There are silver linings even in the dark clouds hovering over Vietnam. If it were not for the expense of the war, jackhammers would now be yammering in a gorge in eastern Kentucky through which flows the North Fork of the Red River. Construction of a dam would have started last month had a reprieve not come with a freeze on government spending for local projects. The river took 60 million years to carve the gorge out of the Cumberland Plateau, and it now has gained another scant year of life. The scheduled start of construction is January 1969.
By building a dam that has no good reason to be built, the Kentucky politicians and the Army Corps of Engineers will turn a unique piece of wilderness into a narrow, commonplace lake that will be attractive to few people. A water skier would have trouble making a wide swing on it. The gorge is a natural museum of geological structures, of plant and animal life and—a matter that is important to too few people—a thing of primeval beauty. The proposed dam, said the Louisville Courier-Journal in one of its frequent editorials on the subject, is "a boondoggle, pure and simple." Most of the nation is not yet aware of what this boondoggle threatens.
Great castle rock formations tower above the floor of the gorge. More than 20 natural rock arches stand along the palisades of the North Fork. Another 30 are scattered through the surrounding Daniel Boone National Forest. This phenomenon occurs in only one other place in the world, and that is along the Colorado River tributaries in Utah.
Because of the 600-foot drop down the walls of the gorge, climatic conditions change abruptly to form in one rather small area what Carl M. Clark, associate agricultural economist at the University of Kentucky, says is the finest botanical garden in the eastern United States. For example, a different type of wildflower blooms every day from late March into November, creating outbursts of shifting colors along the trails, streams and cliffs.
Wild white water rushes between the palisades that rear up high as a 60-story building, and one stretch of the river is strewn with boulders as big as houses. Daniel Boone is believed to have lived in the gorge, a notion that was supported last year when two mountaineers, who are disposed toward secrecy, led forest rangers to a rock shelter under which is a primitive hut that has "D. Boon" scratched on a wood shake shingle.
The Red River breaks into three forks—the South, Middle and North—six miles from the dam site. The South Fork is of little economic significance other than for its timber. The Middle Fork wanders through Natural Bridge State Park, which draws about 300,000 visitors a year, many of them from Lexington, an hour's drive to the west, or from Louisville, another hour farther. The North Fork, where the dam is to be built, courses its rugged gorge near the Mountain Parkway, a toll road that carries speeding motorists close by a place that most of them do not know exists. Except for a few tobacco patches and other crops along wider spaces of the gorge floor, the North Fork has had no real dollar value since the virgin timber was chopped. Nearly 40 years ago the National Forest Service bought much of the gorge for $3 or less per acre merely to conserve and replace the timber.
From down inside the gorge—where trees once rose 200 feet above the palisade walls with branches so thick as to blot out the sunlight—one gets the impression of being in the mountains rather than on a plateau that has been sculpted by erosion. "Red River Gorge," wrote Carl Clark, "is a miniature model of Nature's greatest masterpiece of erosion—the Grand Canyon in Arizona." Other than the natural arches, which are called "lighthouses" by the natives, the gorge has many balanced rocks, pinnacle rocks, rock houses and caves. Within 30 square miles, most of it protected by the National Forest Service, is a concentration of most of the types of plant life that can be found in the eastern United States. The vegetation is in such proliferation that scientists will not have time to finish an inventory of it if the dam is built anywhere near on schedule.
Geographically, the Red River Gorge is midway between the North and South of the country. At the top of the plateau the soil conditions in summer are similar to those of the Southwest. At the bottom of the palisades it is shady, cool and damp. Where the valley floor opens, it is humid and hot. Erosion has poured limestone, sandstone and shale onto the river terraces. One result is that nearly all the tree families east of the Rockies are found there. Clark would like to see the gorge become a national sanctuary for research in the natural sciences. "Standing on a high point such as Chimney Top Rock or Sky Bridge," says Clark, "a person has, within one panoramic view, an assembly of...botanical life unequaled anywhere in Kentucky and probably the entire United States as far as the total range of it is concerned."
Few, if any, of the bears and panthers that roamed the gorge in Daniel Boone's time remain, although residents talk of bears raiding garbage cans and of hearing panthers wail in the night. But deer and wild turkey have been restocked there, and beaver dams are not difficult to locate. More than 125 species of resident birds and 150 species of transient birds have been counted. The 10 or more tributary streams, fed by cold-water springs, have been stocked with rainbow and speckled trout. In the North Fork are muskie, channel catfish, rock bass, blue gill, largemouth and small-mouth bass, crappie and perch, as well as shiners, darters, chubs, shad and dace. More than 20 species of salamanders, seven species of turtles, six species of lizards and 15 kinds of snakes inhabit the gorge.
