Green and Nolin Rivers Blueway was celebrated as Kentucky’s first national waterway, boosting the region’s tourism economy.

The National Park Service designation officially came a year earlier, on June 4, 2021, when Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland unveiled the latest additions to the National Trails System, but pandemic restrictions postponed the in-person ceremony.

Representatives from the project’s key partners – Mammoth Cave National Park, Cave Country Trails, Edmonson County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – gathered Friday at Mammoth Cave’s Green River Ferry to recognize the designation. The speakers highlighted the impact they expect the national waterway designation will have on Kentucky’s tourism industry, particularly in Edmonson, Hart, Barren, Warren and Simpson counties.

Edmonson County Judge-Executive Wil Cannon said there have been discussions for decades about how to attract tourists to the western side of Mammoth Cave National Park into Brownsville, the county’s seat.

He told the ceremony’s attendees that Edmonson County has few sizable industries or small businesses.

“But what we do have is the most beautiful place in the world, and Mammoth Cave National Park, Nolin Lake and the Green River splitting right in the middle of it. And the possibilities of tourism expansion are just limitless,” Cannon said. “This is a huge step in that direction for us on the west side of Mammoth Cave National Park.”

Turning Green and Nolin Rivers Blueway into a national waterway was a yearslong effort, according to Rachelle Wright, Cave Country Trails executive director.

The Barren River Area Development District and the River Trails and Conservation Association launched the master plan, and the four key partners saw it through.

The application process involved extensive historical and biodiversity research, assurances of adequate safety measures and public access, detailing of the outdoor recreation offerings in and around the waterway and an explanation as to how the waterway impacts its communities, Wright said.

“These huge tasks, along with years of research about the rivers, gave us the information needed to effectively articulate their importance – all of the biodiversity, the physical way that the waters connect us all, the economic impact of the visitors that do travel here to paddle them and the communities that rely upon them,” she said. “Basically, we had to prove the river was worth national designation.”

Now that the 36-mile Green and Nolin Rivers Blueway is one of 33 members of the National Water Trails System, it is featured on the NPS website and in its promotional materials as an “exemplary” waterway.

This designation is particularly helpful as more Americans are seeking outdoor recreation opportunities, Wright said.

A Bureau of Economic Analysis’ 2020 report said the percentage of Americans participating in outdoor recreational activities has increased four percentage points since the pandemic began. This shift in spending added nearly 47,000 outdoor recreation jobs and $4 billion in outdoor recreation revenue to Kentucky’s economy in 2020.

“Lately, with the pandemic, everybody’s wanting to be outside,” said Vanessa Ulm, executive director of Edmonson County Tourism. “Take family trips – we always say they don’t necessarily want to go to the big cities anymore. They’re looking for that intimate family trip or outdoor adventure.”

Ulm said that the grueling application process was worth it, not only because of how the designation will benefit the surrounding communities, but also because of the experiences it may allow the community to share with outsiders.

“We don’t want to have a hidden gem,” Ulm said. “You really necessarily want people to know what you have, and our natural landscape here is what we celebrate. It’s our backyard. So we want people to come and play in our backyard.”

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