Posts Tagged ‘appalachia’

Defending our vision for Appalachia

Friday, January 20th, 2017 - posted by tom

Photo by Kent Mason

Each month, Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons reflects on issues of importance to our supporters and to the region. Photo by Kent Mason

Donald Trump has taken the oath of office and assumed the awesome responsibility of serving as our nation’s 45th president.

His administration promises to pursue an energy and environmental policy vision in stark contrast to the scientific consensus on climate change, and to the American public’s desire for renewable energy, clean air and water, and healthier, more sustainable communities.

In our view, the new administration’s approach to environmental protection and national energy policy is dangerously shortsighted and could lead to long-lasting harm to communities and our natural heritage — perhaps in Appalachia most of all. We are determined to defend against regulatory rollbacks that compromise Appalachia’s future and to continue building on the progress we’ve made in recent years.

By every indication, Trump is entering the White House motivated to undo President Obama’s environmental legacy without considering the consequences. Appalachian Voices is prepared to take on the serious threats to the safeguards that protect human health, our region’s landscapes, air and water, and the global climate.

We watched closely as Trump’s picks to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Department of Energy and Department of State were peppered during their confirmation hearings with pointed questions about their records and qualifications. Few of their answers passed muster or even came close to counterbalancing the pro-fossil fuel, anti-environmental and unscientific rhetoric that was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign.

Our federal agencies play an essential role in enforcing broadly supported environmental laws. How they prioritize things like investments in clean energy or measure the climate impacts of infrastructure projects such as oil and gas pipelines will be more important than ever in the coming years.

What does this new political reality mean for Appalachian Voices’ work? It compels us to continue building and deploying power from the ground up through local initiatives, constituent pressure and citizen lawsuits, and to continue serving as a technical and policy resource to a broad range of allies in Congress and in Appalachian communities.

We will do everything we can to see that the laws protecting our natural heritage are enforced. And we’ll be a key part of the massive resistance that the administration will face when it attempts to roll back these protections.

At the same time, we must not be distracted from promoting our vision for Appalachia’s energy and economic future. Our commitment to this region is the wellspring of our resistance. Lessons from the past and the promise of a better future will continue to give our movement power.

We know you’ll stand with us during this uncertain time as we work to ensure that communities in Appalachia and the Southeast can reap the benefits of the burgeoning clean energy economy and live unburdened by pollution and environmental threats.

Final Stream Protection Rule released

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016 - posted by Erin
The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements to protections for public waterways, but it is well worth defending from congressional attack. Congress should focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward.

The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements to protections for public waterways, but it is well worth defending from congressional attack. Congress should focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior on Monday released the final Stream Protection Rule, which aims to protect streams from the impacts of surface and longwall mining.

Based on updated science and technology, the rule offers modest improvements for the protection of public waterways. But despite the fact that the rule could have been much stronger, it still faces immense opposition from the coal industry’s supporters in Congress.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement began work on the rule in 2009. At that time, George W. Bush’s 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule was in effect after having replaced the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule, written in 1983. The Bush-era rule weakened stream protections and virtually eliminated prohibitions on mining through streams. When it was struck down by a federal court in 2014, the 1983 rule was reinstated.

The new Stream Protection Rule includes several improvements including increased requirements for water monitoring and forest reclamation. But it falls short of preventing mining through streams or stopping mountaintop removal. The rule also includes ample leeway for state interpretation of the requirements, which could easily lead to lax enforcement.

Donald Trump’s pick for Interior Secretary, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, is a proponent of coal and could effectively undo the rule through an administrative route. But that could take years. Instead, it is likely that the rule will be thrown out via the Congressional Review Act. The act allows Congress to overturn rules within 60 legislative days of their enactment. The president could veto such a move, but given the change in administration, this seems unlikely. This law not only allows Congress to toss out a rule, it prevents another “substantially similar” rule from being written in the future. The act has only been used successfully once, so it’s unclear what the courts would consider “substantially similar” in regard to a future mining rule from OSMRE or another agency.