To see all this, to find these creatures, it is necessary to hike back into the wild country or to travel by canoe through the rough water. However, from lookouts such as Tunnel Ridge, atop the Nada Tunnel, one may peer out across a landscape of hills and ridges and forests, across a country so remote that explorers are still discovering new natural arches and plants. From the top of the ridge there is not a power line in sight, only an occasional string of blue woodsmoke, and the wind sounds like rushing water in the trees. The country is very much as it looked to Daniel Boone and John Swift.
But anyone who wishes to see it should hurry. Sometime next year the river could be rising to transform hills and ridges into the banks of a lake.
The proponents of the $12 million dam claim it is justifiable for three reasons—flood control, water supply and recreation. There has never been a suggestion of the dam furnishing power. The lake, which would flood 2,100 acres, covering two-thirds of the gorge and destroying more than half of the plant and animal life, will protect from flooding only one-third of the Red River drainage area. The Middle Fork and South Fork and many tributaries will still flood below the dam. There have been 65 floods (most of them minor) on the Red River in 30 years, and of those, eight have occurred from May through October, the planting and harvesting seasons. A dam at the proposed site would lower the level of a major flood, such as that in 1937 at Louisville, by about two inches, according to Corps of Engineers' figures, and would have reduced the damage at Clay City in 1962 by about one-third.
Water storage came very late into the dam question when the State of Kentucky agreed to pay extra money to have the dam built higher to impound water for Lexington, Frankfurt and other downstream towns. At flood pool the reservoir would hold a 90-day supply of water. Within a year after Congress provided the first funds for the dam, the privately owned Lexington Water Company sold two of its reservoirs at a profit of $2,415,846. That caused Representative Gene Snyder, the only Kentucky politician who is questioning the dam, to ponder what he referred to as "a peculiar coincidence." Snyder said, "If Lexington needs water, why did they sell their reservoirs? Maybe that's why they need more water." Industries and individuals will have to pay for the water they receive from the dam, a fact they have recently realized and begun to complain about.
The main justification for the dam is recreation and the possible economic value of tourists flocking into the area to spend money at motels, lodges and boat docks. That is how the dam was sold to the people of the area. Congressman John Watts supports the dam because it is in his district and most of the people who are in favor of it are his constituents. Since Watts is for the dam, other politicians observe a gentleman's agreement which prevents them from meddling in his political affairs. This ancient convention has accommodated a number of foul deeds in American life. The Red River dam is one of them.
To begin to understand how the people who live around the gorge could be gulled into believing tourists would drive out the Mountain Parkway to visit an ordinary lake that is useless for boating or water skiing, it is necessary to know something about eastern Kentucky.
The Red River Gorge is at the western edge of Appalachia, an isolated country in which the people have been oppressed for a century by coal-mine operators and timber companies, most of them owned by concerns from out of state. Coal scouts bought the mineral rights for very little and then put into practice "broad-claim" deeds by which strip-mine operators could move onto a man's farm with heavy machinery, rip off the soil to get at the veins of coal and leave the farm and the streams piled with rubble and wreckage.
The product of all this is Appalachia, a national disgrace. There are a few decent roads in eastern Kentucky, and the ones that do exist are littered with junked cars, old washing machines and bed-springs. Along the roads the people live in battered house trailers, bus hulls and tarpaper shacks on stilts. This is typical Tobacco Road country such as Erskine Caldwell wrote about more than 30 years ago. Here the Depression has never ended. Although they are traditionally clever and independent people, eastern Kentuckians have been left with hardly any way to earn a living. They want to work. Perhaps the start should be a road-building program. With the roads, industry might come in if tax benefits were offered. First, however, the Kentuckians would have to get more education than is now available and also be trained for industrial jobs.
Down in the gorge on the bank of the North Fork lives Floyd Ledford, who does not want to see the dam built because his house will be underwater. "The motive of the people who want this dam is money," he says, sitting before the stove in his living room, spitting tobacco juice into a coffee can. "A lot of people are going to be disappointed. They ain't going to get rich, and this dam ain't even going to help with the floods much. There's too many creeks come into the Red. I've been all over Kentucky, and this land is as much like it was in the beginning as any land you can find anyplace. But you can sure get into a quick argument with the folks who want the dam. Land prices are booming. Over at Pine Ridge a fellow is asking $20,000 for less than 100 acres, and not one acre of it is level ground. There's going to be some very sad people when they understand this lake ain't going to make them wealthy."
