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The Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding

Friday, April 29th, 2016 - posted by Ridge Graham

Announcing our new Surry-Yadkin electric co-op campaign

Pilot Mountain in Surry County. Photo by Joe Potato / iStockPhoto

Pilot Mountain in Surry County. Photo by Joe Potato / iStockPhoto

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding in western North Carolina.

Throughout 2015, we engaged with communities surrounding our Boone, N.C., office about the widespread benefits of energy efficiency. Now our local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric, is offering the Energy SAVER Loan Program, an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency upgrades. After achieving success in the North Carolina High Country, we are expanding our efforts to additional electric cooperative service territories.

To the east of the Blue Ridge Electric territory is the Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation (EMC). Surry-Yadkin EMC provides utility service to over 27,000 people in the beautiful Yadkin Valley and surrounding areas. This region, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is known for its agricultural heritage, vineyards and music festivals.

Surry-Yadkin EMC currently offers programs that demonstrate its commitment to energy savings for its members, including rebates on the purchase of energy-efficient heat pumps for home and water heating. While these programs are healthy incentives for those in the market for an upgrade, most families cannot afford the upfront costs of standard efficiency retrofits which average $6,500, according to local weatherization programs.

In Surry, Yadkin and Wilkes counties, which make up more than 80 percent of Surry-Yadkin EMC’s service territory, the median household income is approximately $7,000 less than the North Carolina average and $13,000 less than the national average. To put that in perspective, residents of the area who live in manufactured housing have stated that their energy bills are 25 percent of their monthly income in the winter. More than half of all the housing units in the area are at least thirty years old and likely have common needs for efficiency upgrades.

Members of Surry-Yadkin EMC are in an ideal situation for achieving high energy savings because the area experiences cold winters and hot summers. With proper insulation and air sealing, both heating and air conditioning can be maintained efficiently. If Surry-Yadkin EMC introduces an on-bill financing program, members could save on average over $100 each year on their energy costs while enjoying increased comfort and home health.

Our Energy Savings for Appalachia team has met with community organizations to learn about the need for local residents to lower their energy bills and we’ve met with energy efficient businesses that recognize the benefit that energy savings can provide in job growth and increased local capital. In addition to developing these partnerships, we have presented to local groups about home energy improvements and options their utilities provide with the goal of increasing understanding about energy efficiency and successful programs across the Southeast.

We are hopeful that we can work alongside Surry-Yadkin EMC to provide an accessible program for its members and to cultivate a broad awareness of the need to expand energy efficiency programs throughout the region.

Do you know what energy efficiency options your utility offers? Visit the Energy Savings Action Center to find out! And if you are a Surry-Yadkin EMC member, take action here or contact to learn about volunteer opportunities.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

The Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding

Monday, April 25th, 2016 - posted by eliza

Announcing our new French Broad electric co-op campaign

Marshall, N.C. on the French Broad River

Marshall, N.C., on the French Broad River

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding in western North Carolina.

Throughout 2015, we engaged with communities surrounding our Boone, N.C., office about the widespread benefits of energy efficiency through our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign. Now our local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric, is offering the Energy SAVER Loan Program, an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency upgrades.

After achieving success in the North Carolina High Country, we are expanding our efforts to the service territories of the French Broad Electric Membership Corporation and Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation.

It is our goal to see all of the electric membership cooperatives (EMC) in Appalachia join other utilities in offering on-bill energy efficiency financing programs. On the coast, Roanoke EMC started up a distinguished program called Upgrade to $ave in 2015, but there are also more established, successful programs in eastern Kentucky and South Carolina. For Appalachian Voices, western North Carolina is our focus for building a movement around affordable energy efficiency for all.

Covering much of the French Broad River watershed, French Broad EMC provides electric service to more than 33,000 people across northern Buncombe, Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties in North Carolina and part of Unicoi County in Tennessee. The region is rural and mountainous, bordered by the Appalachian Trail and famous for whitewater rafting and its high peaks.

We see great potential for an on-bill energy efficiency financing program here. French Broad EMC has been offering low-interest on-bill financing for mini-split electric heat pumps, a highly energy-efficient heating system, for the past two years. The success of this program has led to its continuance, which we see as a stable foundation for a larger, more encompassing energy efficiency financing program.

Download our French Broad EMC resource guide to learn more about public and private home energy services and assistance in Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

Download our French Broad EMC resource guide to learn more about public and private home energy services and assistance in Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

Over the past few years we have developed strong connections with the kind, hardworking people who serve those in need in the area. We’ve also learned of the high demand for assistance with energy bills in the cold winter months among the area’s residents. In the three counties that make up most of French Broad EMC’s service territory, the median household income is approximately $10,000 less than the North Carolina average and $15,000 less than the national average. Additionally, half of all the housing units in this area are more than 30 years old.

There are thousands of homes and residents in need of energy efficiency improvements, and few programs available to most residents who cannot afford the upfront cost of those improvements. In other words, there exists a gap where many would be supported by an energy efficiency financing program provided by French Broad EMC.

To further Appalachian Voices’ advocacy and education around energy use, I am working on the ground in French Broad EMC’s service territory, generating public dialogue around energy efficiency by talking to the community about how to save money and energy. By helping those who struggle to pay their energy bills and keep their house warm, we hope to raise awareness about the need for a debt-free, on-bill energy efficiency financing program.

Do you know what energy efficiency options your utility offers? Visit the Energy Savings Action Center to find out! And if you are a French Broad EMC member, take action here or contact to learn about volunteer opportunities.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Power of Cooperation: Co-ops put solar on rooftops

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Dan Radmacher

Augusta Solar Co-op member and homeowner Keith Shank stands with a representative of the solar installation company in front of his new solar array. Photo courtesy VA SUN

Augusta Solar Co-op member and homeowner Keith Shank stands with a representative of the solar installation company in front of his new solar array. Photo courtesy VA SUN

When Joy Loving decided to add solar power to her Rockingham County, Va., home in the spring of 2012, she did it the hard way. She taught herself what she could, then found an installer through a Google search. A full six months later, she turned on her system. Since then, she’s been working to make the process a lot easier — and cheaper — for others.

“My decision wasn’t driven by economics,” Loving says. “I’m 70 years old, and without state tax incentives or any kind of discount, my payback period for this system will be very long. I might live long enough to reap the economic benefits. I might not. But my primary motivation was about reducing my carbon footprint.”

When she first began looking into solar, Loving thought there might be some sort of program through her electric utility, or state policies that would help. Instead, she found obstacles. Unlike some other states, Virginia mostly forbids power purchase agreements, a solar financing model in which companies own the solar arrays they install on homes and charge homeowners for the power they use.

The state also limits the size of systems residents can build on their homes and caps the power generated by all Virginia residential arrays combined to no more than one percent of all power generated in the state. It also allows utilities to charge minimum monthly fees to solar users — even if the resident generates more power for the grid than they use.

Joy Loving’s solar installation in Rockingham County, Va. Photo courtesy of Joy Loving

Joy Loving’s solar installation in Rockingham County, Va. Photo courtesy of Joy Loving

Loving says all the obstacles to solar put in place by the state and politically powerful utilities irritated her. “It got my back up,” she says. “The freedom to choose my energy source was very important to me. I believe that I need to be a good steward of God’s creation, and this is one thing I can do positively to be a good steward.”

