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Abandoned Mines Become Big Draw for Off-Roaders

HARLAN, Ky. (Oct. 18) - Out-of-state license plates tell the story of eastern Kentucky's rising popularity among off-roaders.

Pickup trucks bearing tags from as far away as Florida and Ohio roll through town, some pulling trailers laden with all-terrain vehicles, others carrying brawny rock-crawling machines, on their way to some of Kentucky's harshest terrain.

They're pouring into a region where coal mining has turned mountaintops into off-roader paradise.

"They love it here," said Preston McLain, a member of the group Harlan County Ridge Runners who guides visitors on rides along the Kentucky-Virginia line. "We've got views from these mountaintops that you don't find anywhere else."

Thousands of miles of rocky, rutted mountain roads have made eastern Kentucky a primary destination for a growing number of people who ride all-terrain vehicles or plod cross-country in four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs with tires that look like they came off a farm tractor.

Andy Jones, director of strategic development in Harlan County, wants to capitalize on the phenomenon to rejuvenate a local economy as rocky as any of the backwoods trails.

While some other communities have frowned on off-roaders, Harlan County welcomes them. Jones said people in Harlan want to draw more riders to spend money in hotels, restaurants and shops.

"People are serious about it," he said. "I see tremendous potential. This is part of the strategy we have to improve the economy of our county."

Harlan County leaders have leased 7,000 acres of abandoned coal mine land, complete with an assortment of rugged trials and roads, and are working on adding about 30,000 additional acres.

That land is open to the monstrous off-road vehicles, ATVs, even dirt bikes, and has already begun to pay off, said Ronnie Shoope, a member of the group Kentucky Mountain Crawlers.

"I'd like to see the entire state get into this," Shoope said. "We have all this land sitting here perfect for this. It's prime for tourism."

Shoope said liability issues can be a problem for off-roaders on private land. Harlan County solved the problem by leasing the land and accepting the liability. The county leaders hope to be able to apply revenues from coal-severance taxes to the cost of insurance.

"This probably is the single best tourism plan," Shoope said. "It's not only going to give local people something to do, but it will create a market for people to come from out of town."

Some of the eastern Kentucky back roads, originally built for coal trucks, wind through the mountains for 100 miles or more, linked through a network of abandoned surface mines. That's enough road to ride for an entire weekend without seeing the same place twice.

Kentucky Tourism Commissioner Randy Fiveash said he wants to promote all aspects of outdoor recreation, including motor sports, while at the same time protecting the environment.

"Kentucky is so fortunate to have the incredible beauty, woodlands and the hills, that are just incredible places that people want to see and be a part of," he said.

Jones believes that the abandoned coal mines that have left many of eastern Kentucky's mountaintops treeless could hold the key to turn the region into a center for off-road recreation. People want to see views from atop the Appalachians, he said.

Jones said off-road activities will be simply one part of Harlan County's tourism package. He said people already are flooding in to see the elk, black bear, deer and turkey that have become so plentiful.

All of eastern Kentucky is reaping benefits from changes in the way Americans approach vacations since the war against terrorism began. Often, they're forgoing the big cities for outdoor activities, he said.

"It really gives us an edge in this area," he said. "People are looking to get away, and we're an ideal place to get away from the stresses of life."

On the Net: http://www.harlancounty.com

10/18/04 03:44 EDT
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