Even as coal company executives call on Trump to temper his promises to coal mining communities so as not to falsely elevate expectations, other politicians are also returning to the old “war on coal” rhetoric. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) called the Stream Protection Rule “the Obama Administration’s last attempt to kill the coal industry,” and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) vowed to file a Congressional Review Act resolution himself.

While we wish the final rule were stronger, it is well worth defending from congressional attack. We will urge the White House and Congress to focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward, rather than waste time on counterproductive political fights. A better use of time would be to pass the RECLAIM Act, which would ensure that mine sites are reclaimed and repurposed to provide economic benefit to the region.

Building a healthy economic future in Central Appalachia requires attracting new industries and encouraging community members to stay in the region. Protecting the remaining assets of the region, like clean water and healthy communities, is an integral part of building that new future.

Duke Energy’s empire grows with natural gas

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016 - posted by brian
 The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., and Duke Energy is at the forefront of a historic fuel switching trend.

It’s both a sign of the times and a warning of things to come. Duke Energy’s purchase of Piedmont Natural Gas was finalized this week after North Carolina utility regulators signed off on the deal.

Duke executives say the $4.9 billion acquisition will bolster the company’s position in the natural gas sector by tripling its existing base of 525,000 gas customers and expanding its footprint into Tennessee. Their cheerful announcement also casts natural gas in a familiar light — as the clean, climate-friendly fuel of the future.

“This combination provides clear benefits to our customers and the environment as we continue to expand our use of low-cost and clean natural gas and invest in pipelines,” Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said in a statement.

These days, terms like “clean” and “low-cost” come standard with efforts to tout the environmental and economic benefits of natural gas relative to other energy sources. By now, they should also set off alarm bells.

One of the nation’s largest electric providers, Duke has brought four natural gas-fired power plants online in North Carolina since 2011 to replace shuttered coal-fired capacity. Earlier this year, the company received expedited approval of plans to convert a fifth, its Asheville plant, from coal to gas.

A similar story is playing out in other states where Duke operates. Florida, which ranks third in solar potential but 14th in installed capacity, relies on gas to meet two-thirds of its electricity demand. Duke subsidiary Progress Energy operates several gas-fired facilities in the Sunshine State, including the 1,912-megawatt Hines Energy Complex.

Other large investor-owned utilities aren’t far behind. Florida Power & Light, also among the nation’s largest electric utilities, and Duke are partners in the controversial $3.2 billion Sabal Trail Pipeline, which will stretch nearly 500 miles from Alabama to central Florida.

Duke based its decision to purchase the Charlotte-based Piedmont on sustained market trends that forecast a continued expansion of natural gas’ role in the nation’s energy mix. The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011. Click to enlarge.

And the trend shows no signs of slowing down. Duke’s most recent long-term resource plan proposes constructing three plants that would add nearly 2,500 megawatts of gas-fired generation in the Carolinas. The plan also calls for multiplying installed solar capacity threefold by 2031, but says solar’s “limited ability to meet peak demand conditions” makes more gas generation essential to ensure reliability.

“A thoughtful transition is what we are seeking, not a headlong rush to dependency on any one fuel,” Duke’s director of integrated resource planning, Glen Snider, told the Charlotte Business Journal.

Fair enough. Duke often claims credit for diversifying its portfolio ahead of the curve, although North Carolina’s renewable energy standard and tax credits for renewables have played a considerable role. But today, the company’s large stake in the $5 billion proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline threatens to counteract that thoughtful transition. If the 550-mile pipeline is built, Duke’s gas-burning power plants would be among its primary users.

Continuing to invest in massive pipelines designed to last decades could result in stranded assets, costly liabilities created when capital-intensive projects like pipelines or power plants are forced to retire before the end of their economic usefulness. This is especially true if the United States plans to do its part to meet international climate goals.

“We’ve been building gas power plants like crazy for the last 10 years,” Lorne Stockman, the author of a report on gas infrastructure for the group Oil Change International told Utility Dive. “I don’t see anyone really sitting down and saying how many more can we build if we are really going to make this transition.”

Replacing existing gas capacity with renewables may be unlikely in the near-term. But that doesn’t make the long-term planning decisions being made today any less problematic, because they foreshadow an energy future that experts are urging us to avoid.

