Natural assets boost Appalachian economy

Sep. 14—ASHLAND — Before Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Gatlinburg became one of the hottest tourist spots this side of the Mississippi River, what was there first?

The Great Smoky Mountains.

Both Steven Dobey, Senior Conservation Program Manager of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Austin Bradley, Superintendent of Breaks Interstate Park, mentioned that as an example of how conserving and preserving nature is so vital to the economy throughout Appalachia. They were two of four speakers during a breakout session of the Appalachian Regional Commission annual conference on Tuesday in Ashland.

Breaks Interstate Park is situated along the border of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. Bradley emphasized the importance of using natural assets as a nucleus for economic development on the fourth floor of The Highlands Museum and Discovery Center to highlight the importance of natural resources.

Bradley said popularity of attractions such as his park soared during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. People could still get out and explore nature's offerings without having to fret over social-distancing.

"Unique natural resources draw people in on their own," he said.

Breaks was designed in 1954 to protect the 5,000 acres around the Russell Fork Gorge, he said.

"We have to produce revenue to be able to pursue and achieve the public mission of serving this land," Bradley said.

There's an advantage to being "out in the middle of nowhere," he said. "So we need places for people to stay. We need a lodge to feed people when they come. ... We built all this stuff, but it comes at the risk of forgetting what the important part of that place was in the very beginning."

Bradley said Breaks has embraced kayaking, rock-climbing, hiking, white water rafting and elk-viewing, among other activities.

Breaks plays host to a 100-mile ultra marathon, too, Bradley said.

Angie Watland, Conservation Planner at the Virginia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, spoke about initiatives that protect forests and rivers.

Sally Palmer, Director of Science and Policy for The Nature Conservancy, began the session by highlighting ARC's commitment to investing millions of dollars into natural assets for economic development.