Future wildlife attraction plans to bring new life to old Kentucky coal mine

PINEVILLE, Ky. (WATE) - A non-profit called Appalachian Wildlife Foundation is finding a new purpose for an old coal mine in Kentucky. The organization plans to open a huge attraction there in 2020.

David Ledford is the president and CEO of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation. The non-profit acquired 12,000 acres of land in Bell County, Kentucky, with plans to open the Appalachian Wildlife Center. It will offer museums, a theater and artisans market. He said they expect more than 850,000 visitors in their mature year.

"We are capitalizing on what is here, the strengths of the mining landscape. We are selling that," said Ledford.

They are bringing life to a dying industry. So far, 130 elk are on the 12,000 acre property. Some are getting there by helicopter. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources is relocating them from other parts of the state. The hope is to have roughly 300 elk here before the opening in 2020.

"We are selling wildlife recreation on mountain top removal coal mine so it's kinda a counter intuitive to some people," Ledford said.

Visitors will also be able to enjoy a 20 mile driving loop to see the animals. Ledford said elk, bear, and nearly 300 species of bird thrive on the old coal mine right now.

"This is the closest thing to a prairie that we still have left so a lot of these species that are in trouble you can find them on these coal mines," he said.

Don Wackerman is the site supervisor and he makes sure the elk stay once they get there. He said they love living here because there is plenty of water and shelter.

"So it's a little heaven for the elk," Wackerman said.

It's also a slice of heaven for businesses nearby. Michael Wilson's family owns a pizza joint called Sauced. He actually worked on this coal mine years ago.

"They're utilizing the property for something and it's becoming useful for something once again," said Wilson.

He's thrilled about this center's economic impact. The Appalachian Wildlife Foundation projects it'll surpass $1 billion.

"Going to bring back some more jobs just in itself along with the trickle down effect it'll have on local businesses," Wilson said.

Ledford said this project is really about education. Their goal is to bring 100,000 kids to visit every year. Lincoln Memorial University is already doing research projects there. PhD students from Virginia Tech and University of Tennessee have visited too. The foundation plans to give out hundreds of thousands of dollars in college scholarships starting four years after the center opens.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources said the elk in Bell County will be a research herd for them. Once the herd starts to grow, they will relocate some of them to other parts of the state. 

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