Tree Baron: Save Robinson Forest

Tree Baron: Save Robinson Forest

Tree Baron

By Hilary Lambert


Most everyone scorns “environmental wackos”-people who apparently oppose progress or development, who want us “to live in the cold and dark,” as one coal executive phrased it during a recent energy conference at UK. At the same time, most people admit that they want clean air and clean water, and beautiful places for themselves and their children to enjoy.

The laws that protect these basic environmental rights are under attack in Washington, D.C. and in Kentucky. One local example is the debate over the future of UK’s Robinson Forest, presented by pro-developers as a question of scholarships to UK for deserving kids from eastern KY vs. protecting some trees. Those who oppose the plan, to strip-mine yet another chunk of this natural jewel, see it as a question of a short-term gain in dollars versus long-term benefits to Kentuckians and nature.

Beneath the woods is a lucrative coal seam. It is easy money, the last remaining hunk of Kentucky’s easy-to-mine, high-quality coal. Apparently Kentucky’s coal barons think that UK’s President Lee Todd is the man who will let them have it.

What’s Robinson Forest? Central Kentucky residents are extraordinarily ignorant of their state, so here’s help: go almost all the way southeast to the state border and there, where Breathitt, Perry, and Knott counties join, you’ll find the beautiful Robinson Forest. Originally 15,000 acres in extent, it was given to UK in 1923 by timber baron E.O. Robinson to be used for “agricultural experimental work and teaching, and for the practical demonstration of reforestation,” and “for the betterment of the people of the mountain regions of Eastern Kentucky.” According to John J. Cox, a graduate student in UK’s Dept. of Forestry (Balancing the scales, Kentuckians For the Commonwealth, 12/09/02), Robinson Forest today is “the state’s premier educational and training facility in forestry,” and a site for studies in forestry, agriculture, ecology, hydrology, wildlife management, sustainability management, and natural resources stewardship.

Protected from the strip-mining ravages that surround it, Robinson Forest is the remnant of a once-widespread forest type of enormous biological diversity, containing hundreds of well-known and rare plant and animal species, and two streams with “reference reaches,” against which the state’s Division of Water compares the health of other Kentucky streams.

In 1990, Archer Coal asked to mine 80 acres of the forest for which it had mineral rights. In response, a petition was filed by the Kentucky Resources Council and the KY Chapter of the Sierra Club to protect the main 10,000 acre block as “lands unsuitable for mining,” based on the scientific, informational, recreational, and aesthetic values of the forest. In response to that move, UK sold coal and timber rights to the 4,000 acres of Robinson Forest not protected by the petition! To salve the wound, the $37 million from this sale established the Robinson Scholars Program, providing worthy students from eastern Kentucky with full scholarships to UK. Further, UK promised that these funds would protect Robinson Forest in perpetuity.

“Perpetuity” these days lasts about 10 years. The funds have been spent, a shortfall is coming, the number of Robinson scholarships has dropped, and the UK Board of Governors has been asked by President Todd to consider additional mining. They would also have to approve funding a legal battle to overturn the “lands unsuitable for mining” designation, opening the 10,000-acre core to clear-cutting and strip-mining.

There is talk that the end is near for Kentucky coal-plenty remains, but of low quality, and hard to get at. In contrast, the Robinson Forest’s Tiptop/Skyline seam is a return to the golden mining era. Mountaintop-removal monsters and explosives are not needed-“It’s a dump truck and bulldozer ‘mom and pop’ type situation,” says coal expert Bill Hopper. Scoop off the loose overburden, put the ripper blade on the ‘dozer, and you’ve got a 12- to 15-foot thick seam of high-quality steam coal, medium sulphur content, perfect to feed the 30 power plants proposed for Kentucky. (That power won’t go to Kentuckians, but would be exported).

“Whose side are you on?” is a grand old song heard locally from the Reel World String Band. The UK group Students to Save Robinson Forest (SSRF) is on the side of the forest. According to John Cox, this coalition of students, faculty, staff, and concerned citizens “does not oppose scholarships, but we are against mining Robinson Forest to provide funds for them,” urging alternate scholarship sources, and upholding the vision of Mr. Robinson.

Green Thumb, UK’s popular undergraduate environmental club, mounted a postcard mailing drive to President Todd and printed awesome T-shirts. According to David Hutchinson, campus activism has benefited from this tangible and local issue, and he suggests that “Robinson Forest’s reforestation success is a model for Reforest the Bluegrass and other Lexington-area groups working to restore the environment.” Shane Tedder, who will give a presentation about Robinson Forest at the Sierra Club’s January 24-26 Activist Weekend, says “the forest and the scholarship program should be part of UK’s heritage, and not part of its history. Hopefully, creative funding can keep both alive.”