This past week, President Trump’s budget was released, causing all sorts of consternation across the rural Appalachian region. Why all the buzz? The president’s budget calls for sweeping cuts to many federal government agencies, including the outright elimination of the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, and a host of other groups. The Roanoke Times published a good rundown of the concerns shared by many here.
We don’t tend to talk about politics on this blog, and that’s for good reason: most all people want to get onto the trail, river, or otherwise into the outdoors to get away from politics, not to become embroiled in it. But we’ve decided to diverge from that rule for this one post for a couple of reasons. First – and as we’ll lay out below – the agencies slotted for elimination in the president’s budget disproportionately impact the outdoors here in rural Appalachia. And second, it’s become apparent that when most folks hear “federal agency,” they internally hear “wasteful” or “bad” without being aware of what those agencies do.
Here in the Cumberlands, it’s not a stretch to say that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the outdoor assets that we do today without the federal agencies whose elimination is being called for in the budget. And as our region continues to look for new economic opportunities, those assets have become part of an economic machine that is just now gaining real momentum.
So, we’re going to lay out what some of the agencies and programs identified for elimination in the president’s budget do related to the outdoors here in the Cumberlands, as viewed through the lens of some of our region’s most iconic sites. We’re not going to tell you what to think or how to vote – that’s for you to decide, and we’ll just be providing verifiable facts rather than anything partisan on either side of the aisle – but developing informed political opinions means being aware of what’s going on in our region, who is doing it, and how it’s funded. Here’s how that works in our region, laid out place-by-place:
I. High Knob
You can’t visit the Cumberlands of far southwest Virginia without hearing about High Knob. It’s the highest elevation in the Cumberland Mountains, for starters, and the view from its summit encompasses five states and is a place that both visitors and residents frequent year-round. When the wooden observation tower atop High Knob was burned in 2007, though, that iconic view vanished. Visitors – and their tourism dollars – largely disappeared along with it.
Enter the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC. Formed in the 1960s at the request of Appalachian states, the ARC is a federal-state partnership that funds projects from infrastructure improvements to small business support to community development, many of which don’t directly relate to outdoor activities. When the High Knob Tower was rebuilt in the early 2010s, though, the ARC provided a large chunk of the needed money along with other partners, resulting in the new tower that caps the mountain’s summit and fuels local tourism revenues today.
But the ARC’s support doesn’t stop there. Currently, ARC funding has been allocated to develop and construct a visitor center for High Knob in or near the City of Norton, helping to link outdoor recreation on the mountain to business development in town. Within Norton and surrounding towns, the ARC has also funded work supporting or enhancing communities’ schools, health systems, and even drinking water and sewer infrastructure.
The ARC was proposed for total elimination in the president’s budget released last week.
II. Clinch River Valley
Nestled at the base of High Knob, the Clinch River has recently become a focal point for both outdoor recreation and economic development. A series of public access points (some new, some improved from older sites) has allowed for the river itself to become a popular destination for folks looking to canoe, kayak, or go tubing in the region. A number of new businesses have sprung up along the river, including outfitters that support jobs and tourism in the region. Tax revenues from travel expenditures are up some 11% in the Clinch River’s home counties, meal tax revenues (an indicator of tourism growth) are up 14%, and nine new businesses including guides and outfitters have been developed within the watershed (info here).
How has all of this work been funded? You guessed it: the ARC has been a key partner supporting and funding work related to the Clinch in past years. In addition, struggling coalfield towns along the Clinch have been using another source of funding, Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs), to revitalize old structures and jumpstart entrepreneurship as tourism picks up. Multiple downtowns are using or have used CDBG funds, some now experiencing a true economic uptick with new businesses, hotels, and restaurants. The CDBG program was also recommended for total elimination last week.
III. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Farther south along the Cumberlands is Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Cumberland Gap NHP often stays hidden in the shadow of the larger and more popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park a couple of hours to its east, but it’s no less spectacular. Cumberland Gap boasts some 80 miles of hiking trails, as well as camping, caving, and historical interpretive activities.
As a component of the National Park System, Cumberland Gap’s primary funding doesn’t come from groups like the ARC. However, much of the work linking the park to nearby communities – think of what you do and where you go once you get off the trail – does rely on their support. For example, the ARC has recently worked with the city of Middlesboro, KY (just outside of the park’s boundary) to link the city more directly with the park, enhancing the ability for the city to benefit economically from the park.
And the four-lane highway tunnel that allowed for US Highway 25E to pass safely under the mountain and restore hiker access to Cumberland Gap itself? Part of the ARC’s Appalachian Development Highway System, a road network you likely use virtually anytime you travel to a trailhead using a four-lane highway in the Cumberlands.
IV. Breaks Interstate Park
On the other end of the Cumberlands, this trend continues. Nestled along the Virginia-Kentucky border is Breaks Interstate Park, one of the only interstate parks in the nation that straddles a massive gorge cut into Pine Mountain by the Russell Fork River. Just upriver from the Breaks is the town of Haysi, a town that, like many others across the coalfields, is struggling economically as coal continues its decline.
Back in 2010-2011, Haysi applied for funding through a project managed jointly by the ARC and the National Endowment for the Arts – another program listed as being terminated in the Trump administration’s budget last week. Haysi received funding through this program, which was focused on studying possibilities for sustainable tourism opportunities in and around town as an alternative economic strategy to coal. The result of this project was a report containing recommendations for how Haysi could enhance tourism, recreation, and entrepreneurship over the long haul.
If you recreate in the Cumberlands, you might be familiar with some of that project’s recommendations now that we’re some seven years later. Haysi will be home to a new ATV trail system this spring, and a new trail center is opening in downtown to help promote local assets. Whitewater paddling through the gorge on the Russell Fork is booming, and in 2016 funding was allocated by – guess who? – the ARC to develop a multiuse trail that will formally link Haysi’s downtown to the tourism center of the interstate park.
Where Do Things Go From Here?
By now, you probably get the point: outdoor recreation and federal programs in Appalachia are inextricably linked, even for trails and recreation areas located off of federal land. That doesn’t mean that federal agencies control all recreation assets but instead that those agencies are crucial partners on recreation projects. Put simply, most of the projects we’ve listed above wouldn’t have been possible in their current form without them. The same is true elsewhere across the region, whether it involves whitewater paddling and hiking at West Virginia’s New River Gorge or efforts to further improve the Appalachian Trail in downtown Damascus, Virginia, off to the east of the Cumberlands.
Does this link between the Appalachian outdoors and federal agencies mean that those agencies are above reproach? Of course not. There are valid reasons to want to improve the efficiency and success of virtually any government agency, just as there can be valid reasons to debate whether or not those agencies should get involved with certain projects in the first place. Our point with this post, in fact, hasn’t been to say that you should believe one way or the other in light of the info we’ve provided above.
What that info should illustrate, however, is how important it is to stay informed about what those federal agencies do, how they fund projects, and how those projects impact you. These types of federally-funded projects are much more common in rural Appalachia than it might seem and impact your life well outside of recreation, from how you receive healthcare to how your children are educated to even the water that you drink. Losing them would not be inconsequential for pretty much any Appalachian resident, and that’s an important thing to consider, regardless of what final opinion you reach.
While agencies like the ARC aren’t done for just yet – the president’s budget ultimately has to be approved by Congress, and the final budget will almost certainly change – it’s worth considering the implications of having those agencies and the projects they support suddenly disappear. And if you feel strongly one way or the other about the proposed cuts, let your elected representatives know. After all, whether it’s citizens not being informed about how local projects work or elected officials not knowing how constituents feel, ignorance is not always bliss.