Russ Miller: River Cowboy

Russ Miller: River Cowboy
by Laura Gregory, KWA Red River Watershed Coordinator

He’s been called “River Cowboy”. He’s been called a “Gentle Man”. He’s been called “Front Page Miller”. He’s been called “Sisyphus”. He’s been called “an adopted son of Wolfe County”. But don’t ever call him late for dinner. He is Russ Miller and he has done more than any single person to clean up Kentucky’s cherished, nationally protected Wild & Scenic, Red River. Russ asks for little, but gives a lot. And he’ll be the first one to tell you that he’s had lots of help from his friends.

Russ Miller was born in 1947 and spent his first years outside of New York, NY before, at age 6, his family moved to Louisville, KY. In his senior year of college, Russ dropped out. He volunteered for the Army, served and returned from Vietnam. Then he began a quest for a lifestyle that was in accordance with his principles. He met his wife, Renee Powell, in 1978 when she was getting her Masters Degree in Art Therapy. In 1981 they moved to the Red River Gorge and began building a gorgeous, serene, abundant homestead on a remote piece of land that borders the Red River. They have been off the grid ever since. Russ would rather stay home than go to town. He spends his time providing necessities like wood for heat and cooking and food from the well-tended garden. He makes a little money as he needs it and chooses to volunteer as an environmental activist in causes which he believes he can make a difference. Russ moves through life at his unique pace. He is methodical and intentional and the result is meaningful, artistic, focused, genuine: an inspiration.

Russ volunteered as Wolfe County’s Solid Waste Coordinator for four years between 1999 – 2003 (give or take a year). During that time he helped secure funding from various sources to clean up Russ started the Upper Red River Cleanup (or Tire Round-up as it used to be called) in 1996 on a 9-mile section of Red River which includes the nationally protected Wild & Scenic portion. It is no ordinary clean up. Russ goes out solo (sometimes with a friend) multiple times leading up to the actual annual cleanup date to dig-out, dislodge, de-mud and stash tires so that the paddle/cleanup goes quicker and smoother when the tire herders/volunteers/friends join. However, with shuttling, lowering boats and gear off clifline at the launch site, finding more tires (always more tires) and assorted garbage, portaging boats and garbage around Dog Drowning Hole (the class II/III rapids) along the 9-mile paddle, it always seems to go until dark anyway. Russ’s truth is printed and cut out of an unknown/undated newspaper source: “There is a feeling that one gets at the end of a clean-up that transcends the pain and weariness. You look up river and know that you have played a part in some much larger plan, that for all that has been given to you, you have given back, and in the process you were given even more.”

In May 1999 Russ wrote in the Wolfe County News about the recent successful cleanup of Red River: “For those of you that haven’t been able to float the Wild and Scenic part of Red River, its beauty might be difficult to imagine. In spring its jade green water flows between banks scattered with wildflowers, overhanging branches are reflected in the pools, and the sun turns the water to molten crystal as it cascades over rocks and between magnificent boulders. Feeder streams create waterfalls that drop into the river as water birds fly away around the bend and sandstone cliff faces rise up against the sky. It is the essence of what people seek to find in nature.”

During the initial cleanups of 1996-1999, 100+ tires were removed each year from the 9-mile stretch. Each year, volunteers show up from local Wolfe, Powell, and Breathitt County as well as United States Forest Service (USFS), Bluegrass Wildwater Association (BWA), Sierra Club, and more. During the early years of Russ’s public cleanup efforts, Eastern Kentucky PRIDE was created and awarded substantial funding (along with Kentucky River Authority) for the removal of several open and illegal dump sites in Wolfe County. Additionally, Russ helped secure funding and assistance for cleanup efforts from BWA, USFS, Rumpke, State Highway Garage, Division of Waste Management, Red River Outfitters, Appalachian Heritage Alliance, Kentucky Waterways Alliance and many others including local businesses, stakeholders and citizens. In December 1999, Wolfe County News recognized “Mr. Russell ‘Russ’ Miller [as] the coordinator on this project (Big Bloody Creek 2 phase clean up funded by PRIDE and KRA at a total of nearly $50,000) as well as all other cleanup projects in the county and has physically worked on all projects and should be recognized as one of the most concerned, hardest workers to help clean up Wolfe County’s rivers and streams.”

