Thursday, July 20, 2017

In a region blessed with nature's hidden splendor, organized hiking could be a way to improve the health of Central Appalachia

Breathitt County Hiking Club walks the Copperas Creek Trail
in the Red River Gorge. (Outside photos by Josh Mauser)
An Eastern Kentucky man is working to improve the health of his county one person at a time through a monthly hiking club, Lyndsey Gilpin of Louisville reports for Outside.

Stephen Bowling, Breathitt County's 45-year-old library director, told Gilpin that he created the Breathitt County Hiking Club to get people in and around Jackson out into nature in hopes of improving their health and alleviating the sense of fatalism that is pervasive in the community. The trips usually attract around 20 people.

“A little bit here, a little bit there. We’ll get them moving,” Bowling told Gilpin.

Appalachia is "isolated geographically and culturally" and is a "prime example of the rural-urban wellness divide," Gilpin writes, noting that one in four people in Eastern Kentucky live below the poverty line; that nearly half of the 14,000 people who live in Breathitt County are obese; that about a third of them smoke; and that a third of them are physically inactive. The unemployment rate is almost 12 percent.

Those factors give Breathitt and surrounding counties some of the country's lowest health rankings, along with low life expectancy driven by unemployment, relatively low education levels, limited physical activity and poor access to health care and healthy foods, according to the annual Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Rankings Report.

“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.”

So Bowling, who has hiked hundreds of miles on the Appalachian Trail and in the Southeast, decided to share his love of backpacking with others in his community through a hiking club, which meets once a month on a Sunday, always after church.

He told Gilpin that he the club isn't a "one-and-done solution to all the public health woes facing Breathitt County," but added, "If we solve one problem at a time, or help someone get in shape one person at a time, we’ve completed our goal.”

Stephen Bowling helped rookie hikers on the trail.
Gilpin met up with Bowling and his hiking club in early June when he and a group of 14 hikers, most with no hiking experience, headed off to Copperas Creek Trail in the Red River Gorge, about 40 minutes away.

“Wow, this is just amazing,” said 47-year-old Julie Stamper, one of the hikers, as she put her cigarette out and stuffed the butt into her backpack. “I’ve never been to a place like this before.”

Bowling and others believe more access to public lands and increased opportunities for physical activity can help address some of these health problems and research supports this idea, Gilpin reports.

"Ironically, rural communities tend to be cut off from public land, leaving them with the fewest choices for outdoor activity and exercise," Gilpin writes, reporting that most Southeastern states have less than 5 percent federal public land and in Kentucky it's even less at 4 percent.

For example, Gilpin writes, "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 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."

The Red River Gorge is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest, which is vast but is at least a half-hour from Jackson. With few places to exercise, “Many people rely on the local high school to keep its running track unlocked and open to the public,” Mark Holmes, director of the North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center, told Gilpin.

Gilpin notes that rural Southern regions are looking at North Carolina and Colorado for ways to make public lands profitable and accessible, and that the state recently created 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."

State Representative Chris Fugate, who sponsored the bill, told Gilpin that his goal is to connect 17 counties through a trail system. “Some of the most beautiful places are hidden away,” Fugate said. “We haven’t done a good enough job of promoting and taking care of ourselves here.”

Gilpin writes, "How these types of local programs fare and how public lands prove to help the situation could inform the conversations of policymakers moving forward."

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