Even after her own system was installed, Loving kept reading and learning. “There was just nothing like the thrill of not having an electric bill,” she says. “I kind of got obsessive about it, checking the system and the power meter and watching what the system could do. After six or seven months, I thought ‘this is something that other people should know about.’”

She reached out to local/regional environmental group Climate Action of the Valley in Harrisonburg, Va. Leaders there ended up connecting with Virginia Solar United Neighborhoods, also known as VA SUN, which is a branch of the Community Power Network in Washington, D.C.

VA SUN helps solar co-op groups — usually collections of neighbors — by providing the experience and expertise it takes to get organized, research installers, issue a request for proposals, evaluate and negotiate with installers, and then see the process all the way through the installation and hookups.

Ben Delman, communications manager for Community Power Network, says the various state SUN groups in Appalachia — DC SUN, VA SUN, WV SUN and MD SUN — have helped around 1,000 people go solar across the region, with about a third of those in Virginia. According to Delman, when individuals organize into co-ops, they gain expertise and save money by negotiating bulk purchases.

Co-ops Accepting New Members

  • Richmond, Va.: Deadline April 30; For information, contact VA Sun Program Director Aaron Sutch,
  • Tucker, Randolph and Upshur counties, W.Va.: No deadline yet
  • Monroe County, W.Va.: No deadline yet. For information on WV co-ops, contact WV Sun Program Director Karan Ireland,

In addition to helping co-ops, Community Power Network has also supported groups that use the “Solarize” model, in which the installer is pre-selected rather than picked based on competitive bids.

After discussions with VA SUN, the Harrisonburg-based Climate Action of the Valley decided to sponsor a co-op in Harrisonburg and Rockbridge County. They asked Loving to lead it.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t know about co-ops when I installed [my system],” she says. “All the co-ops exploding around the state are like seeds — making people more aware and more informed about solar.”

According to Delman, the co-op experience generally works like this: “We start work with one or two local organizations — some sort of community group that can guide the process and begin recruiting co-op members.” The group holds a number of informational meetings during the recruitment phase. “We take them through understanding solar energy, the different ways to finance and help them understand the co-op process,” he says.

“In some ways, it’s the same as doing any home construction project,” Delman continues, “But how great would it be if you’re adding a deck or renovating a bathroom to be able to go through that with a group of people all doing the same thing?”

A critical mass of people interested in installing solar is necessary to move forward to the next step of actually reaching out to contractors. “Once a group gets to about 25 or 30 members, we work with them to issue a [request for proposal] to installers,” Delman says. Co-op members make the final decision. “We help group members review the bids, but it’s up to the selection committee to choose.”

Carl Droms, a member of Climate Action of the Valley, was a member of the Harrisonburg co-op’s selection committee. At that stage, there were 70 or 80 interested households, and about a dozen co-op members on the selection committee. “We all had different ideas about what was important and how to weigh the factors,” he says. “The price per watt — which included everything: panels, wiring, inverters, the electrical work, installation — was important, but there were other factors. Could the installer handle this number of installations and get things done in a reasonable time? Would they use local labor? What kind of guarantee did they offer? How much work had they done in the past?”
“In the end, we were pretty well agreed,” Droms says. “Everybody felt we made the right decision.”

Residents attend an info session for the Massanutten Regional Solar Co-op. Photo courtesy VA SUN

Residents attend an info session for the Massanutten Regional Solar Co-op. Photo courtesy VA SUN

The discount for a co-op member over an individual trying to buy their own solar power system is generally around 20 percent, Delman says. “It’s a good deal for the installers, as well,” he says. “To have a base of interested customers who are educated about solar is really good.”
Once an installer is selected, individuals in the co-op get a site inspection and, eventually, a contract for a system tailored to their individual needs at the agreed-to price. Co-op members aren’t obligated to buy unless they sign that contract.

Droms is very happy with the system he and his partner installed on their home. “Our total bill for the last year has been about $130 — and that includes a $9.50 a month fee just to stay connected to the grid,” he says. “We were really pleased with the co-op. If we had to negotiate everything ourselves, it would have been a lot more complicated.”

There’s not much of a downside to working through a co-op, says Cory Chase, a Tucker County, W. Va., resident who helped organize a co-op in his area. “WV SUN offers a lot of technical assistance that really helps. It might be a little more bureaucratic and slower than going on your own, but we’ll be able to help each other out, buy material in bulk and get a competitive bid,” he says.

According to WV SUN Program Director Karan Ireland, her organization has helped co-ops launch in the towns of Morgantown and Wheeling, and in Kanawha, Tucker and Monroe counties. “A co-op is like Solar 101,” she says. “It can be cumbersome if you’re trying to figure out everything by yourself. With the co-op, you work with friends and neighbors to learn about how to go solar.”

Like Loving, Ireland believes co-ops help create solar ambassadors. “As people understand the benefits of solar, they become invested in the policy as well,” she says. “Because they’re already working together, that creates a network of solar advocates.”

And solar advocates are needed, especially in states like Virginia and West Virginia where fossil fuel interests hold so much sway, says Mark Hanson, president of the Renewable Energy and Electric Vehicle Association, a do-it-yourself club in Roanoke, Va., that helps members with solar installations and other renewable energy projects.

“Our legislators don’t push the power companies to do the right thing,” Hanson says. “Power companies just see solar as a way for people not to pay for electricity. When it comes to legislators, the power companies pretty much get their way.”

Joy Loving says the co-op model is serving its purpose. “It has increased awareness of solar and gotten more press coverage,” she says. “People have heard about it. People see the panels going up and they talk. Co-ops will bring more people into the solar fold.”

RECLAIMing Central Appalachia

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

Federal efforts could boost local economies, repair environmental damages

By Molly Moore

A rare bipartisan proposal aims to tackle two pressing issues related to the flailing coal industry — the need for new economic opportunities in central Appalachia and repairing environmental damage from decades of mining.

In March, nine grassroots advocates from Appalachia traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional representatives and staff from the White House and federal agencies. The week’s events were coordinated by The Alliance For Appalachia, a coalition of 15 environmental and community organizations including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper.

The top priority was to inform regional legislators about the RECLAIM Act — a bill that intends to breathe new life into struggling central Appalachian economies while remediating land and water polluted by decades-old abandoned mines.

    The map shows counties that have abandoned mine lands on the federal inventory. Dark red counties have the most reclamation costs; the lightest shade of red has the least. Source: Daily Yonder from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System. Map courtesy Daily Yonder

Congressional Cooperation

In February of this year, Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from eastern Kentucky, introduced the RECLAIM Act with the support of congressmen from both parties — Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA). The RECLAIM Act would accelerate payments from the existing federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, dispersing $1 billion over five years to projects that would reclaim former mining sites while boosting local economic development.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C.[/caption]Jack Kennedy, clerk of Circuit Court for Wise County and Norton, Va., and a former member of the Virginia General Assembly, says that the RECLAIM Act could lead to solar utility projects on abandoned mines and other endeavors.

“The RECLAIM Act passage would provide Appalachian community jobs immediately working to ameliorate brownfield real estate into a productive state for commercial or agricultural or other productive purposes over a period of time,” he wrote in an email.

The bill’s support from legislators like Rogers and Griffith — staunch opponents of environmental regulation, which they allege is responsible for Appalachia’s poor coal market — signals a willingness to cooperate with the administration to provide economic and community development in areas that have depended on the coal industry.

Under the RECLAIM Act, $1 billion from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund would be directed to qualifying states and tribes over a five-year period starting in 2017. The AML fund was established in 1977 to restore land and water contaminated by coal mines that were abandoned before the federal surface mining law took effect that year. The AML program is funded by a per-ton fee on coal production, and the money is distributed based on a state or tribe’s current coal production rather than the amount of damaged land and water.

Presently, the AML fund holds $2.5 billion that is not dedicated toward specific projects, though the interest helps support a pension fund for roughly 100,000 retired union miners. This $2.5 billion was intended as a reserve fund for states to use after 2021, when the AML program is set to expire — the RECLAIM Act would expedite the disbursal of $1 billion from that pot.

According to a July 2015 report by the AML Policy Priorities Group, directing $200 million annually to abandoned mine lands projects for five years would bring national economic benefits of 3,117 jobs and contribute close to $500 million to the United States economy. The researchers, affiliated with Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and The Alliance for Appalachia, estimated that central Appalachia would see about 35 percent of those benefits. They called for allocating the $1 billion in a way that differs from the RECLAIM Act by also considering economic distress. Such a formula would further boost the benefits for the area.

Even enacting RECLAIM with the current formula could be a powerful catalyst. “By expanding the scope of the AML program to consider economic benefits, Rogers and his colleagues have introduced a forward-thinking solution to one of the biggest challenges facing our region today,” Kennedy wrote in a March op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “The fact that the bill continues to gain bipartisan support is noteworthy and speaks to the urgent need for creative approaches to the economic woes of our coal regions.”

Community Support

The premise of the RECLAIM bill is based on one of the components of the president’s POWER-Plus Plan. The plan was first introduced as part of the president’s 2016 budget proposal and was reintroduced for the 2017 budget.

POWER-Plus received a warm welcome from local governments and community groups in the region, many of which were already working to diversify the historically coal-dependent economy. Twenty-eight local governments and organizations passed resolutions supporting the economic revitalization package, including 12 entities in Rogers’ home district.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy The Alliance for Appalachia

Among those were the Benham Town Council and the Benham Power Board, a municipally owned utility. In early 2016, Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner in Harlan County, Ky., and member of the Benham Power Board, wrote to Rogers and asked the congressman to help secure the funding needed to implement the POWER-Plus Plan. Citing the local declarations of support, he wrote, “As the resolutions say, we believe our transition should be one that ‘celebrates culture; invests in communities; generates good, stable and meaningful jobs; is just and equitable; and protects and restores the land, air and water.’”

Lawmakers incorporated some of the president’s plan in their one-year federal budget for 2016 including a proposal by Rogers to direct $90 million in AML funding to projects with economic potential in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, the three states with the highest remaining costs for cleaning up abandoned mines.

As of early April, the RECLAIM Act — which would go a step further with its $1 billion allocation — had an equal number of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. As the bill picks up more backers, a number of regional stakeholders are paying attention to how the bill is structured, and how the federal funds would be distributed.

“The Alliance [for Appalachia] is working to ensure that a strong public engagement process is included in RECLAIM,” Economic Transition Coordinator Lyndsay Tarus wrote in an email. “If the intent of the legislation is to boost economic transition, then communities most in need of the funding need their voices heard.”

During their March trip to Washington, D.C., the Alliance representatives also spoke with federal agency staff about the need for reliable oversight of clean water regulations, including a strong Stream Protection Rule to protect waterways from mining damage.

“The Alliance understands that meaningful and sustainable economic transition is just not possible when the basic necessity of clean water isn’t available,” Tarus states.

A POWERful Big Picture

The expedited release of abandoned mine lands dollars is one piece of a broader effort to assist central Appalachia and other communities around the country experiencing economic hardships due to coal’s decline.

In addition to the abandoned mine lands proposal, President Obama’s POWER-Plus Plan would strengthen the healthcare and pension plans for approximately 100,000 retired coal miners and their families. The Miners Protection Act, a bill to enact the pension change, is currently in the Senate. The POWER-Plus Plan also calls for two new tax credits for power plants that use carbon-capture technology.

Another core component of the plan is the proposed Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization initiative, which would grant $75 million in economic development funding to the region. These funds would provide more support for former coal workers through programs such as the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. An additional $5 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program would also clean up contaminated lands that have economic potential in formerly coal-dependent communities.

This POWER funding would help these agencies provide workforce training and bolster economic developments such as broadband access to attract new business.

In fall 2015, the Obama administration announced what it called a “down payment” on the plan — nearly $15 million in grants to kick-start some of these initiatives. So far, the grants have been allocated to strengthen Kentucky’s local food supply chain, bring agriculture to reclaimed mines in West Virginia, provide job training in fields such as technology and local food, develop community-specific economic diversification plans, create a substance abuse treatment center, and help new and existing industries capitalize on an expanding broadband network. Read more at right.

Kennedy waxes enthusiastically about the prospect for economic revitalization embodied in the RECLAIM Act and the POWER-Plus Plan. “Restoring Appalachian opportunity is essential,” he states. “We need to be among the first providing multiple 20 to 80 megawatts of small commercial-scale solar utility farms to learn and culturally accept the energy transition underway in our nation and around the globe.”

“Change is hard, but it is the only constant even for us in the more isolated mountains,” he continues. “We must adapt, improvise and overcome multiple challenges.”

As legislators, agency administrators and regional advocates work to pass these various federal economic proposals, one of the challenges for local supporters will be to make sure citizen input and priorities are reflected in the implementation of these programs.

“The key thing is citizen involvement,” says Mary Love, a Kentucky resident and member of The Alliance For Appalachia’s federal strategy team who met with legislators about the RECLAIM Act. “They have to show that they have citizen involvement in deciding what projects to fund. You can bet that we’ll be all over that.”

Grants Power Area Projects

➤ In southeast Kentucky, the POWER Initiative provided funding for the nonprofit media institution Appalshop to work with Southeast Community & Technical College and ten local employers to develop a one-year certificate program in technology. The three-track program would offer classes geared towards web coding, graphic and web design, and network infrastructure and security services. According to Ada Smith, Appalshop’s institutional development director, a formal certificate in technology would provide “a marked signifier to others that this person is interested, available and ready to work.” Smith hopes that courses will begin in fall 2017, and is optimistic that the program could be replicated at other community colleges.

➤ The Southern Appalachian Labor School in Robson, W.Va., received a planning grant to evaluate how both abandoned and reclaimed surface mines in the area might be used to provide economic benefits. “Right now we’re going to try to scope post-mining sites in the county, see what’s available, do a solar site analysis and see if it’s feasible to put in a solar farm,” says Director John David. The team will be looking at issues such as grid connectivity and cost, in addition to considering other projects like orchards and a senior living complex.

➤ The organization Friends of Southwest Virginia received a POWER Initiative grant to advance ongoing tourism, recreation and entrepreneurship projects. Among the endeavors is a new ecological education center near the Guest River that will serve as both an educational and entrepreneurial hub. Another project will improve riverfront access from the New River to five downtown centers in Giles County. In Wise County, local tourism partners plan to create a visitors center in Norton to provide information about the region’s assets.

Industrial Hemp Offers Hope to Appalachia’s Farmers and Environment

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

Age-old crop could help lead to economic diversity in Appalachia

The first legal Kentucky hemp crop was grown at a University of Kentucky research farm in August 2014.  Photo courtesy Chase Milner

The first legal Kentucky hemp crop was grown at a University of Kentucky research farm in August 2014. Photo courtesy Chase Milner

By Michael M. Barrick

As the result of a new law that takes effect on July 1, Virginia farmers will soon be able to grow hemp for industrial purposes — albeit with restrictions.

Even though the law is new, the crop is not. Industrial hemp has been grown around the world for centuries, offering thousands of uses, none of which involve “getting high.”

TA postcard of hemp fields at the turn of the 20th century.

A postcard of hemp fields at the turn of the 20th century. Image courtesy of University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center.

In fact, according to Chase Milner, the Shenandoah Valley regional director for the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition, “Industrial hemp has been grown by human civilization for at least 12,000 years for fiber, food, and now recently bio-fuels.”

He noted that a 1619 Virginia law required farmers to grow hemp, a critical component of sailcloth, textiles and rope, and three of the Founding Fathers grew hemp on their Virginia estates. Ben Franklin owned a mill that made paper from the plant, and the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper.

 The Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition’s leadership team (top) at a conference on industrial and medical cannabis in Morgantown, W.Va., in March 2016. Photo courtesy of Chase Milner.

The Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition’s leadership team (top) at a conference on industrial and medical cannabis in Morgantown, W.Va., in March 2016. Photo courtesy of Chase Milner.

According to Milner, the full benefits of industrial hemp won’t be realized until federal law is changed. “Congress remains the industry’s greatest hurdle, as hemp still is defined as marijuana via the Controlled Substances Act,” he wrote.

Still, Virginia’s new law has its limitations, Milner explained. “Currently, under the federal Agricultural Act of 2014, the only lawful purpose for which industrial hemp may be grown is for research conducted by an institute of higher education or a state department of agriculture.”

Before industrial hemp gains widespread acceptance, policy makers need to understand the difference between the crop and marijuana. The most significant difference is the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the chemical that gives marijuana users their “buzz.” Industrial hemp contains very low levels of THC — about 0.3 percent — while marijuana can contain up to 20 percent.

Ecological Benefits

According to Mike Manypenny, a former three-term member of the West Virginia House of Delegates who championed industrial hemp while serving in the legislature, the environment would benefit from fully legalized industrial hemp. A farmer, he has been granted a provisional license to grow the crop this year for research.

“Here in West Virginia and across Appalachia, we are inundated with environmental damage caused by the extraction industries. Coal mining has left unimaginable environmental damage to our soils, water and air across our once pristine landscapes,” Manypenny wrote in an email. “We can use industrial hemp to help remediate those soils through bio-remediation, where the plant takes up the metals and toxins left behind from the mining and processing of coal or other industrial practices. This in turn can reduce the amounts of metals and toxins leaching into our streams, rivers and into our aquifers.” However, researchers acknowledge that since information regarding the effects of toxins on industrial hemp is incomplete, any such use of the plant would require that it be disposed of in a special manner, likely consistent with any disposal requirements for the toxin being absorbed by the plant.

Ryan Huish, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, agreed that the crop can be environmentally friendly. “Hemp requires little to no chemical input to grow well, thus avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers,” he stated. “It also has the potential of reducing the need to harvest trees for pulp and building materials, thus preserving more of our forests.”

Milner described how hemp also sequesters carbon in a way that enhances soil quality while reducing levels of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The crop is also a nutritious food source. “Hempseed provide a remarkable plant based protein diet for human, livestock, and wildlife consumption,” he added.

Economic Benefits

Huish observed, “the scientific name itself includes the Latin ‘sativa,’ meaning, ‘cultivated,’ emphasizing its eminence as a domestic crop.” As West Virginia adjusts to having less employment from the shrinking coal industry, Milner and Manypenny both suggest that industrial hemp could serve as an economic engine to help fill the gap. “Appalachia offers one of the most pristine environments for growing industrial hemp,” Manypenny said.

Milner stated, “The Hemp Industries Association has reviewed sales of clothing, auto parts, building materials and various other products derived by foreign-grown hemp, and estimates the total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. in 2014 to be at least $620 million.”

Hemp’s Future

Yet, he remains hopeful. “For many, including me, hemp brings hope,” Milner shared. “Hope for a planet that needs healing, hope for a more sustainable agrarian future, hope for more locally sourced foods, renewable fuels and fibers. Hope for health care products that do not pollute the environment and will lessen our use and impact of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and petroleum products.”

The Legal Status of Hemp in the U.S. & Appalachia

By Michael M. Barrick

Producing and cultivating industrial hemp has been nearly impossible in the United States for roughly 80 years, when the U.S. Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937 placed an extremely high tax on industrial hemp, making it unprofitable. Though that law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, Congress responded in 1970 with passage of the Controlled Substances Act. It listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance — meaning that it is considered among the most harmful of drugs. At the time, industrial hemp was not distinguished from marijuana.

That changed two years ago, when President Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014, which allows universities and state agriculture departments to cultivate industrial hemp for limited purposes. Emboldened by this evolution, several states in Appalachia have loosened their own laws and are now looking to industrial hemp as a way to promote economic diversification and environmental preservation, especially in the rich earth that nurtures the farmlands of the region.

Virginia recently enacted legislation allowing farmers to grow the plant. West Virginia law allows the cultivation of industrial hemp with up to one percent THC, issues licenses to growers and even provides legal protection against prosecution under marijuana criminal codes. Maryland law permits a person to “plant, grow, harvest, possess, process, sell and buy industrial hemp.”

In Kentucky, a five-year research and licensing program is overseen by the University of Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station. Established in early 2014, there are five projects across the state, including one project to determine whether industrial hemp could be used to remediate tainted soil.

In North Carolina, a law took effect in October 2015 that recognizes the potential importance of industrial hemp and established a commission to create and regulate an industrial hemp program. It also established licensure and reporting procedures and distinguishes hemp from marijuana. Yet the commission has not been funded by the General Assembly.

In Tennessee, however, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture is reviewing applications for the 2016 growing season. The law there, passed in 2014, is similar to the one in North Carolina in that it distinguishes industrial hemp from marijuana and established oversight through the Department of Agriculture.

In summary, no state in Appalachia allows the production and cultivation of industrial hemp without some sort of governmental oversight and control, but acceptance of the crop is growing.

UPDATE: At press time, Tennessee was accepting applications for the 2016 growing season. The online article has been updated to reflect that the application period is now closed.

Service, Music and Community at Appalachian South Folklife Center

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

Influential center in southern West Virginia celebrates 50 years

The chapel is used for spiritual gatherings, weddings, meetings and concerts. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

The chapel is used for spiritual gatherings, weddings, meetings and concerts. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

By Peter Slavin

The Appalachian South Folklife Center in southern West Virginia has weathered many storms over the past half century, yet continues to provide help to residents in need, education for youth, and a safe harbor for activists. Despite early denunciations of its founder’s political views, government harassment and a fire, the center has become a gathering point for locals and visitors drawn to the center’s beautiful setting, music and opportunities for service.

Since 1965, the center’s staff and volunteers have worked to improve the lives of Appalachia’s people and to instill in them pride in their heritage, while also giving others an appreciation of the region. The center has focused on educating young people and dispatching volunteers to assist local residents who need home repairs. The center has also opened its doors to people needing a place to meet, from miners for democracy and opponents of a high-voltage power line to campaigners against mountaintop removal coal mining.

The center is also known for its music festivals, ranging from the early Mountain Music Festivals that drew thousands to hear both traditional and contemporary folk songs to the more recent CultureFest, an annual event featuring world music. Pete Seeger, Merle Travis and Hazel Dickens as well as local singer-songwriters and garage bands have played on its stage. “Hardly any event doesn’t include music,” says Mary “Meno” Griffith, who first came to the center in 1969. “Even after long meetings about serious issues, someone gets out an instrument and starts singing.” Music, Griffith says, is central to the center’s mission, because it brings people together and “helps us understand our history.”

Still, if music has been the soundtrack of the center’s life, making Appalachians aware of their history and culture and its value has been its central purpose.

The Folklife Center was the creation of Don West, a north Georgia farmer and champion of displaced mountain people, tenant farmers and union workers, and his wife Connie, a portrait painter. A man of many talents, Don was a leading poet in his day, and a respected educator, political activist, labor organizer and minister.

Don West was raised on a North Georgia mountain farm in an area that had flown the Union flag during the Civil War and nonconformity was part of his heritage.

Don West was raised on a North Georgia mountain farm in an area that had flown the Union flag during the Civil War and nonconformity was part of his heritage.

According to “The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936,” West was “wanted dead or alive” for defending a black man who was on trial for leading a hunger march, and fled Atlanta under a pile of sacks in a car. Because of his civil rights activism, the Ku Klux Klan once burned down his home. In 1932, he cofounded the historic Highlander Folk School in Tennessee — now the Highlander Research and Education Center — a critical training ground for the labor and civil rights movements. Almost forgotten today, Don West attained near-legendary status in the South in the era before the civil rights movement.

The Wests saved enough while teaching for a decade in Baltimore to purchase a 600-acre farm in the beautiful hills north of Princeton, W.Va., so they could build a new folklife center in 1965. Over the years, the United Church of Christ, Quakers and other progressive churches have been the center’s primary financial supporters; many individuals have also donated.

In the beginning, Don West used produce from a big garden on the farm to help feed those at the center, and raised and sold hay. The farm is no more, having been divided among his children at his death in 1992. The center now occupies 63 acres.

In the early years, people in the community who were facing tough times, including striking coal miners, knew they could go to the center for help. “If they needed a meal, there was always food there and always something to do to earn it,” says BobMac MacMillam, who has worked at the center on and off since 1973.

Between 400 and 500 people come to do service work each year for up to 40 families. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

Between 400 and 500 people come to do service work each year for up to 40 families. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

Griffith tells one story about Don West’s influence on someone who became a noted writer. “Jeff Biggers was hitchhiking … just young and figuring what he’s doing in world. Don West picks him up, takes him to the Folklife Center, feeds him, charms him with stories, and becomes a mentor to him. And you hear that story over and over again [from] people who are associated with the Folklife Center.”

From 1968 to 2000, the center sponsored a residential summer camp, bringing in as many as 50 disadvantaged 11- to 16-year-old boys and girls from all over Appalachia. The aim was for the kids to enlarge their horizons, learn about the region’s history and heritage, counter stereotypes they faced, and boost their self-esteem. The kids learned about coal mining, black lung, organizing and unions as well as outside domination of the region and its impact in holding Appalachia back. Many campers came back year after year.

Because of Don West’s politics, some people in the community felt animosity toward the center. For years, the Wests took part in political demonstrations and marches, and sometimes they brought along summer campers, says former executive director David Stanley.
So when the dining and meeting hall, long the heart of the center, burned to the ground in the early 1970s, some believed the fire might have been set. But the cause was never determined, and the hall was soon rebuilt.

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

Stanley says in the late 1980s two men came to his office and demanded to know where the center got its financing. They said they were from the state, but displayed no badges. He refused to produce his records and told them to leave. A year or two later, he says, Internal Revenue Service agents “took Don West out of his house … at 2-3 in the morning, took him down to Princeton to interrogate him about his finances.”
Stanley calls the incidents government harassment.

Every year 400 to 500 out-of-state high school students come for a week to participate in service work, assisting local communities while learning about Appalachia’s culture and history. In groups of 15 to 20, the students work on home repairs for low-income, elderly and disabled people — painting, building a new porch or deck, replacing rotting bathroom floors and the like.

“You have to prepare yourself for it,” says Briddy Blankenship, a previous executive director. “It’s very humbling to see how some people are living.”

Upcoming Events at the Folklife Center

    Earth Day, April 23, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. — Music, arts, and activism, including an herb walk, panel on local foods, sustainable building demonstration, yoga, drum circles, live music, open mic and jam session. Free. Call: (304) 466-0626 Visit:

    Culturefest, Sept. 8-11 — World music & arts festival with four stages for music and dance, unusual workshops, children’s activities, roaming dancers acting out stories, and on-site camping. $10/day; $50/weekend. Call: (304) 320-8833 Visit:

  • Want to bring a group on a service trip? Email Laura Lavernia at

The groups only work for five days and don’t do electrical work or plumbing, says Blankenship, “but we can still do a lot to make a difference in someone’s life.”

Not only the homeowners benefit, notes Griffith. The young volunteers — mostly middle class suburban kids — have their eyes opened to how some people have to live, she says, and learn they can “give back for the blessings in their lives.” The kids also make their own meals and sleep in dormitories. In the evening they learn about Appalachian life, from mining history to pottery and square dancing. Some groups have been coming back for 15 years.

The center also offers a unique day camp program for one week each summer for at-risk children ages four to 12. Families pay what they can afford. The campers and their counselors — junior high, high school and college students, virtually all of whom attended the camp as children — go together to classes such as science, math, journaling and yoga taught by certified teachers. The counselors provide powerful role models, says assistant director Sarah Justice.

“Everything we do is hands-on,” Justice says. “Kids leave each day with things they’ve made in arts and crafts.”
“Many kids live way down a dirt road with the closest neighbor maybe being two miles away,” she notes. For them, she says, the chance to socialize with kids their age is special.

Citing the slurs against Appalachians on TV and other media, Justice says the kids’ camp combats the “cultural shame associated with being from Appalachia.” The camp celebrates their West Virginia heritage.

