The Land Between the Lakes: A Geography of the Forgotten Future by Ronald A. Foresta (review)
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The Land Between the Lakes: A Geography of the Forgotten Future. By Ronald A. Foresta. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013. Pp. 336. $67.00 cloth)

The Land Between the Lakes (LBL) is a narrow parcel of land between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley in Trigg County and Lyon County, Kentucky, and Stewart County, Tennessee. Opened as a [End Page 96] national recreation area in the mid-1960s by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the LBL is elusive, vacuous, shrouded in myth, and ignored by scholars.

Foresta’s well-written and thought-provoking study deconstructs the existing narrative of LBL, which rests on the premise that TVA (a government agency) removed the people from their land, created a park that no one wanted or needed, failed to deliver on the promise of economic benefits, and then abandoned the failed experiment. Instead, Foresta tells a much more complex and intriguing tale. In the early 1960s, TVA planners recognized a unique opportunity—create a recreation area to meet the needs of Americans, reverse the economic decline of a rural area, and, most importantly, provide later generations a natural setting for reinvigorating their mental wellbeing far away from the stresses of the modern world.

Designing a natural area based on concerns for the future (which Foresta refers to as futurity) sounds unrealistic if not reckless, but agency leaders, many local residents, politicians, and presidents of the New Frontier period embraced the project. In the rush to move forward, planners missed many details. TVA underestimated the resistance from the removed residents and overlooked the dull landscape, shallow coves, ticks, and summertime humidity. The immensity of the area made management difficult. LBL attracted some visitors, but not the projected millions. In 1999, following dozens of failed initiatives, TVA transferred LBL to the U.S. Forest Service.

The narrative is set within the concept of cyclical periods of American reform, most often associated with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Although few historians adhere to this approach, Foresta makes a valid claim that the reform spirit of the 1960s created an ideal political environment for TVA to design a park based on an anticipated future. By the 1970s, a poor economy and increased globalization created a reality far different from what LBL planners predicted. In the process, the original purpose of LBL became disconnected from subsequent TVA leaders who were unable to wedge LBL into the agency’s mission. [End Page 97]

The author’s sources support a great level of detail about the creation and demise of LBL. The narrative would benefit from some mention of the pre-TVA history of the region and the perspective of Tennesseans and Kentuckians outside of the affected counties. It is unclear why the Army Corps cooperated with its rival on LBL. Foresta’s review of LBL planners, including Robert Howes, Harold Miller, and Harold Van Morgan, is excellent. He gives ample coverage to the importance of TVA planner Benton MacKaye but not quite enough analysis of Arthur Morgan’s influence on TVA’s early vision. Foresta alludes to the rise of private recreation as a factor in LBL’s decline, but he does not use the example of Walt Disney World, which attracted many Kentuckians (like this reviewer) to Florida and not to the much-closer LBL.

The book illuminates the importance of memory in understanding the reasons for the creation of public places and sheds light on the dangers of planning for futures that may never happen. It highlights the need for details, especially when a vision moves toward reality. The LBL story is perhaps an analogy for TVA: an agency that adheres to, and is often hamstrung by, remnants of its original vision while it struggles to survive in an unpredictable future. Foresta’s study is an important contribution for those studying TVA, the New Frontier period, and Kentucky history.

Aaron D. Purcell

AARON D. PURCELL is the director of special collections at Virginia Tech. He is the editor of the Journal of East Tennessee History and the author of White Collar Radicals: TVA’s Knoxville Fifteen, the New Deal, and the McCarthy Era (2009).

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