To Save the Land and People

Reviewed by Michael Hodges-Foret

How can a land be so rich, and its people so poor? According to Chad Montrie, a historian at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, this is the “enduring paradox” of Appalachia. To Save the Land and People explores one aspect of that paradox, the opposition to surface coal mining in Appalachia. Montrie traces the efforts of farmers, environmentalists, and sportsmen from its early days before World War I to the late 1990s. He took the title of his book from the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People, an organization which was formed in June, 1965, to oppose surface coal mining in eastern Kentucky.

What makes the title so apt is that the long, hard struggle to save the land and people came from the people themselves. As crusading Ohio newspaper editor Milton Ronsheim put it in 1944, “The demand for legislation to regulate coal stripping has come from the people, with no money, no organization and no lobbyists.” It might not be surprising that farmers and sportsmen would oppose surface mining, but so did small traditional miners.

Appalachia covers a lot of ground, and that ground changes dramatically from one region to the next. Montrie divides his book both chronologically and regionally. In single or double chapters, he starts in Ohio in the 1910s, and then moves on to Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia. He concludes the book with a review of the opposition to surface mining from the passage of landmark legislation under Jimmy Carter to the present.

Montrie does a good job of concisely explaining how mining began in the region, as well as describing the different kinds of surface mining, which include: area mining, contour mining, and – the focus of much recent attention – mountaintop removal. Mining changed over the roughly one hundred years covered in this book, not only regarding the technology of mining itself, but also because of the demand for coal to power the factories that were making the country one of the leading industrialists of the world. The machines got bigger, and their ability to harm the land and the people dramatically and speedily increased as well.

The damage done from surface mining goes beyond the scarring of the land itself from the creation of highwalls, pits, and the removal of mountaintops. Runoff from mining operations pollutes streams and other sources of water, causing health hazards. Mud, sludge and rocks left behind are often pushed into stream beds, obliterating hundreds of miles of even navigable streams over the region. In addition, land slides, blasting, and other mine operations have destroyed and damaged homes, farms and sources of livelihoods for thousands of people.

The villains of this book are coal companies, mine operators, government officials and especially courts who used the political and legal systems in the same way they used the machinery of mining – destructively. The heroes of the book are the people, from the humble to the powerful, who fought surface mining. They most often used traditional methods of protest and political action. It was only when that failed and aggressive mine operators could not be stopped any other way that they fought their battles sometimes literally with guns and other forms of violence, or even by putting their own bodies in front of the equipment.

Montrie takes care to show that the villains and heroes are not easily predictable. There were miners and mine operators among those who opposed surface mining at various points along the way. Union miners and sportsmen were not always on the same side as the people. While some politicians fought with the people, others took coal money and did their bidding.

This book is not only about large forces, but about individual people as well. Some fought surface mining for economic reasons, but for others, their concerns were aesthetic or spiritual. Whatever motivated them, they have fought a long and ongoing struggle. However, the mountain tops continue to be removed, and the land continues to be scarred.

This is an important book for everyone who cares about the land and the people of Appalachia.

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