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Tourism, Mining and a River: Kentucky's Tightrope Walk

The Russell Fork River, an outdoor gem on the Kentucky-Virginia border, is on a list of America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2016. (Steve Ruth)
The Russell Fork River, an outdoor gem on the Kentucky-Virginia border, is on a list of America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2016. (Steve Ruth)
April 20, 2016

ELKHORN CITY, Ky. - The Russell Fork River, which carves a spectacular 52-mile path along the Kentucky-Virginia border, has landed on the list of America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2016.

Avid kayaker Steve Ruth, a member of the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council, described the listing as a "real tightrope to walk" in his hometown of Elkhorn City, where outdoor recreation manages to coexist with the coal industry. According to the nonprofit conservation group American Rivers, the Russell Fork is threatened by mountaintop removal, citing a proposal at a Virginia mine.
Ruth said there's been "fairly heavy" surface mining in the headwaters of the Russell Fork for decades.

"The river is no more endangered at this moment than the last 50 years," he said. "It's taken a whole lot of punches. Frankly, the amount of punches that it's taken the last few years are decreasing."

While he opposes mountaintop removal and surface mining, Ruth said he doesn't believe river tourism and recreation will be affected by the project at the Doe Branch Mine, at least five miles from the Russell Fork.

However, American Rivers has said the proposal puts the river at a "crossroads." Jessie Thomas-Blate, American Rivers' associate director for river restoration, said the mine would discharge toxic wastewater into Russell Fork tributaries, which she claimed would be a direct threat to the river.

"If there is something we can do to help protect a particular river," she said, "then that's something that we feel like we can call attention to, and hopefully maybe raise increasing awareness throughout the region to talk about the issues that are associated with this type of mining overall."

American Rivers wants Virginia's governor and the Environmental Protection Agency to deny permits for the mine and stop the project.

The Russell Fork traverses the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi River, and its long run of Class 5 whitewater rapids attracts kayakers from around the world. While he thinks the mining threat could be overstated, Ruth said he appreciates the added attention to one of Kentucky's outdoor gems.

"It's great when folks out there in the world recognize that you have a treasure and recognize you have something that's a great attraction," he said, "and they feel that they want to make sure that it is preserved."

The river and gorge are the main attractions of Breaks Interstate Park, which draws more than 350,000 visitors a year. According to American Rivers, the park generated nearly $10 million across the region last year.

The report is online at

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY