Saving Appalachia
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Saving Appalachia

The struggle for survival in one of Americas most vulnerable regions

Saving Appalachia
Joseph Rossbach

"Almost heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, blowin' like the breeze"

John Denver


The name likely stirs up images of a certain John Denver song about country roads, or a movie showcasing the almost romantic-like yet rugged lifestyle of colonial pioneers. Perhaps you've seen Harlan County, USA and recall how that documentary famously captured coal miners going on strike in the 1970s. Or you might remember a young Homer Hickam trying to build a model rocket against the wishes of his father, in October Sky. Whatever your experience, there are many reasons to appreciate this part of the country.

Appalachia is a region without any real well-defined boundaries, but it includes parts of 13 states along the eastern U.S. stretching from upstate New York all the way down to Mississippi. While it may seem 'tame' by todays standards, there's a reason both Appalachian State University and West Virginia University use the nickname 'Mountaineers' for their athletic teams. For colonial America, this was truly the frontier, and though they may not be as tall or jagged as peaks in the modern-day American west, you can bet there are mountains to be found.

One thing that has really defined Appalachia in recent time (especially in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia) is coal mining. Coal became a popular natural resource in the United States because of its seemingly endless supply and our growing demand for electricity, which coal is a big producer of. When FDR signed the Rural Electrification Act in 1936, it created more demand for coal mining to provide the power for all the new places that would be receiving electricity. Many communities began popping up around these states with the intent on being coal mining towns, in the hopes of providing low-skill, good paying jobs to people in need of work. It seemed to be a boom with no end in sight.

Like any resource extraction, however, coal also has its negative aspects. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, coal plants are the largest single producer of CO2 emissions in the United States, having emitted a total of 1.7 billion tons of Carbon Dioxide in 2011 alone. Excess CO2 is a major contributor to global climate change, which affects everyone regardless of how close they live to coal mines. Mountaintop removal (often called strip-mining) is another coal mining method which is responsible for the destruction of critical habitats for wildlife, and leads to many unwanted materials landing in nearby rivers, polluting the local water supply.

This along with competition from natural gas, 'cleaner' coal in Wyoming and Montana, growing demand for renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and to a lesser extent clean air regulations from the federal government, coal, and the communities that mine it, have been in a steady decline for decades.

To give some perspective on how much the coal industry has shrunk since the time after World War II: In 1948 Appalachian coal mining was at its peak with approximately 200,000 jobs. By the time President Obama was entering his first term in 2008, that number was down to 45,000. This means there are many communities scattered around coal country that have fallen on hard times, in conditions which seem unimaginable in 21st century America.

So, with coal probably not making a rebound any time soon, the question becomes "how do you save Appalachia?"

I may not have any connection to the eastern U.S., or coal mining for that matter, but most of my families history is rooted in the mining industry. It's hard to ignore a pro-labor bug inside of me to give these places a helping hand. While my education as a human geographer puts me in a unique position to think of ways to reimagine coal country, I was having trouble with the actual solutions.

For some helpful insight, I contacted my cousin Trevor Houser. Trevor "is a partner with the Rhodium Group (RHG) and leads the firm’s energy and natural resources practice" Throughout this latest presidential campaign, he served as Hillary Clinton's energy policy advisor. You could argue that he's one of the most qualified people in the country to discuss the future of coal and coal communities.

Partially through his insight, and also my experience talking to the leaders of Colstrip, Montana and having family history in iron-ore mining, I determined there are some common misconceptions about people who work in resource extraction. For the most part, they aren't anti-environment, anti-renewables or anti-change. The workers in coal country just want a decent-paying job, to support themselves and their families.

While they are proud of their coal mining heritage and would love to see it make a comeback, there are simply too many obstacles in the way of coal with higher demand for other energy sources, and increased concern over a drastically changing climate, for a realistic revival. Coal hit its peak in 1948 and isn't likely to get anywhere near that figure again.

Luckily, there are other options, though none of them are easy to establish. Part of the problem is the communities themselves, towns like Whitesville, WV, and Harlan, KY exist for the sole purpose of coal mining nearby. When you have a permanent settlement designed for a specific industry and not much physical flexibility to change, finding something new to spark growth is a delicate and tricky matter.

One option is to bring ways of producing renewable energy into some of these towns. This may seem like a good idea on the surface, considering that places near mining towns in Wyoming and Montana are serious contenders for wind farms, and old ranching land in west Texas has successfully produced a large portion of Texas electricity through wind. There is one key obstacle: topography. Appalachia doesn't have the vast open land area or climate to make mass-scale wind energy or solar a viable option. Even if it could work on some level, there is still the issue of job equivalency. A low-skill coal mining job could pay $80,000 per year in part because of the risk factor involved, and once people experience that kind of pay, they don't like the thought of taking something lower.

Manufacturing? While parts of Kentucky might have enough space for this, in reality, you need more than narrow valley corridors to make a strong case for large-scale manufacturing jobs. You also need the market for a product.

Outdoor recreation and tourism is always an option. Colorado has had success with turning former gold mining towns into adventure sport meccas (i.e. Breckenridge, Leadville), but Colorado also has the advantage of geography. The rocky mountains are a major tourist draw on their own, and when you include a seasonably dry climate with a variety of weather conditions, it makes what are now ski towns so much fun to visit. While Appalachia is visually stunning in its own right, and the Boy Scouts recently opened a new high-adventure backpacking camp in West Virginia, the setting isn't nearly as attractive as somewhere in the western U.S. You would have to strategically argue the benefits of a big West Virginia 'adventure town', possibly to east-coasters living in major cities. This option also would only work in certain parts of the state (probably not where there is mountaintop removal).

One grassroots program that has sprung up recently is Sustainable Williamson based in the town of Williamson, WV. This is a strong effort, with many parts, to both diversify the struggling town economy and encourage a healthy lifestyle among the residents.

Possibly the biggest advancement would be to get affordable high-speed internet in remote parts of Appalachia, that currently don't have access to it. Not only would this eliminate a major barrier with communication, but the local geography wouldn't be quite as much of a challenge to deal with, as businesses could be conducted online. Bitsource is working hard to train coal workers for tech jobs in Kentucky.

Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) is another initiative geared towards building a strong economy and high quality of life in Kentucky. According to their website, "SOAR is a widely-shared enterprise. Our commitment to build greater prosperity, resilience and equity in the region is posited upon a belief that support for, and strengthened partnerships among, those already working to achieve these goals is the wisest course."

Appalachia is a region that needs our help. We can't afford to lose this valuable piece of the great American melting pot.

"Learn to do common things uncommonly well; we must always keep in mind that anything that helps fill the dinner pail is valuable."


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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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