Making sense of crisis: The West Virginia floods

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editor’s note: In this guest post, West Virginia resident and former coordinator of The Alliance for Appalachia Katey Lauer shares her perspective on the aftermath of the floods that devastated several West Virginia counties late last month, and the humanity she has witnessed as communities come together and begin to rebuild. To learn where you can volunteer or donate money and supplies, visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s WV Flood Resources page.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

“… My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

— Adrienne Rich

This might be an article where I tell you how devastating the flood has been. Where I tell you that the flood waters are not water at all. That they are sewage and mud and oil. That they are bits of plastic and metal. I might tell you that it’s four days into flood relief and I can’t get the smell out of my nose or off my skin.

And I might explain how I can’t shake the worst of the stories: how I sat with a grandmother who told me how she climbed to the top of a kitchen stool late Thursday night while the debris rose higher and higher around her ankles then knees then waist.

How I heard about a woman alone in her home in a wheelchair, waters rising up to her neck while her dogs piled onto her lap — all of them screaming. How her family heard her from outside but couldn’t get in.

I might tell you about the kind young man in the town where 17 people died. How he pointed out the mountain where he fled with his mother just after showing me the water line on the carport outside, well above our heads.

But the floods aren’t just about that.

Because this might also be an article about strength through hardship. About that phrase I see on fast food boards and church bulletins: “West Virginia Strong.” And I could tell you how my guess is that that sign is about the families on 5th Street in Rainelle, about the cheerleaders serving up soup beans and cornbread in the Kroger parking lot to anyone who’s hungry, about the volunteers sorting a pile of clothing 20 feet high in an Elkview gym, about the women running the volunteer check point in Clendenin. I could tell you about everyday heroes, but the floods aren’t just about that either.


Because this article could be about issues: About our failing infrastructure. About climate change. About poverty. About how working-class, rural America is so unseen by the rest of our nation. I could say that.

But then there’s also the way that strangers come together in these moments of crisis. How I hauled heavy, putrid carpet with a dear old friend and a man I’d never met. How I piled water-logged drywall on a pile of building refuse with a man from Florida. How a woman stopped us on the street to give us a warm meal — a woman whose name I didn’t know and who I’d never see again.

Then I could tell you about the ugly parts, about people fighting in sadness in the streets. About that wits-end sort of withdrawal on the face of an older woman. I could say how I wonder where these tons of waste will be shipped and guess that it’s other poor communities that will deal with this new burden. I could tell you about the national guardsman, eyeing me for too long in a shirt tight with the damp.

But the thing that feels closest to the truth is that there is not one story here. In times of crisis, we can look for saviors and goodwill, we look for peeks at what’s best in the human spirit. We can look for a way to make sense of it — to give it a purpose. We can look for the revelation. If you have been touched by this crisis, my guess is you might well have found some of that. But you have likely also found more. I know I have. If these floods have taught me anything, it’s that crisis is not tidy. It is more threads than fabric.

What I mean is that crisis does not make us super-human; it makes us more human. The floods that have washed away homes and possessions and loved ones have also washed away pretense. And at the end of the day, here we are, neighbors and strangers, ankle deep in receding waters, doing our best — in our beauty and our faults — to reconstitute the world.

Visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s Flood Resources page to donate and find other ways to support relief efforts.

West Virginia files Clean Water Act suit against Kanawha County mine

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016 - posted by willie
Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has brought a lawsuit against Florida-based Keystone Industries over a series of Clean Water Act violations at the controversial KD #2 surface mine.

The 413-acre mountaintop removal mine in southern Kanawha County, W.Va., has been met with much opposition by local residents and others concerned about the mine’s impacts on nearby communities and on Kanawha State Forest, which borders the mine.

The suit, filed on March 9 in the Kanawha County Circuit Court, alleges that runoff from the KD #2 mine contains measurements of aluminum, iron, manganese, selenium, total suspended solids and pH that are in violation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit granted to Keystone Industries under the Clean Water Act. The primary evidence supporting this claim is the company’s own quarterly discharge monitoring reports submitted to the DEP.