For Griffith, being part of a community of like-minded progressives at the center who put their values into practice through programs like the kids’ camp means a great deal. She has served on the board for 28 years. “It’s like the Folklife Center is my church,” she observes.

But it wasn’t through a program that the center touched local resident Doris Irwin’s life. She first went there to listen to music as a 20-year-old high school dropout who had felt the sting of Appalachian stereotypes growing up. After she started spending time at the center, she came to see her culture and herself differently. Irwin learned “you don’t have to be limited by your past,” and saw that education “was not something out of my reach.”

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

She wound up going to college, earning two degrees and having a long career as a registered nurse and social worker.

Over the decades, the center has changed, too. In recent years local people have started holding their weddings, celebrations of life, family reunions, church services, and Boy and Girl Scout meetings at the facility, notes Nancy Aldridge, co-director of the Learning Day Camp. Such events, together with the day camp, she says, have given the center “a respectable place” in the community. Irwin’s children also attended the center’s residential camp and are among the many people whom the center has benefitted.

For more information about the Appalachian South Folklife Center, visit

Controversy Shrouds Coal Ash Cleanup

Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Elizabeth E. Payne

In March, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality held a series of 15 public hearings across the state to solicit stakeholder comments on the classifications for the 33 coal ash impoundments located at Duke Energy’s 14 coal-fired power plants.

These classifications — low, intermediate and high — are used by NCDEQ to assess the risk of each site and determine the timetable and minimum standards that the cleanup process will follow.

At the hearings, area citizens were able to speak with NCDEQ staff about their concerns with the cleanup process. Many urged the agency to rank their community as intermediate or high priority.

“We drank the water, ate the food in that soil,” said Leslie Brewer, who raised her family near the Belews Steam Station coal ash pond in Danbury, N.C. “Please make this high priority, my children don’t have another ten years to wait until this is cleaned up.”

Read more about the hearings here.

These hearings were required by the state’s Coal Ash Management Act, which also established the Coal Ash Management Commission to oversee the process amid an atmosphere of public distrust. Following legal challenges reaching the state’s Supreme Court, Gov. Pat McCrory disbanded the nine-member commission in mid-March.

The act tasked the commission with ensuring that NCDEQ’s classifications accurately reflected the level of risk posed by each site, and allowed them 60 days to review and comment on the classifications. Whether a new commission will be appointed in time to provide oversight is unclear.

The same week that the commission was disbanded, staff members from the NCDEQ and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services lifted the do-not-drink warnings from households near coal ash ponds whose wells had been contaminated by hexavalent chromium and vanadium.

The agencies lifted the ban on water containing levels of hexavalent chromium exceeding the state standard of 0.07 parts per billion. Citing federal standards of 100 parts for billion for total chromium, Tom Reeder, the state’s assistant secretary for the environment, argued that the previous standards had been overly cautious. There is no federal standard for hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen.

Duke Energy, which denies responsibility for the contamination, will soon stop providing bottled drinking water to the affected households.
In other news, two groups have dropped their complaints against Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to release wastewater from coal ash ponds at two of its power plants into the Quantico Creek, which feeds into the Potomac and James rivers. After Dominion announced that it would adopt stricter standards for treating the wastewater than were required by the Virginia DEQ, the Prince William County, Va., board of supervisors and the James River Association agreed to stop fighting the plan, according to the Bay Journal.

Other groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and the state of Maryland, will continue to appeal Dominion’s discharge permit.

How coal ash impacts civil rights

Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by sarah

Residents of Walnut Cove have fought to win justice for those who have been harmed by coal ash pollution at the nearby Belews Creek power plant.

Residents of Walnut Cove, N.C., testified about the threats coal ash poses to their community during a hearing organized by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Residents of Walnut Cove, N.C., testified about the threats coal ash poses to their community during a hearing organized by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

March flew by in North Carolina, where coal ash continues to make headlines and the state government continues to make missteps.

Last month, more than 1,500 North Carolinians flocked to the 14 public hearings on coal ash basin closure held by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. The turnout was great, the news coverage was thorough, and the oral comments delivered by residents (many of whom live within 1,500 feet of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds) were pointed and poignant.

Residents commented on a lack of science and data in Duke Energy’s groundwater reports and noted the cozy relationship between Duke, Gov. Pat McCrory and DEQ. They explained why they do not feel safe drinking their well water and demanded that all coal ash sites be made high-priority for cleanup and that no site be capped-in-place. And they shared heart-wrenching stories of family and friends who have passed away or are currently suffering from illnesses associated with exposure to heavy metals.

On the heels of the series of March hearings, the U.S. government added one more critical hearing to North Carolina’s expansive schedule: a hearing on coal ash as it relates to civil rights.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is currently preparing a report for Congress, President Obama, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on coal ash and its impact on civil rights, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. In February, the commission held a hearing in Washington, D.C., where hundreds of coal ash activists and coal ash neighbors from across the country gathered and testified about the impacts coal ash has had on their communities. State advisory committees to the commission also had the opportunity to hold local field hearings, but only two in the nation did, and one of those was in the small town of Walnut Cove, N.C.

This was a big deal for residents of Walnut Cove, who have fought for over three years to make their tragic story known and to win justice for those who have been harmed by Duke’s coal ash pollution at the nearby Belews Creek power plant. In response to the interest in coal ash expressed by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Walnut Cove community showed up in a big way.

Citizens Speak Up

Throughout the day, the Walnut Cove Public Library was packed with local residents and allies. Several community members were featured on the panels, including Tracey Edwards and David Hairston, lifelong residents of Walnut Cove who spoke to their experience of growing up with the coal ash falling like snow and witnessing the alarming rates of illness, especially cancer, and subsequent deaths in their small, rural community.

“Duke Energy promotes poison for profit at the expense of human life,” remarked Edwards. “You can’t drive in any direction from the coal power plant without knowing someone who has cancer.”

“You won’t understand until you’ve lived what we’ve lived and lost what we’ve lost,” Hairston explained. “My only mother is dead, Tracey’s only mother is dead. Who else we gonna lose over the next ten years?”

Long-time volunteer and activist, Caroline Armijo, who grew up in a neighboring town of Walnut Cove, presented on a panel alongside DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder. While Reeder praised DEQ and the McCrory administration for their efforts to clean up coal ash in North Carolina, Armijo made it clear that those efforts were not enough. She cited the pervasive illnesses, and the desire among community members to look at solutions that would last longer and be more protective than lined landfills.

The advisory committee members were attentive and moved by the stories and information presented. They were concerned not just about the health impacts of coal ash, but also the associated health care costs and psychological trauma, repeatedly asking community panelists if anyone is helping them in their plight. Committee Member Thealeeta Monet commented on the shameful lack of mental health care available to coal ash neighbors saying, “You cannot be collateral damage without being damaged.”

To the surprise of the audience, committee member Rick Martinez, who has ties to the conservative John Locke Foundation and the McCrory administration, told Duke Energy’s Mike McIntire that he should tell his superiors that the people of Walnut Cove would not accept anything less than full excavation of the coal ash pond. “Tell your management to start budgeting for that eventuality,” Martinez said, “not just here but throughout the state.”