Throughout the years, Russ addresses and represents Wolfe County citizens regarding environmental issues. In the Wolfe County News March 1998, Russ asks, “Which Side are you on? It is said that we inherit the sins of our fathers. Nowhere is this more evident than when we see trash along our roads and streams. What has been taken from us because of the neglect of others? What joys will we not receive? The beauty of a hillside free of trash, the wonder of clean water, the health of our community, the unblemished vision of the creator in nature? Can our children remember any of these things that we enjoyed as children? How do we reach the members of our community that continue to trash our county? How do we stimulate an awareness of a shared vision of an environment in which we can take pride? How do we come together to eliminate this sin of trash? How do we move into a new vision? Where do we being? There are those in our county that believe only a few are concerned with its condition and until they can see the county working to change, they will continue their old patterns. Either you want change (in our roadsides and streams) or you don’t. There is no middle ground. Change requires action – Which side are you on?”

“Bottle bill is the answer,” says Russ in a Lexington newsprint in June 1998. “As KY picks up momentum on the road to environmental awareness, we need to maintain our focus on joining those states that have proven their commitment to these ideals by passing bottle bills aimed at eliminating beverage containers from the litter found along their roads and streams. Here is a tool that will help do more to keep Kentucky clean than a fleet of dump trucks. His conviction continues when he writes, “State littered with reasons for bottle bill” in Lexington Herald February 2000. “The Beverage Industry feeds us images of its products wrapped in the glow of the American Dream and wants us to ignore the reality of bottles and cans strewn along our roadsides and in our streams.”

A month after Commonwealth Clean-up Week, on April 29, 2000, Russ writes an article featured in Appalachian Voices section of Lexington Herald titled, “Cleanup volunteers tired of legislature letting them down.” He observes, “roadsides that people worked so hard to clean up have sprouted a new crop of trash, and I’m not sure whether I’m angrier with litterers or the legislators.” Regarding the bill that was worked through the General Assembly by Speaker of the House, Jody Richards, that created Commonwealth Clean-up Week he insists: “No one should expect a volunteer to return each spring to repeat the unsavory job of picking someone else’s garbage out of the ditch line… it’s obvious that the system will not support [volunteer] efforts with anything more than free garbage bags… for the last two years the solutions have become household words: bottle bill and mandatory garbage collections. Without the passage of these two piece of legislation, it is only a matter of time before today’s volunteers weary of their task and allow Kentucky to slip back into the dark ages of open dumps… Start the dialogue to press the issue, to let every senator and representative know that we will accept no more excuses, and that we not only expect their support, we expect them to take a leadership role in bringing about a cleaner Kentucky.”

State Rep Gregory D Stumbo, House Majority Floor Leader responds to Russ’s April 29 2000 Appalachian Voices commentary saying, “Russ Miller, one of Kentucky’s most staunch environmental protectors, has worked so hard to protect our natural resources, and I applaud his phenomenal efforts.”

2000 and beyond, tire numbers finally start to decrease on the 9-mile section of Red River as the ‘historic’ tires removed were not replaced. Cleaning any section of the river for the first time is disheartening: for example Russ’s crew cleaned 2 miles of Red River from Sky Bridge to Gladie in 2002, removing 260 tires and from Sky Bridge to Iron Bridge removing 200+. But on the 9-mile Upper Red section, only 56 tires were removed in 2000, 45 in 2019.  Russ’s “Tire Round-up” was making a huge difference on the Red River and in the community. However, dumping issues persist as do Russ’s cleanups and imploring for change.

“What is pride?” Russ pleads with the community in an article referencing PRIDE cleanup week in Wolfe County News April 2002. “PRIDE is an organization [personal responsibility in a desirable environment]; pride is also, according to the dictionary, the attitude of regarding oneself with favor… The first ingredient of pride is effort… Each effort takes us a step in the right directions and each is of equal value… Is it possible to take pride in an environment that isn’t clean?… As someone said, only heaven is perfect; here on earth we deal with imperfections. The key is to keep working for improvement. Pride doesn’t work if it just lasts for a week. Pride has to be each day, every day.  This is what is needed to turn things around. We need to take pride in what we have now but we should also try to imagine what the potential of Wolfe County can be. Right now, with spring bursting out, it is easy to see that for us, Wolfe County is as close to heaven as we will find on earth. We need to treat it that way.

Lexington Herald’s Kentucky voices op-ed section published Russ’s view on “Health and the fate of the planet hinging on our actions, big and small.” Russ states, “We have the responsibility to consider the consequences of our actions… futility is the excuse of the unimaginative and the unwilling. Hope requires progress to sustain it, and progress requires effort. As Earth Day approaches, we have the opportunity to take stock of our commitment to the environment and to act on our concerns. We can’t save the planet in one day, one week or one year, but we can plant the seeds of change that might bring balance back to our relationship with our environment.”