The Kanawha Forest Coalition, a grassroots environmental watchdog group comprised of local community members, has conducted water monitoring at the site since shortly after the mine began operating in 2014. Through these efforts, the coalition has identified numerous and persistent regulatory violations, prompting the DEP to issue 40 enforcement actions against the KD #2 mine to date.

“It was shocking to realize that it was through citizen complaints, and not DEP monitoring, that our land was being protected,” said Becky Park, a Kanawha Forest Coalition member from Charleston. “What it boils down to is we are the government. We can’t assume that DEP employees are monitoring permitted mining operations. We have to read the permits, understand the agreements made with mining companies, be willing to use the systems in place to submit complaints, and go to court when the systems fail to stop violators.”

Daile Boulis, who lives in the community of Loudendale immediately adjacent to the KD #2 mine feels similarly.

“From what I understand, this is one of best written permits in the state, and still, there are forty violations in two years? Imagine what the company would be getting away with, without the citizen enforcement and public media exposure? The same thing goes for the DEP,” said Boulis. “The only reason 75-80% of the violations have been enforced and fined is due to pressure from the Kanawha Forest Coalition. When you consider all of the other mines in West Virginia that don’t have a group like Kanawha Forest Coalition working on behalf of the impacted citizens, that’s terrifying! Our lives should not be the cost of doing business in West Virginia.”

By initiating its own suit against Keystone Industries, the DEP has prevented the Kanawha Forest Coalition or other grassroots organizations from filing suit on similar grounds. However, the organization may choose to file as an intervenor in the case, a move that would earn them a seat at the table — but not veto power — in potential future settlement negotiations with Keystone.

Doug Wood, a retired DEP official with 33 years of experience in water resources, is skeptical of his former agency’s motives in bringing this case against Keystone.

“This lawsuit seems to be an attempt to stop advocates from filing their own suits, and an attempt to get a little money to start water pollution treatment when Keystone says, ‘keep the bond, we’re outta here,’” said Wood. “… The DEP seems to be most interested in getting a court settlement so they can say, ‘we solved that problem’ even though the systemic problems that led to this disaster remain unsolved.”

The DEP’s suit against Keystone is expected to go to trial in spring 2017. Meanwhile, the Kanawha Forest Coalition continues to monitor conditions at the mine, regularly testing impacted streams and alerting the DEP of persistent problems.

Responding to “Appalachia’s Distress”

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016 - posted by brian

We have to address the economic and environmental burdens created by a dependence on coal

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant, and mountaintop removal moves closer to communities — even as coal production declines. Photo by Matt Wasson

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant, and mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities — even as coal production declines. Photo by Matt Wasson

Earlier this month, a letter to the editors of The New York Times by Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons appeared on the newspaper’s website.

Tom penned the letter following a piece by the Times editorial board that described a “grossly disfigured landscape” where steep mountain ridgelines that formed over millions of years old stand “flat as mesas … inhospitable to forest restoration.”

After decades of mountaintop removal and large-scale surface mining, these grim descriptions of Central Appalachia are familiar in the media, literature and the daily experience of those that live near mines.

Not only does this devastating practice continue to reduce mountains to rubble, poisoning the air and water, Tom points out:

… mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities as the industry searches out ever-dwindling coal seams, and residents continue to suffer from a multitude of health effects related to mining pollution, not to mention dire economic conditions.

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant. Backers of mountaintop removal believe the debate ends with the reclamation of mines — a superficial “fix” that Ken Hechler, a former congressman and long-time opponent of mountaintop removal, has unsettlingly compared to putting “lipstick on a corpse.” But new research challenges the myth that reclamation can restore mountains, much less ecological health.

Donate now to help us continue to protect Appalachian streams

The Times’ welcome editorial drew attention to this study, by researchers at Duke University, that found mountaintop removal has left large swaths of Central Appalachia 40 percent flatter than they were before mining, leading to staggering changes in erosion patterns and water quality that are, essentially, permanent.

“We have data that the water quality impacts can last at least 30 years, but the geomorphology impacts might last thousands of years,” according to the study’s lead author, Matthew Ross.