In addition to the scheduled panelists, around 40 additional community members and allies spoke during the open comment section of the hearing. Some speakers had travelled from other North Carolina communities near to Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, and spoke for both their communities and in solidarity with residents of Walnut Cove. The final speakers of the day were all locals who had lost numerous loved ones to cancer.

Shuntailya Graves, a college student studying to become a biologist brought many in the audience to tears when she listed the cancers that each of her immediate family members have sufferred. Adding to the concerns of health care costs she explained, “My mother was diagnosed with thyroid, ovarian and uterine cancers. She had a full hysterectomy and later was diagnosed with thyroid and brain cancer. She has had nine cancerous brain tumors. Her medicines for a 30-day supply are $1,900. Who is going to pay for that? This all comes from coal ash.”

Vernon Zellers told the commission about losing his wife to brain cancer. The committee chair, Matty Lazo-Chadderton, walked over to give him tissues as he sobbed in front of the crowd. “When am I going to die?” he asked, “Am I next?”

Committee Members Respond

Not only were the committee members clearly moved by the day’s events, but so were the three presidentially appointed members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who sat in the audience. Because of the excitement felt by everyone in the weeks leading up to the hearing, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ chairman, vice-chair and another commission member all journeyed to Walnut Cove to listen to the day’s speakers. Chairman Martin Castro commented that the Walnut Cove hearing was the most powerful he had ever been to, both in content, community engagement, and emotional persuasiveness.

With tears in her eyes, Commissioner Karen Narasaki told the community members, “You have given life to the policy issues that can get so wonky. You have made it clear that in this case, it is just about common sense.”

Castro told the community that he related strongly with their stories, having grown up in an industrial area in a community that also suffered from high rates of cancer.

“Don’t tell me there is not a correlation,” he remarked. “This is not just a constitutional or public policy issue. This is a real life issue. Know your stories did not go unfelt or unnoticed. There is something wrong with the system and we need to figure out how to change the system.”

“You will have an advocate,” he promised, “not just here, but in Washington.”

The hearing was a blessing for the community of Walnut Cove, and not one person left without feeling the sense of sorrow, hope, love, passion and joy that emanated from the day’s speakers. As we continue to fight for justice for the little town next to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant, we can take solace in the knowledge that when residents, DEQ and Duke each presented their testimonies during a federal hearing, the light of truth shone unmistakably bright upon the everyday people who have lived, lost, and fought a Goliath in the shadow of its smokestacks.

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Climbing the Highlands

Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by molly

From the Ground Up

Julia Statler completes a challenging climb called “Wall Street” in the Picnic Area of Grayson Highlands. Photo by Dan Brayack

Julia Statler completes a challenging climb called “Wall Street” in the Picnic Area of Grayson Highlands. Photo by Dan Brayack

By Elizabeth E. Payne

Throughout Appalachia, roadways, trails and mountainsides are dotted with rocky outcrops that are as distinctive to the region as the rhododendron and mountain laurel that surround them. While many people may think that these rocks would be fun to climb, few have the skill to actually do it.

For decades, these rocky formations have attracted the attention of those that do.

Three styles of climbing are particularly popular in the highlands. The first is bouldering, in which a climber remains relatively near the ground while traversing established routes using no more equipment than their climbing shoes and a bag of chalk. And because the climber is rarely more than 18 feet off the ground, no ropes or safety harnesses are used. Instead, a landing pad and spotters protect against injury in the event of a fall.

The other two styles dominate in areas with cliff faces rather than boulder fields. In both, climbers use rope and safety harnesses secured to anchors positioned in the rock along the route, which protects them from falling to the ground. In sport climbing, the anchors are permanently fixed, and in traditional climbing, climbers place their own anchors as they climb.

Appalachia offers climbers challenging routes in beautiful settings, and the region’s geology invites climbers of all styles and abilities. And in return, the sport of climbing provides an opportunity for economic development for areas around these rock formations.

Building New Routes and Partnerships

At Grayson Highlands State Park, located in Grayson County in Southwest Virginia, climbers have access to over 1,000 established boulder routes and work in partnership with the park’s rangers and staff to maintain the area.

In large part, this is the result of one man’s hard work and love of climbing.

Aaron Parlier is focused on the “Eye of the Narwal,” one of many climbs along the Listening Rock Trail at Grayson Highlands. Photo by Sarene Cullen

Aaron Parlier is focused on the “Eye of the Narwal,” one of many climbs along the Listening Rock Trail at Grayson Highlands. Photo by Sarene Cullen

Aaron Parlier now lives in Boone, N.C., where he co-founded the Center 45 Climbing and Fitness gym, but he is a native of Southwest Virginia who spent years collaborating with park rangers and staff to develop the boulder fields of Grayson Highlands into a popular destination for climbers.

As a young child, Parlier was introduced to climbing by his uncle, and his love of the sport was so strong that he built a small climbing wall in Afghanistan while serving with the U.S. Army — the wall was later destroyed by Taliban forces. After his deployment, he returned to Appalachia eager to get back outside and climb on rocks.

Grayson Highlands quickly drew his attention because it had so many large boulders that no one seemed to be climbing. As Parlier explored the park’s rock formations, his uncle again provided encouragement, prompting him to keep records of the routes he climbed. Several years later, that bit of encouragement developed into Parlier’s published guidebook of 349 climbs at Grayson Highlands.

But more than documenting existing climbs, Parlier also worked to establish new routes and to design and build trails that sustainably provided access to them. This work was done during the three summers he served with the AmeriCorps State Park Interpretive Program.
Parlier has also studied plants and geology in order to be a responsible steward of the areas where he develops climbs. So, when an endangered flower, the Roan Mountain bluet, was unexpectedly discovered on a single rock face at Grayson, that boulder was immediately closed to climbers.

Through his collaboration with park staff, Parlier was able to expand access for climbers, while limiting their environmental impact on the park by only designating routes where no fragile species would be affected and by building and maintaining access trails. Each Memorial Day weekend he organizes volunteers to maintain the trails he designed.

“Land Shark” is a short climb on a boulder in the Moonlight Area of Grayson, and Sheila Rahim is tackling it with style. Photo by Dan Brayack

“Land Shark” is a short climb on a boulder in the Moonlight Area of Grayson, and Sheila Rahim is tackling it with style. Photo by Dan Brayack

Now, Grayson Highlands regularly attracts climbers from across the nation, and it is increasingly popular with international climbers, too.
Parlier credits the success of the project to the park’s staff, who are always available and have welcomed this collaboration with the climbing community. “The boulders are there,” he says. “So, it’s basically just facilitating access to the boulders, by means of a trail. As long as there’s folks there that can help allow it and manage the impact — in terms of travel and plant life — it can be a really great equilibrium.”

Cashing in on Climbing

Another popular climbing destination is the Red River Gorge, located near Slade in eastern Kentucky. Nestled in the Daniel Boone National Forest, this area is best known for its majestic cliff faces, which attract rope climbers. A few bouldering routes can be found there as well.
According to an Eastern Kentucky University study released in March, climbers visiting the Red River Gorge contribute $3.6 million annually to the economies of the six Kentucky counties along this geologic feature — Estill, Lee, Menifee, Owsley, Powell and Wolfe counties, some of which are among the poorest in the country.

