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Little Shepherd Trail: A plan for the future

To the Editor:

On August 7 and 8, Letcher and Harlan counties hosted a NASA Rally Sport race, putting us in the spotlight. County officials, race organizers, tourism boards, and volunteers worked for weeks to make the event a reality, a first of its kind for our region and the state. The sport has the potential to bring much-needed revenue to our struggling communities.

Many local residents enjoy various types of motor sports and are supportive of the venture, as they should be. We need every tourism dollar we can get, and we all need to work together to ensure we reap maximum benefits from what we can offer to tourists or business ventures related to tourism. As we make plans for future events it’s vitally important that we stage activities in the proper venues, ensuring that each activity we promote has the potential to generate revenue without negatively impacting the land or adversely affecting activities promoted by other groups. When deciding on a venue, it’s important to involve other entities or groups that might be negatively affected by that decision, groups that have been working toward a particular goal on the land in question. It’s the fair and right thing to do.

Letcher and Harlan and counties are blessed with an ecological treasure known as Pine Mountain. Stretching for approximately 120 miles in Kentucky, the mountain is bisected by only seven roads. Possessing no marketable coal, it remains relatively intact, richly forested and harbors over one hundred threatened and rare species, some of which are endemic, meaning they occur no place else. It’s an important migratory corridor for a variety of animals.

Migratory songbirds, many of which are in steep decline or threatened, make their summer home on Pine Mountain because it is still blanketed in the undisturbed, mature forests they require for breeding. Due to its unique character and the number of rare species it supports, Pine Mountain has been of special interest to multiple agencies. Organizations involved in protecting the mountain include the federal agencies (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service), state agencies (Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves, Kentucky State Parks, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Kentucky Division of Forestry), and nonprofit organizations (Kentucky Natural Lands Trust and The Nature Conservancy). Pine Mountain has been the KNLT’s primary focus; it developed a grand vision and a conservation plan with partner state and federal agencies.

The matrix of conservation lands serve as wildlife migration corridors, important breeding habitat, and to protect sensitive plants and animals. It is a mixture of national forests, state nature preserves, nonprofit preserves, state forests and wildlife management areas all along Pine mountain. The KNLT’s goal is to protect a part of wild Kentucky to benefit the species that depend on intact forests, to have something to pass to future generations, and to benefit the local communities with a healthy environment and opportunities for passive outdoor recreation to boost local economies.

Known as the Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor, it’s the largest conservation project in Kentucky history. It is a gift to the people of Letcher and Harlan counties. It is a gift to the people of Kentucky.

Little Shepherd Trail travels through this special place along the crest of Pine Mountain, winding past fragile habitat and threatened plants growing near the roadside. The undisturbed remoteness is one of the reasons so many sensitive species can be found there. There simply isn’t another place like it. Pine Mountain is unique, and part of it is ours in the sense that we are the keepers of this place, the guardians of the rare ecological communities and species that call it home.

As we plan activities and events we need to be mindful of our role in protecting this piece of Kentucky conservation history. We need to demonstrate to the people of Kentucky and to the state, federal, and nonprofit agencies entrusting it to us that we are care about this place and are capable of correctly managing fragile conservation land. We can keep its character and its species intact. We can keep it wild.

The mountain should be maintained for passive recreational activities that are compatible with conservation of sensitive lands and rare species. Good communication should be established with all the groups working on conservation and recreation projects on Pine Mountain and Little Shepherd Trail, they should be consulted for their expertise and knowledge when activities are proposed for the mountain. The goals of use and preservation of the mountain should be mutual and sustainable. We’ve been blessed with Pine Mountain and gifted the opportunity to be guardian of the wild-lands for future generations. Keeping it wild is the right thing.

I t ’s time to develop a comprehensive plan to address how to accomplish this, before more major events are proposed, before it sees increased traffic, speeding automobiles, limited access during closures and diminished enjoyment for landowners, recreational users and hunters, increased trash, decline in species, or off road use and vandalism in sensitive habitat. We need a plan detailing how the counties will protect Little Shepherd Trail from misuse and abuse. We need to bring the stakeholder groups, the Pine Mountain Trail and Great Eastern Trail developers, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, state and federal officials, and any other adjacent landowners or stakeholder entities to the table for input.

Decisions for how to manage and protect the road and surrounding land should be based on sound science and mutual agreement, with the ultimate goal being to allow for the use of the area without negatively impacting the land or its species, either during an event or afterward through unintended or unmanaged consequences stemming from an activity. We’re privileged to have a rare diamond to bequeath to our children, we need a plan for how to keep it from being stolen through misuse, degradation or vandalism so they won’t be cheated out of their inheritance.

We also need all the tourism dollars we can get from events like NASA Rally Sport racing. Bring it back even bigger next time. Just put it on a more suitable venue so as not to degrade Pine Mountain. We need tourism dollars from any motor sport we can attract. We could have the best of both worlds, hosting world class sporting events on old strip mines, while also offering a place to unwind, a chance to connect with nature, to hike a few miles through intact forests, to thrill at the sight of a bear or marvel at a rare species, a place to take a leisurely drive through spectacular wildlands on Pine Mountain. We can have it all…if we do the right thing.

JENNIFER HONEYCUTT
Mayking

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