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Should Kentucky Look To Outdoor Recreation For An Economic Boost?

Gerry James

Gerry James had trouble parking his car downtown Friday morning. On any other day, he’d have enough space for his black Volvo XC60. But on this day, a kayak is perched on top of his car. He’ll need the kayak to travel to Six Mile Island, a nature preserve on the Ohio River. The only way to get there is by boat.

He’ll also need his kayak for next weekend's Taylorsville Lake Paddle Battle, one of the many events he coordinates in an effort to get people to engage in outdoor recreation.

James is director of the Explore Kentucky Initiative, an organization that promotes active lifestyles. He's passionate about environmentalism, conservation and the outdoors. And he'd also like to see the active outdoor community diversify.

A study by Eastern Kentucky University last year found that rock climbers in Red River Gorge — which sees approximately 7,500 unique visitors each year — had an economic impact of $3.6 million. Of the more than 700 survey respondents, about 90 percent were white. Participants in outdoor activities, such as rock climbing, were also overwhelmingly white, according to the study.

James says he's often the only person of color when engaging in outdoor activities in Kentucky. He says he hopes his organization can help diversify the community.

“Another reason why I’m passionate about the outdoors is because as Black people we have such a connection to the outdoors,” he says. “Not just because of slavery but when we think about national parks, we were the first defenders, first park rangers. Like Yosemite, it was the buffalo soldiers that helped protect the national park services land.”

James knows his way around Kentucky’s outdoor treasures, like the Pine Mountain Settlement School, Bad Branch Falls Nature State Preserve and Red River Gorge.

“Another place that’s really magical is the Big South Fork," says James. "Big South Fork National River and Recreation area. And it’s just amazing — amazing scenery, amazing paddling. Great camping there, great hiking. I don’t know … I just wanna be there right now.”

He says he wants the Explore Kentucky Initiative to not only promote active lifestyles but to educate people about how it can benefit the state’s financial health.

“Outdoor recreation should be, considered to be another driver of economy,” he says.

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.