- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

ELKHORN CITY, Ky. (AP) - College students are helping officials in Elkhorn City gather research to promote ecotourism.

Elkhorn City attorney Tim Belcher told the Lexington Herald-Leader (https://bit.ly/1pyPnxW) that the area offers several natural elements to draw tourists, including white-water rafting and trails for hiking.

“I’ve been talking about adventure tourism for 20 years. We have all the natural assets we need to diversify our economy and move forward,” he said.

He said the Russell Fork River streams through Elkhorn City and the Breaks gorge, also known as the “Grand Canyon of the East.”

“We’ve got the best whitewater in the United States,” he said, not to mention hiking along Pine Mountain Trail, which connects the Breaks to Pineville.

What Belcher doesn’t have is research to convince local officials and residents that ecotourism will work.

College students from the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University are helping out with that aspect. They spent a recent weekend asking local residents how they feel about ecotourism. Earlier in the semester, they surveyed tourists in area campgrounds about why they were visiting.

Belcher says the students’ work will help the city get designated as a trail town, which is one step that’s needed to refocus the area’s economy on ecotourism.

“The thing we don’t have is the data to convince decision makers to move forward,” he said. “The universities are compiling that data, and it really lends validity to what we’re doing.”

When a community receives the Trail Town designation, the state’s Office of Adventure Tourism promotes and markets the community through several publications.

UK sociology professor Shaunna Scott and EKU professor Stephanie McSpirit partnered for the project and says the experience has been good for the communities and the students.

“Obviously there’s a research question here, as a community that has been driven by a coal industry tries to transition to something else,” McSpirit said. “These are the things our universities have to support, not only because of our service mandate but because it provides great opportunities for our students to get field experiences that a classroom doesn’t offer.”


Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader, https://www.kentucky.com

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