Using Nature to Nurture a Depressed Economy

Jun 23, 2014

Credit Clinch River Valley Initiative

These days so much of the country seems just like everywhere else, the same national chains, same urban sprawl.  And while there are still some authentic regions left, mostly, they’re far from –well – everywhere.

These days so much of the country seems just like everywhere else, the same national chains, same urban sprawl.  And while there are still some authentic regions left, mostly, they’re far from -well - everywhere.
As Robbie Harris tells us in part one of our report, that may help them learn from mistakes others made, and --chart their own course for economic development.

The Clinch River in Southwest Virginia is the most biologically diverse in all of North America.

“The Clinch is this incredibly special river with more rare species than any river in North America and yet nobody really knows about it.”

Brad Kreps is standing on the bank of the River where it runs through the tiny town of Cleveland, Virginia.

“This is one of the most beautiful sections of the river to float. We’re at Nash’s Ford on the Clinch River.  Absolutely gorgeous, you float through, very remote sections of the river, towering cliffs, big, green, forested slopes.  There are stretches of the river where you just feel like you’re the only person on earth.”

You might think he’d want to keep the secret.  After all, how many people give away the location of their favorite fishing or paddling spot.  But Kreps is doing that and more.  He‘s the Clinch Valley Program Director for the nature conservancy. Working with a host of partners, their goal is to not only protect this unique waterway, but also to spur economic growth in the entire region.

“We have a long history in Southwest Virginia of trying to figure out ways to make conservation not just be good for nature but also good for people and the region is challenged economically so we’ve always thought about ways in which our work can benefit not just wildlife.

The conservancy is known for its work preserving wilderness and making it accessible to the public.  But the potential for new businesses linked to river and regional recreation is the strategy that’s also driving the effort here to introduce this hidden gem to more people.

"People aren’t going to protect something they don’t care about and they’re not going to care about something they don’t know about so you’ve got to teach them about it," says Steve Lindeman,the Land Protection program manager at the conservancy.

Working with towns and counties along the river and other non profit organizations to acquire real estate from willing landowners, they are slowly stitching together existing hiking trails and creating more access points to the water and the woodlands that surround it.

“We recently purchased some property up around that driveway, a small farm and it’s connected to the Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve and it will become part the Pinnacle Natural Area and it would be possible, with just a lit more work to connect a trail from here, a foot trail, where you could go through that gate and walk up that trail and be connected to a trail system on the Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve.  

Towns, such as Cleveland, are getting grants to develop recreational opportunities along its mile of river frontage and reacquaint the town with the waterway. The ultimate goal is to create a state park.  Officials say outfitters, river guides and other would be entrepreneurs, are eager to open more businesses catering to visitors.

"So if folks were staying at the state park, wherever that state park ended up being, some short driving distance from here, or,  floating could float here get out - say your floated a half day - and took a half a day hike on the Pinnacle Natural Area Preserver-You know, we’re not talking about this state park as a stand alone thing, it’s a connector and it’s something that could be a base of operations for somebody.”

In this part of Southwestern Virginia, the Clinch River defines a kind of border between the high mountain ridge and valley region to the east and coalfield regions to the west.   The high peaks and hollows can be isolating, so people here are often county centric.  But now, not only the park, but the combined efforts of the towns and counties which would comprise it are said to be unified around the idea that increased accessibility to the Clinch River will lift all boats.

“We're not talking about the state park as just a stand alone thing it’s a connector and something that could be a base of operations for somebody that could come here and spend a week and go off, spend a week and do all these great things.  They could off and hike at the Pinnacle, they could go off to The Carter Fold and hear some great music. They could zip over to Abingdon  and have a meal and maybe go to the Heartwood Center, or whatever.  They could just branch out from the state park.”

A $2.5 million line item to fund the creation of a state park in the Clinch River Valley did not make it into the state’s final budget agreement passed a few weeks ago. But that’s not stopping the push to use nature to nurture economic development in a region that badly needs it.

“There’s so much momentum going, that access point in Cleveland is happening, state park or no state park.  The town is committed to it, they’ve gotten a grant with the game department to put it in.  Other partners are helping them with the signage. O t this area is moving forward with ideas around river recreation.    We really need the state park and that’s one of the anchor pieces of the whole strategy, but we’re note going to stop doing great things on the river," says Kreps.

In our next report, we’ll hear how the Clinch River is part of a plan for nature and local culture to nurture economic growth in Southwestern Virginia.