The Red River Gorge holds a special place in many UK students’ hearts, and it should. Not many campuses can boast an hour drive to world-class outdoor recreation. Every visitor is quickly entranced by the sublime towering cliffs and dense forests, whether they are hiking to the top of Natural Bridge, camping under the stars, climbing at Muir Valley, paddling down the Red River, or enjoying hot pizza and ice-cold Ale-8s at Miguel’s.
I, like many others, love the Red River Gorge. We as humans instinctively want to fight to protect the things we love. I felt this urge when I heard of the plans to build a “900-acre destination resort” near Natural Bridge State Park. The unpleasant thought of Red River Gorge becoming the next Gatlinburg, Tenn., passes through my mind immediately. Part of Red River Gorge’s mystic is how easily you can escape from the distractions of other people. Bringing in thousands of additional visitors each year would make that impossible. Then I considered the environmental impacts of creating the resort’s massive campus: cleared trees, buried utility lines, light pollution, and lost habitat.
I worried that the small, quiet communities of Slade, Zoe and Pine Ridge could lose their souls to the creep of development. Then I began to think about why those towns are so small and quiet. They don’t really have much to help them grow. Sure, tourism does bring in some money to the community, but it clearly hasn’t been enough. The three counties that make up the Red River Gorge area are among the poorest in the nation, with more than 30 percent of their populations below the poverty line and median family incomes of around $24,000. It would be pretty easy for me to protest this development from Lexington, but I’m sure it would be a whole lot harder if I lived in one of these communities that has suffered for so long.
Yes, I want to keep Red River Gorge beautiful, but I also want to support my fellow Kentuckians who have been left behind. As this debate is sure to heat up, we must remember that the most important voice in the room will be the people who will have to live next to this development, for better or worse. It will be critically important to ensure that their opinions and concerns are not drowned out by those with more money or more noise.
This debate will bring up many emotions, but we must recognize the most vulnerable and effected stakeholders, even if our views don’t align. They should not have the resort forced upon them by those in power, nor should people who live far away keep them from having an opportunity to make a livelihood. It will be important to protect their voices as they work to determine their futures. We must avoid at all costs the elitist arrogance that we know what is better for their communities than they do.
Around Cam's Campfire is a new column by Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences student Cameron Luker. Read last week's column here.