenager, my friends and I spent a lot of time in the Gorge.

This was before the area became a haven for rock climbers and a nationally-known getaway for campers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

The Gorge was virtually unknown outside of central and eastern Kentucky.

It was drawn into the national spotlight in the early 1970s when a proposal to build a dam and flood much of the Gorge attracted the interest of conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts.

That plan was eventually scuttled, and the Red River Gorge was saved. But there were still dark clouds on the horizon.

I’ve always felt the area can only sustain a certain amount of development, and I think it is already at or near that point.

Over the last 20 years or so, there have been more cabins and tourist attractions built than I ever dreamed possible.

Now — seemingly out of nowhere — a plan has come to light to construct a “destination resort” near the tiny village of Slade, in the heart of Gorge country.

Proponents of the plan are talking about a lodge with up to 175 rooms, a 12,000 square foot convention center, cabins, restaurants, pubs, and recreational attractions.

There is even talk of a residential community. At first blush, this sounds like an answer to prayer for the economically depressed area.

No doubt residents of the region would see many new jobs as a result of this development.

That’s the most beneficial aspect I can see for this proposal. But there are many potential pitfalls.

First of all, most of the new jobs would likely be seasonal, and nearly all of them would be in the service sector: food service, hospitality and retail. Sure, there would be lots of construction going on for a while, but those jobs would eventually fizzle out.

The problem with service jobs is they are low-paying and rarely provide benefits or long-term stability to workers. I don’t see these types of jobs as providing for a secure future for my former neighbors in the region.

Furthermore, the net effects could actually make life harder for these folks. Along with all those visitors come more traffic, more crime, and more strain on local public services.

The Red River Gorge is a unique place in so many ways. The topography alone, with its sheer cliffs and numerous natural arches, its hills and valleys, and its rivers and streams, is breathtaking.

Then there’s the flora and fauna. It’s been said that this area contains among the highest concentrations in the world of unique species of plants. Recent years have seen the return of native animals that were rare or missing when I was a child — deer, bears, coyotes, and turkeys among them.

More people means more of a threat to this pristine piece of nature.

That fact is incontrovertible. Already, the forest trails and roadways, once peacefully sparse, are straining with all the traffic of human activity.

I am not advocating there never be any new development in the area.

What I am saying is we need to be careful in evaluating any proposals. Do we want to see it become another Gatlinburg?

What are the benefits and risks of new developments in the area? And who will benefit? Who will be hurt?

Sometimes I think these decisions are weighted more toward the people with the most to gain — in other words, the developers, not so much the people living in the area.

The next time you’re in the area, take a look at the blighted hillside along KY-15, just above the Shell Mart at the Slade exit of the Mountain Parkway.

You will see the crumbling remains of what one developer left behind when the development failed.

I advise caution. I suggest taking it slowly.

At the least, let’s put safeguards in place to protect the land, which can never be replaced, and the people who must live with these developments.

And it may be prudent to just say no to this particular proposal.

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Twitter @PeteKoutoulas.

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