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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Elk, protests and making change

Kentucky now has 14,000 elk in coal country,

Kentucky now has 14,000 elk in coal country, bringing numerous ecological and economic benefits. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/modernschism

I read a story recently about elk in Kentucky. Besides filling me with hope, it also provided a lens through which to view what’s happening these days in our streets.

First, the elk, which you probably don’t associate with Kentucky, but that’s the point. These majestic animals — think of the males with those magnificent racks of antlers — used to be abundant in The Bluegrass State. But as settlers arrived in the late 1700s, the hunting and development that followed decimated the elk (along with buffalo, whitetail deer and numerous other species). By the mid-1880s, elk had vanished from Kentucky.

Now they’re back, thanks to people who wouldn’t accept the status quo. After a decadeslong campaign that boosted whitetail deer from fewer than 1,000 in the Depression to more than 1 million today, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars from hunting licenses and tourism, state officials got audacious. In 1997, they began an elk-restoration plan with a hunting group that proposed to airlift some 1,500 elk from Western states into Kentucky. The problem: where to land them. Elk eat 40 pounds of vegetation a day. Farmers didn’t want them anywhere near their land and the great grasslands in the western part of the state were long developed.

The solution was ingenious, as it often is for scrappy American doers: abandoned coal mines.

They’re all over eastern Kentucky, a reminder of an industry that was a lifeline but left behind a toxic legacy of environmental destruction and high rates of cancer and other illnesses. But the mines present other opportunities with proper reclamation, and as it turned out, the devastating mining technique known as mountaintop removal that deposited rocky debris from the tops of Kentucky’s high, steep ridges into undeveloped valleys below created ideal habitat for elk.

Kentucky now has 14,000 elk in coal country, bringing numerous ecological and economic benefits.

That kind of spirit, that restless striving to improve our lives and our lot, is part of the American story. As a nation, we’re never satisfied. And we do have a lot to improve. We’ve accomplished great things by harnessing that drive. But resistance to change also is part of our national narrative, and our history is replete with conflict between those who refuse to accept things as they are and those who refuse to change.

Lately, I’ve been getting mail from readers upset about the protests that have erupted around the nation following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The argument from some is most simply stated as: If you hate this country so much, leave. Try living somewhere else. You’ll come crawling back because this is the greatest nation on earth.

And I shake my head at the narrowness of this circumscription. You certainly can try to change something out of hate, but more often you do it out of love — love for the very thing you want to change. You don’t abandon the greatest country on earth just because it’s imperfect. And you don’t leave it alone to fester. You try to make it better. Remember: The aspirations, ideals and actions expressed and delivered by our founders more than 240 years ago that we commemorate this weekend were born of a refusal to accept things as they were.

So I will celebrate Kentucky’s elk-bringers and America’s marchers, and everyone working to make our schools better and our environment cleaner and our system of justice fairer and our people healthier and our future brighter.

This is America. Striving is what we do.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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