The editorial also makes a brief mention of the Stream Protection Rule, which would go far to reducing the worst impacts of mountaintop removal. Tom wrote his letter in part to stress the importance of this science-based rule and to urge federal regulators to stand firm in the face of industry opposition, and finalize it before President Obama leaves office.

Not doing so could come at a high cost to Appalachia’s environmental and economic future. As Tom’s letter concludes:

… unless the [U.S. Department of the Interior] has the courage to issue a strong rule later this year that reflects the most current science, achieving a prosperous future here will be all but impossible.

Read the Times’ editorial here. Click here for Tom’s letter.

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Owning the Mountains: Appalachia’s history of corporate control

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

The U.S. Forest Service owns 1.6 million acres in Virginia. Overlooking Jefferson National Forest, Dickenson County. Photo by Bill Harris,

The U.S. Forest Service owns 1.6 million acres in Virginia. Overlooking Jefferson National Forest, Dickenson County. Photo by Bill Harris,

Throughout the history of the United States, Appalachia has attracted the attention of outside investors hoping to profit from the region’s valuable commodities. First timber, then coal and now natural gas are all highly valued.

To ensure access to these resources, early investors bought large parcels of land in Appalachia. “By 1810, as much as 93 percent of [the] land in present day West Virginia was held by absentee owners,” according to a 2013 report issued by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, and by the 1880s, outside interests began purchasing extensive timber and underground mineral rights on land whose residents retained only the surface rights.

Outside ownership of large tracts of land for the purpose of resource extraction has created a conduit through which significant wealth has been drained from the region in the form of corporate profits. And that drain has been flowing for more than a century.

An Early Study of the Problem

In 1974, Tom D. Miller, a reporter for the The Huntington Herald-Dispatch, conducted a study of landownership patterns in West Virginia. Miller found that two-thirds of the private land in the state was owned or controlled by “absentee landlords,” and that “in almost 50 per cent of West Virginia counties, at least half the land is owned by the out-of-state corporate interests.”

Comparing the wealth of corporations to that of many West Virginians, Miller wrote, “Often paying tiny property taxes, [corporations] extract the state’s rich deposits of coal, timber, oil and gas. And their activities inevitably help sustain the striking paradox of a state with abundant mineral wealth and much abject poverty.”

The Appalachian Land Ownership Survey

In 1978, the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force undertook a thorough investigation of land ownership patterns in the region. Funded in part by the Appalachian Regional Commission, this group of paid researchers and volunteers collected and reviewed land deeds from 80 counties in Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

In 1981, the group released its findings in a multi-volume 1,800-page report. They found that 40 percent of the property and 70 percent of the mineral rights in Appalachian counties sampled were owned by corporations, and of the land owned by individuals, less than half was owned by “local individuals.”

The task force concluded that “these ownership patterns are a crucial underlying element in explaining patterns of inadequate local tax revenues and services, lack of economic development, loss of agricultural lands, lack of sufficient housing, the development of energy, and land use.”

Despite its significant findings, the report lead to no significant changes, in part because even the Appalachian Regional Commission distanced itself from it. Reporting in April 1981 after the report’s release, the New York Times wrote, “A spokesman at the commission’s headquarters in Washington, [when] asked why the commission had done little to draw attention to it, called the survey ‘controversial’ because portions of it contain ‘subjective judgments’ and ‘some rhetoric.’”

In his book “Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945,” Ronald D. Eller notes that the commission’s continued existence was under threat from the Reagan administration’s federal budgets cuts, writing that “agency leaders abandoned the politically sensitive study to rally support for their own organization’s survival.”

The Heartwood Forestland Fund is the largest landowner in West Virginia and a significant landowner in Virginia. Photo of Highlands Property in Va. by Craig Kaderavek

The Heartwood Forestland Fund is the largest landowner in West Virginia and a significant landowner in Virginia. Photo of Highlands Property in Va. by Craig Kaderavek

Ethical Concerns

In 1995, Dr. David Rouse, a philosophy professor now retired from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, explored the ethical implications of outside land ownership in Appalachia. He concluded that these large corporate landholdings restricted access to land by individuals, increased the political influence of corporate landowners, and decreased civic engagement in those communities. According to him, the “correlation between landownership and political participation” is still relevant.