The Access Fund, a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand access to climbing areas, co-sponsored the study and voiced support for the findings. “Climbing is an economic boon for communities across the country,” Zachary Lesch-Huie, southeast regional director for Access Fund, said in a press release. “Especially in economically distressed regions like southeastern Kentucky, it’s critical that [stakeholders] review this study and recognize the benefits climbing and other forms of outdoor recreation bring to local businesses and families. Responsibly opening more climbing areas on public land can help support a strong, sustainable and growing outdoor tourism economy.”

The town of Norton, Va., is also poised to expand its economic base by attracting climbers to the region. A strong supporter of climbing in Norton is Brad Mathisen, who is working with forest service staff in the Jefferson National Forest to carefully develop both rope climbing and bouldering routes in the Guest River Gorge.

Mathisen, who grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio, now calls Southwest Virginia home and has been a climber for about ten years. In addition to potentially bringing economic opportunities to the region, he sees climbing as a way to change opinions about how the region’s natural resources are used.

Regional Climbing Areas

For more information about these and other places to climb, visit


There are many popular places to climb in and around the city of Chattanooga, Tenn. For bouldering, try Little Rock City and Rocktown. For rope climbing, try Foster Falls. And if it rains, the city also offers several indoor gyms. Visit

Hidden Valley

This popular rope climbing area near Abingdon, Va., is once again accessible to climbers. Two years ago, the Access Fund and Carolina Climbers Coalition purchased 21 acres of prime terrain in order to preserve access for everyone. Visit

New River Gorge

The National Parks Service boasts that there are more than 1,400 established climbing routes along the New River Gorge National River. These steep cliff faces near Fayetteville, W.Va., are not for beginners, but will reward the more experienced climber. Visit

Red River Gorge

The Red River Gorge is located in eastern Kentucky within the Daniel Boone National Forest. This gorge is particularly popular for its rope climbing, but there is also some bouldering. Both guides and guidebooks are available. Visit

Rumbling Bald

Now part of Chimney Rock State Park, these boulders near Asheville, N.C., are particularly popular during the fall and winter months. With expanding access and parking areas, the spot offers bouldering, rope climbing across skill levels. Visit

Recently, when discussing his climbing gear with a curious bystander, the man noticed Mathisen didn’t have an accent and asked him why he wanted to live in Norton. “I was able to say that really, as a climber, the climbing resources around here are amazing. And having the Guest River Gorge 15 minutes from our house, I love living here,” Mathisen says. “[Climbing] does provide unique opportunities to … open people’s mind maybe to different ways of using the natural resources that exist here.”

Norton town officials are particularly eager to develop bouldering at the Flag Rock Recreational Area, following an agreement to expand access reached by the city of Norton, the Access Fund and the Southwest Virginia Climbers Coalition, which was founded by Mathisen and Parlier in 2014. “We think tourism is a great opportunity, not only for the city but for the region,” Norton City Manager Fred Ramey told the Bristol Herald Courier in February 2015. “We think opportunities like this can be part of the whole tourism component.”

Gaining and Losing Access

When developing climbing in any area, securing access to the boulders can require a delicate dance between climbers, landowners and federal and state agencies. But perhaps nowhere in Appalachia has access defined the character of a climbing community as much as in Boone, N.C.
During the 1990s, climbers lost access to some of that area’s most popular climbing spots, either when they were put off limits out of environmental concern or when they were destroyed by bulldozers to make room for residential developments.

According to Parlier, this history has left its mark on the local climbing community, which continues to be fiercely protective of the areas where they can climb. He believes that no guidebook exists for the Boone area out of concern that an influx of visitors could damage the climbing areas and result in more lost access. With more maintained trails, adequate parking to accommodate the larger numbers, and additional rangers and staff to help manage the public lands, the situation may eventually change.

But for climbers serious enough to explore the available climbing through word-of-mouth and personal networks, the area has a lot to offer.
“The climbing [around Boone] is fantastic,” says Dawn Davis, a college student who transferred to Appalachian State University because of the area’s climbing. “When I moved here I didn’t know anybody, not even one person, and I made so many friends through climbing, so many wonderful friends.”

Like most climbers, Davis frequently climbs in gyms, but she says there’s something special about climbing outside. “When you climb outside, and you’re working really hard on something, you can have so many stressors in your life,” she says. “But as soon as you get on the rock, they all go away, and all you can think about is the next move or getting on top of [the boulder].”

Davis is not alone in finding pleasure in the challenge of the rocks. Climbers come to Appalachia from around the country, and around the world, to explore the highlands one boulder at a time.

Don Blankenship Sentenced and other news briefs

Friday, April 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

Don Blankenship sentenced

Following his conviction in federal court for conspiring to violate mine safety laws, the former CEO of Massey Energy was sentenced in April to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine, the strictest penalties the court was able to impose.

While Blankenship’s lawyers claimed that probation would be punishment enough, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby told the judge that “If ever a case cried out for the maximum sentence, this is it.”

The historic sentence was announced a day after the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners and led to a federal investigation, civil penalties and the criminal convictions of four other Massey officials.

Family members of Upper Big Branch victims welcomed the news, including Judy Jones Peterson, who lost her brother and who described Blankenship’s courtroom apology as “too little, too late.” — Brian Sewell

Read more about the sentencing on our Front Porch Blog.

U.S. using less energy, global carbon emissions hold steady

Total electricity sales decreased last year in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. The agency lists energy efficiency, whether through market-driven improvements or government standards, as a significant factor in lessened electricity demand despite growth in the number of households and commercial buildings.

The International Energy Agency announced that for the second year in a row, carbon dioxide emissions from worldwide energy use did not rise with economic growth, but rather stayed relatively flat while the global economy grew. This breaks a relationship that had long been shown to be positively correlated. — Eliza Laubach

Atlantic Ocean spared from oil drilling

The Obama administration released its five-year plan for offshore oil drilling in March, announcing potential leases along the Gulf and Alaskan coasts but not the Atlantic Coast. The Department of Interior had proposed leasing a swath of the Atlantic coast, from Virginia through Georgia.

“When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales [in the Atlantic] in the coming five years,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a press release. — Eliza Laubach

West Virginia bill shields businesses from citizen suits

Landowner rights groups and environmentalists say legislation passed by the West Virginia Senate would shield the oil and gas industry from “public nuisance” lawsuits filed by citizens due to lost property values or other negative impacts. Although the bill never passed the state House of Delegates, opponents worry that legislation to strip landowners rights and protect industry is likely to reappear during the next legislative session. — Brian Sewell

New research reveals mountaintop removal impacts on landscape

In the region of southern West Virginia where mountaintop removal occurs, the land is 40 percent flatter than it was forty years ago, a Duke University study shows. Published in January in Environmental Science and Technology, the study compared topographic data and assessed how changes in the landscape affect water quality. The scientists found a correlation between the total volume of displaced rock and concentration of pollutants. — Eliza Laubach