James Maples, an associate professor of sociology at Eastern Kentucky University who has done the bulk of his research on the economic impact of outdoor recreation, said rock climbing can become a major source of regional income. His focus has been Red River Gorge, where honeycombed sandstone cliffs have created a world-famous mecca for climbers. He found that climbers spend $3.8 million a year in the gorge area, which has six of the nation's poorest counties, and could spend a lot more. But first the locals needed to get more comfortable with that prospect.
Maples said some in the region think tourism development should shoot for "the next Dollywood," but "We’ve got a Dollywood," in his native county in Tennessee, he said. "We don’t need two of those in the world. . . . The balance is really all about finding the ways to preserve these outdoor recreation areas. We have to think of them as a resource that can be damaged by overdevelopment. If we try to put too many outdoor recreation users into a space and it’s not made sustainable, then we can lose those places and those economic resources. On the flipside, if we can get good policy to make sure these places aren’t overdeveloped and are carefully maintained, then it can be not only a healthy part of our economy, but a healthy part of our community."