- The Embattled Wilderness: The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future by James Krupa and Erik Reece
"You can't eat pretty" is an old saying in rural areas where the natural resources are rich, but the economic opportunities are slim. In the Appalachian Mountains, the families living in that region and the communities that have developed since European settlement are among some of the most connected people to the land. But, as a native Kentuckian, I've seen communities pressed between the dichotomy of the love for their natural landscape and the need for financial sustainability via development (decisions either initiated by themselves or by land-owning entities often based hundreds of miles away). An example of this difficult balance was told by the authors through the story of Ellen Noble who was employed in the 1910s as a cook by a timber company to feed its workers, as they were ironically cutting down the old-growth forests surrounding the land where her family had lived for over a hundred years. Unfortunately, the story of Ms. Noble and her community is not unique or only of the past, as forests nationwide are still pressured to supply economic gains often at the expense of their ecological integrity. Embattled Wilderness describes the story of a large Kentucky forest with high biodiversity (Robinson Forest) that continues to have these pressures, but also has its strong supporters. Readers from various locations and ecoregions will appreciate some of the familiar conservation struggles and successes shared in this book.
Robinson Forest is one of the largest remaining pieces of intact forest in the state of Kentucky, located in the eastern part of the state on the Cumberland Plateau, and is within the Mixed Mesophytic (MM) forest ecoregion. Decades ago, the eminent ecologist Lucy Braun (1950) described in detail how the MM forest is the most diverse on this continent and is often called the "rain forest of North America". These forests serve as essential "baselines" for assessing a variety of impacts (e.g., climate change, invasive species) and the aesthetic and scientific value that can be derived from their long-term monitoring is as deep and comprehensive as the ecosystem itself.
The authors of "Embattled Wilderness" are professors at the University of Kentucky—James Krupa (ecologist) and Erik Reece (writer)—and work together in tackling the complexities of conservation pressures involved with Robinson Forest and beautifully describe a landscape that argues for its attention and work in conserving. Nearly completely logged in the early 1900s (by a company based elsewhere) and then deeded in 1923 to the state's land-grant institution (University of Kentucky) as an experimentation site for the "betterment of the people" of the state, it is now a "green island" surrounded by mountain-top mining operations. The visual that this produces on the current landscape makes the case for RF more pronounced than ever, though the University has suggested on multiple occasions that its future as a natural area is in jeopardy. In this book, the authors defend why Robinson Forest deserves to be saved (through a variety of engaging political, cultural and ecological discussions) and also offer suggestions for how it can be sustainably managed moving forward.
The story-telling format of this book is enjoyable, as it is cumulatively an ecological field journal, a cultural record of families and events of this region, and a call to action for future conservation of this forest. One does not need to have connections to Robinson Forest, or to the Appalachians for that matter, to appreciate their picturesque accounts (all first- and second-hand) of the diverse ecosystem and historical decisions that have led to present day conditions. The reader greatly benefits by learning from Krupa's decades of ecological and forest knowledge (as a researcher and faculty member) coupled with the inspiring cultural stories shared by Reece (also author...