How does the Breaks Interstate Park manage to preserve the history, culture and natural environment of an overlooked region and get people from all over the globe to come and learn about it?
They set it against staggering natural scenery.
Established in 1954, the Breaks Interstate Park is a 4,600-acre park that spans across areas in Virginia and Kentucky. While many parks span multiple states, the Breaks is one of only two interstate parks in the U.S. that operate under an interstate compact. Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the South,” the crown jewel of the park is it’s 5-mile, 1,650-feet deep canyon, which affords visitors breathtaking views.
The Breaks boasts 25 miles of hiking trails, a biking trail, rock climbing, horseback riding, pedal boats and fishing, a zipline and a water park. The park is also a hotspot for whitewater rafters.
But the Breaks is more than just a vacation beauty spot. The park plays a critical role in local sustainability – both culturally and environmentally.
“This is kind of an overlooked, often forgotten area in Appalachia, and I don’t think people have a real understanding of the story here,” said Breaks Interstate Park Superintendent Austin Bradley. “Factors that took place here influenced the development of the entire nation.”
One way the Breaks helps tell that story is through their museum located in the Visitor Center, which is dedicated to both the cultural and natural sides of the park.
“On the cultural side we do focus on kind of the early experience of both settlers in the area as well as Native Americans who predated them,” said Bradley.
The museum has displays of various Native American artifacts found in and around the park, including pieces of hunting equipment and pottery. Alongside the Native American displays, the museum also tells the story of local families who first settled the region.
“Even as the frontier started to expand westward, this was a rough place to live,” said Bradley. “Definitely not on the beaten path.”
Another feature of the museum is one Appalachia is well-known for: moonshine.
The Breaks has three moonshine stills on display. All of the stills are real and were seized from illegal moonshining operations throughout the region. One was in operation as little as two years ago.
“If you had a bumper crop of corn and you needed to get some monetary value out of it, or wanted to have it around for medicinal or recreational purposes for yourself, moonshine was the way to do that,” said Bradley.
Coal mining, one of the region’s biggest industries, is also heavily featured in the museum. Visitors can find artifacts such as mining helmets, augurs and even mining script.
Along with the museum, the Breaks also works to help educate people on the culture and history of the area through interpretive programming.
“If people want to have a manufactured experience, that is sort of what amusement parks are for,” said Bradley. “Just fun. But we have a mission that involves education here.”
A lot of the programming the Breaks does revolves around storytelling.
“You try to make it enjoyable, and you also try to appeal to universal concepts,” said Bradley. “People love love stories. Self-reliance in a harsh environment - people love stories about that. But then you make it local, and you teach them something about your site.”
Bradley said the park typically receives visitors from at least 49 of the 50 U.S. states, and 10-12 different countries, and this vast range of visitors is one of the most important reasons the park works to tell the story of the history of the region.
“To tell the story of this area and to present it from the standpoint of people who actually live here, who have that lived experience, I think is important in basically setting the record straight, combating some of those stereotypes that are out there and just telling an accurate story,” said Bradley.
While preserving the culture and teaching visitors about the history of Appalachia, the Breaks Interstate Park also has another mission- one of environmental sustainability.
“We try to teach people to have an appreciation of a lot of the really rich biodiversity that the park protects,” said Bradley.
One way the Breaks helps promote that appreciation is through their elk tours. Elk were indigenous to southwest Virginia but were hunted to extinction in the mid-1800s. The elk were reintroduced to the area in 2012, and the Breaks began offering elk tours to the public in 2013.
“We have 100% success rate on seeing elk in that area,” said Bradley.
Alongside the elk, visitors often see, but aren’t limited to seeing, whitetail deer, black bears and flocks of wild turkeys in the park. The Breaks also does a weekly biodiversity post on social media where they highlight different flora and fauna found within the park.
“We try to instill in people, especially young people, through our programming an appreciation of the natural environment, and of the resources that the park protects,” said Bradley. “And that is somewhat self-serving, because we’re trying to instill in them a care for the park and a desire to see the park preserved.”
Virginia Service and Conservation Corps member Daniel Naff, who is working in the Breaks Interstate Park through AmeriCorps, is taking a hands-on approach to conservation within the park.
“I’ve been trying to get together the resources and come up with a plan to build nesting boxes for wood ducks,” said Naff.
Naff said one of the reasons he’s making the boxes is to help replace the ducks’ habitat, which was lost many years ago before the establishment of the Breaks.
“The leading cause of our species decline that we’re seeing is habitat loss, so a combination of that with the fact that this area used to be a really big logging operation, a lot of the habitat that would have been used by wood ducks and other cavity nesting birds is gone,” said Naff.
Naff said that in putting the boxes together, he hoped to not only draw the birds to the park, but also inspire visitors to be more conscious about their ability to positively affect the environment.
“A lot of conservation stories are very sad, but I think this is an example of how people can work together, and it provides an opportunity for people and wildlife to coexist,” said Naff.
While one of the main goals of the park is promoting environmental conservation and sustainability to visitors, the Breaks also makes efforts to be sustainable behind the scenes.
The Breaks has a utility reduction program, where they use LED lights and invest in more efficient appliances and heat pumps.
Looking to the future, Bradley said he is trying to get approval for the park to install solar panels on the roof of a lodge in the park.
“No Virginia state park does this,” said Bradley. “I always look for opportunities, I guess it’s just a competitive side, but I always like for the Breaks to be the first to do things.”
Whether they come thrill-seeking in a kayak or spend their visit floating around the lazy river in the water park, all visitors can appreciate the natural and cultural sustainability efforts of the Breaks Interstate Park.
And the view isn’t half-bad, either.