If you haven’t already noticed: Russ is tremendously determined. The Wolfe County News runs another “Successful river cleanup” June 2006 by Russ Miller. “As the river has become cleaner and the reputation of the hospitality of our community has spread, we have attracted more visitors to our county. This stimulates our economy and gives others a chance to benefit from the restorative virtues of nature. The credit for this success belongs not only to those that participate in these cleanups but to all those individuals that have worked to make this a cleaner county. Together we have not only cleaned up Red River but we have eliminated open dumps, cleaned up our community and developed a higher environmental awareness in the process. This success also belongs to the agencies that have helped fund this work. These agencies include the Kentucky River Authority, PRIDE, the Cabinet for Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, the Wolfe County Fiscal Court, the Appalachian Heritage Alliance [and Kentucky Waterways Alliance] for administering the grants. It is said that to those whom much is given much is expected. We have been given this beautiful place to live and I think by our actions we have proven worthy of it.”

Russ has most deservedly received awards for his environmental efforts. The Kentucky Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) honored Russell Miller with an Earth Day Award for his efforts to clean up a 9-mile segment of the Red River in 1999. Aloma Dew, Chair of the EQC, said Russ Miller is doing his part to restore one of the state’s most beautiful rivers – the Red River, Kentucky’s only federally designated Wild and Scenic River. In 2001, Russ was a Finalist for Eastern Kentucky PRIDE’s Tony Turner Volunteer of the Year Award. And in 2002 PRIDE honored him with the Volunteer of the Month award. According to PRIDE, “Miller was selected as PRIDE Volunteer of the Month due to his efforts toward cleaning up Wolfe County.  Thanks to Mr. Miller’s volunteer recruitment efforts, 5 streams were cleaned; 55 illegal dumps were cleaned up; 37 roadways were cleaned; 787 white appliances were collected; 688 tons of trash was collected; 4,843 tires were collected; over 3,992 of trash were collected; and over 462 volunteers worked over 1,416 hours on cleanup activities.  In addition, Russ led the charge to secure PRIDE Super Grant funds to clean up the Harvest Ridge Road (Calaboose) illegal dump.” These numbers don’t include his work that led to over 100 Junk Cars being hauled away from Wolfe Co. and many other dump sites. In July 2004 he was presented with the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from Kentucky Cabinet of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection.

I met Russ playing volleyball at Campton Elementary in February 2009 around the time my sweetheart, Casey, and I moved to Kentucky. Casey and I lived in Leslie County (mostly) for the first few years in Kentucky and weren’t asked to volunteer on the Upper Red Cleanup during that time, and don’t remember knowing much about either. However, soon after we moved to Wolfe County in 2013 we started being recruited. First, Casey helped by shuttling the trailer to Copperas Canoe Launch. At that time, I had never participated in a river cleanup and I admit, I didn’t remotely understand the complexity of it or the bravery and generosity of our friends. If I had I would have insisted that they take me with them much sooner. Since 2008, I had hiked and climbed many nooks and crannies of the Red River Gorge, but the first time I ever paddled on the Red River was May 2017 with Russ Miller and a handful of other friends. The Upper Red Cleanup was cancelled in 2017 due to high water but I was invited to join the effort in 2018 as Russ’s canoe-mate (probably because his usual companion wasn’t available, right Russ?).  I wrote about the 2019 clean-up in last summer’s newsletter and I’m sure I’ll write about it again. It’s a ridiculous, yet addictive slog, but I’ll let Russ keep telling about it.

Russ was silent for many years in the local newspapers as far as I can tell after reading the newspaper clippings he saved and loaned me: there was a silence from 2006-2019 (of course, an article could have gotten lost in the shuffle of life). But after the 23rd Annual Upper Red Cleanup in 2019 he wrote an article for Swift Creek Courier in Wolfe County. He ends by saying, “Red River is our river. It represents us. It says who we are and that statement can either say we are a proud people or it can say we are irresponsible. I’ve always said that America’s greatest freedom is the freedom to be irresponsible. Freedom requires discipline and keeping our County clean is the best way I know to demonstrate that we are a proud and responsible people.

I recently asked Russ why he didn’t write an article for so many years: “Oh wow,” he said surprised. “I would have thought I would have written some in those years. I know that for a long period, I feel like I was repeating myself. I didn’t realize it had been 13 years. Maybe my muse had left me. But we were doing it. There were a couple years where maybe we got rained out. No more than two. It got to being: gathering tires and picking up trash. And trying to forget about it until next year. But truth be known, we’ve met some of our best friends and we get to be with them because of the cleanup. It’s a nasty, unthankful job, but we have a great group of people and we get to experience it with them. And that keeps you coming back.”