Elk Return to Kentucky, Bringing Economic Life

On a bright morning early this spring, David Ledford sat in his silver pickup at the end of a three-lane bridge spanning a deep gorge in southeast Kentucky.

The bridge, which forks off U.S. 119, was constructed in 1998 by former Gov. Paul E. Patton for $6 million. It was seen at the time as a route to many things: a highway, a strip mall, housing developments. Today, it spills out onto Mr. Ledford’s 12,000-acre property, which he and his business partner, Frank Allen, are developing into a nonprofit nature reserve called Boone’s Ridge. The road sloped up and disappeared around a hill, and Mr. Ledford took his right hand off the wheel for a moment to appreciate it. “It’s a hell of a driveway,” he said.

When Boone’s Ridge opens in 2022, it will offer a museum and opportunities for bird-watching and animal spotting. Two independent consultants have estimated that it could draw more than 1 million annual visitors and add over $150 million per year to the regional economy. This is in Bell County, in rural Appalachia, which has a poverty rate of 38 percent and an average household income of just under $25,000, making it one of the poorest counties in the United States.

The decline of the coal industry created a multibillion-dollar hole in the economy and left hundreds of thousands of acres of scarred land. But it has also created opportunities. Boone’s Ridge is being established on reclaimed mine land, and one of its biggest selling points is a big animal that has only recently returned to Kentucky: elk.

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