Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Rural Kentucky hiking club is changing local attitudes about health and the community

The Breathitt County Hiking Club in the nearby Red River Gorge. (Photo by Josh Mauser)
Central Appalachia is the unhealthiest place in the country by most metrics, but 45-year-old librarian Stephen Bowling is trying to help Breathitt County buck the trend with a hiking club. An avid hiker, Bowling has been hosting monthly hiking trips one Sunday a month since the beginning of the year, Lyndsey Gilpin reports for Outside Online. His employer, the Breathitt County Public Library, sponsors the club and serves as a meeting place for members that range in age from 14 to 74.

Bowling says the monthly trips usually attract about 20 people, most of whom don't have much experience hiking. But he believes that even something as small as a hiking club can affect not just attitudes about fitness, but about the long-suffering community's ability to improve. “It’s a depressed area economically, but also emotionally and physiologically,” Bowling told Gilpin. “We’re told constantly that we’re the least healthy people, we are this, we are that, and people don’t feel empowered to change that. Some people aren’t willing, and some people aren’t able.”

Breathitt County, Kentucky
(Wikipedia map)
Appalachia is a prime example of the wellness divide between rural and urban America. Eight of the top 10 counties in the U.S. with the largest recent declines in life expectancy are in Kentucky, and one of them is Breathitt. About 14,000 people live in the county, most are white, and most are over 40. "Nearly half the population is obese, about a third smoke, and a third are physically inactive. The unemployment rate is almost 12 percent," Gilpin reports.

Most outdoor adventure spaces are under private control in rural areas, leaving people with far fewer options for outdoor recreation than residents of urban areas. "Most Southeastern states have less than 5 percent federal public land. In Kentucky, less than 4 percent of land is federally owned, and there are only a few state parks, most of them a half-day’s drive from Breathitt," Gilpin reports. "Only 17 percent of Breathitt County residents live within a half-mile of a park or within three miles of an accessible recreational facility; meanwhile, 98 percent of New York county [Manhattan] residents and 100 percent of San Francisco county residents have such access to a park within a half-mile or a recreational facility within just one mile."

Private landowners rarely create trails, and those that are created are mostly for all-terrain vehicles and aren't used by hikers and bikers, Gilpin reports. The area's walking trails are not often safe and well-marked, and local gyms are usually small with limited hours. Most exercise buffs instead rely on using local high schools' running tracks.

The rural South is studying how states like North Carolina and Colorado have boosted outdoor recreation to figure out how to make public lands accessible and profitable. "In July, legislation will go into effect to create the Kentucky Mountain Regional Recreation Authority, a group run by community members from around the state that will develop, maintain, monitor, and promote local trails," Gilpin reports. Republican State Rep. Chris Fugate introduced the bill, and says he wants to connect 17 counties through a walking trail system. "“Some of the most beautiful places are hidden away,” Fugate told Gilpin. “We haven’t done a good enough job of promoting and taking care of ourselves here.”

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