To dramatize the fate of the gorge, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led 600 hikers along North Fork trails last autumn, deplored the dam and wrote letters opposing it. The annoyed response from Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky was that such dam foes should have spoken up sooner. The first public hearings on the dam were held 14 years ago at the request of a group of citizens from around Stanton and Clay City, 12 miles north of the gorge. They called themselves the Red River Development Association. As usual, "public hearing" was a misnomer, since most people had no idea what was happening.
Over the years the Corps of Engineers office in Louisville built up several file drawers of material on the project. Congressional approval for the dam was obtained under the 1962 Flood Control Act, although it was 1966 before the Red River was removed by letter from the state wild-rivers program, leaving Kentucky with no rivers included in the Federal Scenic Rivers plan. The Kentucky Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Inc., Kentucky Ornithological Union and Kentucky Academy of Science have asked for a new study of the dam. Last year the Kentucky section of the Sierra Club joined the fight against the dam, but the answer from the politicians remained the same: the funds have been granted, it's too late to stop now. "Senator Cooper knows this is not necessarily so," said The Courier-Journal in another editorial. "Should a major oil field be discovered in the flats along Red River tomorrow, plans for the dam would be doornail dead by tomorrow night. And something far more precious to Kentucky's future than an oil field is at stake here."
The Kentucky State Legislature approved the dam, an act which surprised no one, since the legislators wasted little time studying the matter before they voted and in any case would not have opposed the local political forces involved. The board of directors of a group of Kentucky sportsmen also supports the dam and will ask its 41,000 members to concur at a meeting in June. "The board is playing it safe politically...like a bunch of rabbits," says Kentucky Artist-Naturalist Ray Harm.
One argument by dam proponents is that floating in boats will bring visitors closer to the rock formations on top of the palisades. To that the Sierra Club replies, as it does in opposing dams that would flood the Grand Canyon, "Should we flood the Sistine Chapel to bring tourists closer to the ceiling?" In the fall and winter, when water is drained from the reservoir to make room for the spring rains, steep mud banks will be exposed below the proposed motels, thus removing access for whatever unwary boatmen do visit the gorge. "The people have been conned," says Sierra Club member Carroll Tichenor, horse breeder, whose farm is in the Bluegrass country about an hour's drive from the gorge. "It's going to be a terrible awakening."
Provided that the boondoggle cannot be stopped and a dam must be built, the Sierra Club suggests an alternate site 5.8 miles downstream. This site would save about 80% of the gorge and would create a larger reservoir with better flood control but would cost an additional $3 million because more of the land to be flooded is owned by individuals rather than by the government.
Carroll Tichenor is cautious about stressing the beauty of the gorge. "The scientific aspects are what we have to talk about," he says. "They tell us beauty is not enough. Well, in this case there are scientific reasons that are at least as important as the beauty. If the politicians are tired of hearing about beauty, they should listen to the scientists."
Or they should heed The Courier-Journal: "There is too much evidence...that the Engineers undertake vast projects without knowing what they are doing. There is evidence—the Red River, for example—that they approve projects to keep their forces busy and to protect their position as congressional pork-dispensers, not because the projects are really needed.... Some other agency, not so directly concerned with its own political power and future, should be given a voice in deciding when and where dams and other water projects are needed."
Conservationists' hopes were not raised a few week ago when Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, after reading the results of a study of the dam by his staff, wrote a reluctant letter of approval to Lieut. General W. F. Cassidy, chief of the Army Engineers. In it he said: "If we were starting with a clean slate in our consideration of the Red River...we might well decide: 1) that no dam...be built on this river and attempt to meet the needs in some other fashion; or 2) propose a dam at the lower site."
In early May conservationists will be able once more to testify against the dam when the House and Senate Appropriations Committees hold hearings in Washington. The newly appointed National Water Resources Council will have an opportunity to hear arguments.
But it may be too late, as Senator Cooper suggests. Once an appropriation is made, only the President can call it back, and such a call seems uncertain. It may be, to mix metaphor and cliché, that the silver lining is merely water over the dam.