Feds Extend Appalachia's Boundaries Into Flatlands
ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. -- Don't look for towering mountains here because there is none. This is a place of rolling countryside, cattle farms and cropland.
That's why some eyebrows arched when the Obama administration penciled Hardin County into Appalachia, allowing the Elizabethtown-area to tap into funding for a mountain-based anti-drug initiative. Nevermind that Elizabethtown is some 200 miles west of bona fide Appalachian towns like Harlan and Hazard.
The availability of federal money set aside specifically for combating Appalachia's woes has some communities in the flatlands looking for ways to cash in. The result has been far-flung cities claiming ties to the mountain region.
In central Appalachia, political leaders complain that federal funds are being siphoned out of a region that truly needs them. In August, the Office of National Drug Control Policy added Elizabethtown to the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a jurisdiction set up to fight the drug trade in the mountains.
Louisville and Bowling Green also have been added in recent years.
"Bringing on more counties only makes our situation less hopeful," said Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop, an Appalachian leader who is dealing with an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse that has more people dying from overdoses than car wrecks.
The feds have been expanding Appalachia's borders for years, bringing in new territories that bear little resemblance geographically or economically. The region served by the Appalachian Regional Commission, a little-known federal agency set up nearly 50 years to fight poverty in the mountains, now encompasses lots of areas without mountains and without the double-digit unemployment in Kentucky's coalfields.
Four years ago, Washington politicians decreed Nicholas County, on the edge of Kentucky's picturesque Bluegrass country, to be in Appalachia. With painted board fences surrounding grazing thoroughbreds, it's hardly the Appalachia where President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty nearly a half century ago.
Folks in the heart of Appalachia complained at the time that former President George W. Bush, with the stroke of his pen, had redrawn Appalachia's geographic boundaries in a way that could take federal money away from some of the poorest communities in the United States.
Dee Davis, head of the Kentucky-based advocacy group Center for Rural Strategies, said a faltering economy has put local governments in financial binds, leaving them to look even into the nooks and crannies of Appalachia for money. That, Davis said, seems to be why political leaders outside the mountains want to be a part of Appalachia, despite its poverty and drug woes.
"Given how hard these Appalachian counties have been hit, you hope it doesn't signal more neglect for this region," Davis said.
When Congress created the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965, its territory stretched across 360 counties from Alabama to Pennsylvania with its core in the remote and rugged region where Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia converge. Political leaders in other states quickly recognized the benefits.
Later that year, Sen. Robert Kennedy added 13 New York counties to the ARC's territory. In 1967, 20 mostly hilly Mississippi counties were included. Since then, it has been expanded to include 420 counties spanning 200,000 square miles, portions of which aren't traditionally or geographically Appalachian.
White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske added Hardin County, which includes Elizabethtown, to the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area at the urging of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. Kerlikowske had toured Kentucky at McConnell's invitation last year to see firsthand the problems the state has with drug abuse.
McConnell cited the "tough fiscal climate" in his push to get Elizabethtown in. He said the move would leverage more federal assistance for the city to arrest traffickers who could be distributing their drugs in Appalachia.
"The argument I made is that, even though this is not technically an Appalachian county, it's not too far away from Appalachia and it's right here with two interstates going north and south and east and west, and clearly is a transit point," he said.
The Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area receives $6.3 million this year in federal funding. That includes $200,000 set aside for five additional counties. Besides Hardin County, the Office of National Drug Control Policy also added Brooke, Hancock, Marshall and Ohio counties in northern West Virginia in August.
U.S. Attorney David J. Hale said the additional federal resources are badly needed in Elizabethtown and Hardin County because of the "major interstate corridors" that cross "this large and fast-growing county." Hale's description of Hardin County is unlike many of the shrinking communities scattered throughout central Appalachia.
Hale said expanding the Appalachian initiative could help break the drug pipeline going into the region.
"It's not about taking anything away from those existing counties," he said.