With many of the land-owning coal companies now declaring bankruptcy, Rouse is hopeful that some of this land might finally be available to benefit the community. He is now chairing a committee for the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a coalfield community organization, that will re-examine the findings of his and other earlier studies.

Current Metrics

In December 2013, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, together with the American Friends Service Committee, released a comprehensive report detailing the state’s current land-ownership figures and updating the findings of both Miller and the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force.

Using 2011 property data, the study revealed that the concentration of land ownership in the state has actually declined during the past 30 years. While Miller’s study concluded that two dozen corporate landowners held one-third of the state’s 12 million privately owned acres, the 2013 study showed that the top 25 private owners held just 17.6 percent of the state’s 13 million acres of private land. The authors concluded that this was “still a significant percentage but a dramatic decline in concentration of ownership.”

The researchers also identified a new type of corporate entity that did not exist during the previous studies now plays a dominant role, namely the timber management companies that maintain forestland as financial assets. In fact, they found that in 2011, “the North Carolina-based Heartwood Forestland Fund, a timberland investment company that owns 500,366 acres in 31 counties, [was] West Virginia’s largest landowner.”

The report’s authors noted that lands classified as “managed timberlands” were eligible for certain tax credits that significantly lower their tax rates.

According to Rouse’s study, another factor deflating tax rates on corporate land in Appalachia is their artificially low market value. While the companies owning the land may have changed ownership several times, the land rarely goes on the market. As a result, he notes, the property value cannot be based on a recent sale price. And because this land cannot be used for homes, the residential market nearby becomes more competitive and expensive. “The result is that homeowners bear a disproportionate share of the tax burden,” Rouse concluded.

Case Study: Wyoming County, W.Va.

The 2013 West Virginia study identified Wyoming County as the state’s most corporately owned county. It determined that the top 10 landowners hold 75.8 percent of the county’s private land, and “just two companies — Heartwood Forestland Company and Norfolk Southern — own over 50 percent of the county’s privately held land.”

The most recent available property records for Wyoming County uphold the findings of the 2013 study. For example, Pocahontas Land Company, a subsidiary of Norfolk Southern, is still listed as owning more than 77,000 acres in the county, or roughly 25 percent of the privately owned land, with an average assessed property value of less than $350 per acre for 2016.

For Dewey Houck, president and founder of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League in Mullens, W.Va., these large land-holding companies have their own personalities and policies, and each should be considered individually.

According to Houck, Pocahontas Land Company has cooperated with his organization — a nonprofit community group working to bring opportunities to southern West Virginia — even leasing them several properties for agricultural and recreational purposes.

But another large landowner, Western Pocahontas Properties, has been harder to work with. The company’s parcels of land that were once accessible to the public are now locked behind gates with “no trespassing” signs. “For years,” Houck says, “the land was used by the public. Especially hunters could go on their property and hunt, and use the land same as public land, and what they’ve done is started leasing their land to whoever can pay the fee that they charge.”

This Western Pocahontas property, near Mullens, W.Va., is locked behind a gate and “no trespassing” signs. Photo Ruby Anne Ingram

This Western Pocahontas property, near Mullens, W.Va., is locked behind a gate and “no trespassing” signs. Photo Ruby Anne Ingram

Case Study: Wise County, Va.

While West Virginia has been more thoroughly studied, it is not the only state in the region dealing with the impacts of having much of its privately owned land concentrated in the hands of a few. In Wise County, Va., a heavily mined area in the southwestern part of the state, roughly 45 percent of the land is owned by corporations, Carl Snodgrass, the county’s economic development director, told Appalachian Voices.

An analysis of public property records reveals that two corporate entities — Penn Virginia and the Heartwood Forestland Fund — together own nearly one-third of the county’s surface land. Penn Virginia is listed as the owner of more than 58,000 acres and Heartwood Forestland Fund nearly 28,000 acres, or 22.5 and 10.7 percent of the county, respectively.

