Appalachian Wildlife Center - Partnering for Wildlife and People in an Economically-Depressed Region
Eastern Kentucky has been identified by the New York Times as one of the hardest places to live in the United States, statistically speaking. Of the 31 counties that make up the eastern coalfields, 17 are ranked in the bottom 100 nationally for levels of median household income. In most, poverty levels exceed 25 percent, and this trend continues to a large degree throughout Appalachia.
The wildlife-tourism concept is to revitalize this blight-stricken region in the post-coal era by capitalizing on the abundance of fish and wildlife resources in the region and the tourism that it can drive. For generations, eastern Kentucky has relied on the extraction of finite resources (coal and gas), which have both created and destroyed quality fish and wildlife habitat. Descendants of coal-miners and other residents are now beginning to realize that the future of the region lies in the unique and often abundant flora and fauna of the region, and the desire of visitors to experience it.
Educating visitors who often have limited time to visit an area takes a special approach. Successful examples include the Cataloochee Valley of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park in east Tennessee and the Elk Country Visitor Center in the central coalfields near Benezette, Pennsylvania. Both locations were developed based on the opportunity to view restored elk populations in the East, and both have been wildly successful – drawing more than 200,000 and 400,000 annual visitors, respectively.
Working from these successful examples, the non-profit Appalachian Wildlife Foundation began incorporating and operationalizing a similar effort in eastern Kentucky. Their concept, the Appalachian Wildlife Center (the Center), is projected to draw more than 600,000 visitors each year to experience the natural beauty of the southern Appalachians. Slated to begin construction in 2017 with a completion date of 2023, the Center’s $24 million budget will fund the construction of a 45,000-square foot visitor’s center as well as habitat improvement projects and a 15-mile trail system across more than 12,500 acres in Bell County, KY. Ultimately, the Center is projected to employee approximately 96 staff, create 2,043 local jobs, and generate more than $441 million in regional economic impact during the first 5 years.
The Center is centrally located in proximity to the largest wild elk herd east of the Rocky Mountains and will be the most accessible location in the eastern United States to see elk. The region is also home to black bear, white-tailed deer, bobcat, wild turkey, numerous small mammal species, and an abundance of bird species. At the Center, visitors will find a museum of natural and regional history, an exhibit dedicated to elk restoration in the Appalachians, and a bird watchers exhibit with information on the more than 240 species that occur in the area. Visitors will also find other regionally-relevant wildlife exhibits, an artisans market where local artists and craftsmen will display their skills and work, a gift shop, food court, and classrooms.
The Center has the real potential to be a windfall for local economies that have been devastated by the collapse of the coal industry. Even though the Center will be a major tourist attraction, its mission will focus on wildlife conservation education and research on the restoration and improvement of coal mines for wildlife habitat and agricultural production. Additionally, accredited conservation education programs that meet state standards in science, reading, and math for students and schools in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina will be implemented that feature both remote learning and on-site classroom presentations.
Our wild, natural resources remain one of the most important and valuable economic drivers for the United States. Combining the desire for visitors to enjoy the natural history and heritage of southern Appalachia, the poverty-level economics of a depressed, post-coal region, and the abundant and often unique floral and faunal communities that occur in that region once again creates the opportunity to use the natural abundance of fish and wildlife resources to develop unprecedented, renewable economic impact to one of the poorest regions in the United States.
Partnerships are also the key to any large-scale successful conservation endeavor. The work being performed by the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and others, as well as the active engagement of regional conservation initiatives such as the Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperative, the Appalachian Joint Venture, and numerous conservation NGO’s, including WMI, will help to ensure the future of the region’s people, wildlife, and other natural resources.