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Producers: Joy Flynn, Brandon Wickey
When would-be settlers started pushing west from Virginia into what is now southeastern Kentucky, they literally hit a wall: Pine Mountain, a 125-mile-long, nearly unbroken ridge of sandstone that rises as high as 3,273 feet above sea level. Most water in the region flows parallel to the ridge; for a stretch of some 90 miles, only the Cumberland River has managed to cut through. (The town of Pineville is located in that skinny gorge.) So, like the water, most people went around rather than over. To this day, settlement and traffic patterns reflect the presence of the formidable barrier known as Pine Mountain.
But what was inconvenient for humans was a boon for nature. The rugged slopes of Pine Mountain shelter some of Kentucky’s most beautiful scenery and untouched wilderness as well as an amazing diversity of habitats and rare plants and animals. In this special edition, host Dave Shuffett and his dogs, Sadie and Charlie, explore both human and natural history on Pine Mountain.
To get an idea of the lay of the land, they hike to Chained Rock above Pineville. Locals used to claim that this outsize boulder was fastened to the underlying ridge to keep it from crashing down the mountain and crushing the town. The truth is that Pineville was probably never in much danger, and the chain was really a gimmick to draw tourists. But even without it, the spot would still draw plenty of photographers—since, as our photo shows, the views are incredible.
Pine Mountain offers plenty of other opportunities to observe nature. Those looking for a few amenities can try Pine Mountain State Resort Park in Pineville, Kentucky’s oldest state park and home of the annual Mountain Laurel Festival in May, or Breaks Interstate Park, the jointly run Kentucky-Virginia park just outside Elkhorn City that anchors the northeast end of the ridge. Kingdom Come State Park in Cumberland—the state’s highest park—sits right on the crest of Pine Mountain and offers fishing and boating as well as several spectacular rock formations. And the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission operates several preserves on Pine Mountain, including Blanton Forest, the largest intact old-growth forest in the state.
To learn a little about the human history and culture of the mountain, Dave visits the Pine Mountain Settlement School at the head of Greasy Creek in Harlan County. Founded in 1913, when schools of any kind were rare in this isolated region, the settlement school has evolved from primary education to environmental and cultural study. The school hosts community fairs and offers workshops on everything from traditional weaving techniques to spotting edible wild mushrooms. Executive Director Nancy Adams and naturalist Ben Begley show us around the place, including a portion of the property that has been set aside as the James E. Bickford State Nature Preserve.
Preserving nature, on Pine Mountain and elsewhere, is the mission of the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust. This private nonprofit group works with the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission and other partners to identify natural areas in need of protection and then raise funds to purchase and manage them.
One of the trust’s biggest projects these days is the Pine Mountain Legacy Project, which aims to connect existing protected areas on Pine Mountain to form a contiguous forest block and migratory corridor from Virginia to Tennessee—a distance of nearly 110 miles. KNLT director Hugh Archer and KSNPC ecologist Marc Evans describe the goals of the project and explain how their groups are working with landowners across Pine Mountain to “fill in the gaps” between areas already protected. The establishment of a wildlife corridor would allow animals—from squirrels and foxes to the black bears that have recently reappeared around Kingdom Come—to move around more freely, repopulating more of their historic range. It also keeps individual populations from becoming isolated, which makes them vulnerable to inbreeding, disease, and changes in local habitats.
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