While most corporate-owned lands in Wise are in rural areas, they are surrounded by struggling towns that could benefit from policy changes that expand the tax base. “The one thing that people in Wise County seem to be most aware of is the threat of towns losing their incorporations, simply because the tax base is not able to support services,” says Rouse.

Shannon C. Scott, administrator for Wise County, does not believe these corporate holdings hinder local economic initiatives. “For instance, if [the corporations] know that it’s a project that will not interfere with their future development in the way of natural gas or coal extraction … they work with us very closely,” he says.

The Impact on Appalachia

The view from the U.S. Forest Service’s Birch Knob Observation Tower shows reclaimed surface mine land. Photo by Bill Harris,

The view from the U.S. Forest Service’s Birch Knob Observation Tower shows reclaimed surface mine land. Photo by Bill Harris,

For more than a century, corporate land ownership has defined much of the region. While some in the region find ways to cooperate with these large companies, others feel cause for concern.

In an email, Dr. Ronald Eller, a retired professor from the University of Kentucky, wrote that the concentration of corporate landowners in the region “continues to be a major issue limiting the tax base (especially with the decline of coal production), but more importantly limiting the options for alternative land uses.”

Ideas about what those land uses could be are as diverse as the people in the region and not mutually exclusive. Eller would like to see an expansion of public lands, and Rouse a change in tax policy. And others, like Houck, simply hope the landholding corporations will open more of their land to hunting and recreation. But regardless of how — or if — land ownership patterns change, who controls the land will greatly impact the future of Appalachia.

Catholic Letter Addresses Environment, Economy

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

The Catholic Committee of Appalachia released its third pastoral letter in December 2015, stating in its introduction, “We recognize a deepening ecological crisis and new pressures on our struggling communities.”

Catholic pastoral letters are typically written by a bishop, but this People’s Pastoral highlights the voices of ordinary citizens. The Catholic Committee of Appalachia spent four years conducting listening sessions and interviews throughout the region, documenting the stories of residents from a variety of religious traditions.

The committee focuses on social justice and environmental issues including mountaintop removal coal mining, water quality, climate change, poverty and health. The People’s Pastoral is one of many declarations from various religions in the recent years that highlights a faith-based ethic of environmental stewardship. To learn more, visit — Molly Moore

New Program Makes Learning Cherokee Easier

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

Cherokee is one of the most difficult languages to learn, according to Barbara Duncan, the education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, N.C. But a new language program — “Your Grandmother’s Cherokee” — is changing that.

The program results from the insights of John Standingdeer, Jr., a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. He told the Asheville Citizen-Times that he did not grow up speaking Cherokee and found learning it hard.

According to Duncan, long Cherokee words contain as much information as an English sentence. But then Standingdeer discovered patterns within the words, patterns which Duncan says are “like a math equation.”

Since 2006, Standingdeer and Duncan — with computer-programing help from Duncan’s sister — have spent their free time developing the language program. In October 2015, their method was granted a U.S. patent.

“Your Grandmother’s Cherokee” teaches the language not by memorizing the complicated words, but by recognizing the patterns within them, making Cherokee easier to understand and use.

Duncan estimates that only 200 of the 15,000 members of the Eastern Band grew up speaking their tribal language, and all are over 55 years old. She feels an urgency to study this endangered language, which she stresses is “the original language of the Appalachians.”

A symposium will be held May 29 to June 2 at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, to explore using Standingdeer and Duncan’s method to preserve and teach other indigenous North American languages.

The program currently offers an online dictionary and two levels of coursework, with two additional levels expected soon. For more information visit

Childhood Blood Lead Levels Falling in Appalachia

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

Elevated lead levels in children has gained national attention after the recent report that thousands were exposed to the heavy metal in Flint, Mich. In Flint, the city water system was the source of contamination, but lead exposure typically occurs from chipped lead-based paint found in old homes.

Children are more at risk of having high amounts of lead in their blood, especially those living in poverty. Elevated blood lead levels are likely to cause learning or behavioral impairments during childhood development.

In Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, the number of children reported to have lead poisoning has decreased since 1997, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but neither North Carolina nor Virginia have reported data since 2009. Tennessee provided data in 2014, but had no past statistics available for comparison. — Dylan Turner