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The Embattled Wilderness

The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future

Erik Reece

Publication Year: 2013

Robinson Forest in eastern Kentucky is one of our most important natural landscapes—and one of the most threatened. Covering fourteen thousand acres of some of the most diverse forest region in temperate North America, it is a haven of biological richness within an ever-expanding desert created by mountaintop removal mining. Written by two people with deep knowledge of Robinson Forest, The Embattled Wilderness engagingly portrays this singular place as it persuasively appeals for its protection.

The land comprising Robinson Forest was given to the University of Kentucky in 1923 after it had been clear-cut of old-growth timber. Over decades, the forest has regrown, and its remarkable ecosystem has supported both teaching and research. But in the recent past, as tuition has risen and state support has faltered, the university has considered selling logging and mining rights to parcels of the forest, leading to a student-led protest movement and a variety of other responses.

In The Embattled Wilderness Erik Reece, an environmental writer, and James J. Krupa, a naturalist and evolutionary biologist, alternate chapters on the cultural and natural history of the place. While Reece outlines the threats to the forest and leads us to new ways of thinking about its value, Krupa assembles an engaging record of the woodrats and darters, lichens and maples, centipedes and salamanders that make up the forest’s ecosystem. It is a readable yet rigorous, passionate yet reasoned summation of what can be found, or lost, in Robinson Forest and other irreplaceable places.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

As that rare Kentuckian Guy Davenport, among others, has helped us to understand, nothing in existence is now worth as much as whatever theoretically might replace it. No place, no building or garden or park or farm or natural wonder, is any longer safe from destruction. This is because by the determination of industry and the connivance of our institutions,...


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-5

One of the oldest working fire towers in Kentucky stands atop a ridge in the middle of Robinson Forest. The view from the top of the fire tower is a study in stark contrasts: a contiguous fourteen-thousand-acre forest that is almost completely surrounded by strip mines. To look out over the forest’s steep ridges—slopes that novelist James Still called “a river ...

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CHAPTER 1 The Cleanest Stream in Kentucky

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pp. 6-27

On the first day of spring, I pull my truck off a narrow back road at the confluence of Buckhorn Creek and Clemons Fork, deep in the hills of eastern Kentucky. Each stream begins miles from here, up in the headwaters of Robinson Forest. Just up the road I can see the main entrance to the forest. This morning is cool, but the sun has just emerged above ...

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CHAPTER 2 Ridgetops and Outcrops

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pp. 28-48

Robinson Forest is in a geological region known as the Cumberland Plateau, and in the Eastern Kentucky Coal Field, named for the layers of bituminous coal beneath the surface. The Cumberland Plateau runs along the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains from Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia down through Tennessee into Georgia and Alabama. The rock strata exposed in the plateau date back more ...

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CHAPTER 3 A Timbered Classroom

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pp. 49-62

One Sunday morning in March, I was driving a truck full of college students up a narrow logging road that runs along the western boundary of Robinson Forest. It was the middle of the spring semester. Back in January, on the first day of “ENG 401: Nature Writing,” I had informed the class that there would be a mandatory weekend field trip to Robinson Forest. I wanted this small group of students to experience the forest...

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CHAPTER 4 Slumps and Slides and Steep, Steep Slopes

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pp. 63-91

To truly experience Robinson Forest requires complete immersion in the woods away from roads and buildings, but few who visit the forest have the time or the opportunity to do that. Most visitors view the tall, steep slopes that define Robinson Forest from the comfort of Camp Robinson, or perhaps hike the path to the fire tower for a deeper experience. Labored...

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CHAPTER 5 Thinking Like a Forest

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pp. 92-112

If you stand at the top of the fire tower in Robinson Forest and look around, as I have often done, your gaze will slowly register a strange and most unnatural contrast—the most biologically diverse forest in North America is surrounded by nearly barren plateaus created by mountaintop- removal strip mining (mtr). From the fire tower you can see that Robinson Forest is an island of life surrounded by a ring of death: the ...

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CHAPTER 6 Riffles and Runs and Cool, Clear Pools

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pp. 113-135

Water is the lifeblood of Robinson Forest. Pumped into the forest as rain and snow, it trickles through the forest floor like blood moving through a maze of capillaries. When trees are leafed out and growing, they pull enough water to fill several reservoirs up their trunks and into their leaves, where it is transformed by photosynthesis into sugar and oxygen....

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CHAPTER 7 The Embattled Wilderness

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pp. 136-142

On a sunny day last November, I took a long walk up Clemons Fork to see the forest’s last great display before it settled into winter dormancy. The maples and beeches that grow along the banks wore a final shimmer of orange and gold; closer to the stream, hornbeams slowly let fall their slender red leaves. A belted kingfisher swooped back and forth over the...


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pp. Image 1-Image 12

Works Cited and Consulted

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pp. 143-144

E-ISBN-13: 9780820345697
E-ISBN-10: 0820345695
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820341231
Print-ISBN-10: 0820341231

Page Count: 184
Illustrations: 21 b&w photos, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2013