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In the 1920s, after he and his partner had sucked all profit from a twenty-three-square-mile tract of forest in central Kentucky, Cincinnati businessman E. O. Robinson deeded the land to the University of Kentucky, with the caveat that the property be used for research to “tend to the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky.” Since that bequest, Robinson Forest has been an important research station for the university. But in recent years, as the surrounding landscape has been torn apart by mountaintop-removal coal mining, there are serious concerns that the university, in order to turn the forest into a profitable asset, will sell the mineral rights. This book, written by two University of Kentucky professors, is a full-throated opposition to that idea.
The Embattled Wilderness is not a conventional historical text. Erik Reece, an English professor who has written extensively about mountaintop-removal mining, and James J. Krupa, a biologist who has spent more than twenty years traversing every ridge and stream of the forest, trade off chapters. Krupa’s three chapters discuss the natural history of this forest, with a focus on its amazing biodiversity. He explains topics as diverse as woodrats, rock outcrops, and forest-fire ecology in an engaging first-person style that reflects not only years of scientific study, but also one person’s fascination with a specific piece of land. Reece’s remaining four chapters combine some basic social and environmental history of the forest, descriptions of the specific ecological threats of coal mining, and an argument for keeping the forest as a site for research and experiential education.
The alternating nature of the chapters provides an interesting structure for the book. If held to the standards of academic or even popular history, The Embattled Wilderness fails. There is little evidence of primary- or secondary-source research, and Reece’s historical discussions too often resort to clichés about a pristine, presettlement wilderness, rugged yeoman, and greedy, rapacious capitalists. But to hold this book to those standards would be unfair. What Reece and Krupa have constructed are really two interwoven essays that argue for the social, educational, and natural value of Robinson Forest as [End Page 279] it currently exists. Krupa is the detailed naturalist here, explicating topics like the biology of how flying squirrels execute controlled dives across the treetops, while Reece is the expert muckraker. His anger at the destructive totality of coal mining is balanced by extended passages in which he shows that sustainable forestry techniques could help the university derive profit from the forest while keeping it ecologically intact.
Taken together, these two narratives are tremendously convincing. Krupa takes you deep inside the forest as an intricate natural system, while Reece zooms out to the larger political, economic, and social issues. They show that with Robinson Forest, the University of Kentucky, and the people of Kentucky, have a tremendous resource that should not be squandered. This book should be required reading for all university trustees, administrators, and state legislators. They need to see what mountaintop-removal mining would destroy and craft a plan that will guarantee the integrity and sustainability of this forest.
Robert Gioielli teaches environmental and modern American history at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College. He is currently completing a book on the relationship between urban decline and modern American environmentalism.