The Appalachian Voice’s Tenth Anniversary

FIGHTING THE DESTRUCTION OF THEIR HOMELAND – Coalfield community groups such as Coal River Mountain Watch and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coaltion protest Massey Energy’s destruction of their mountains and communities through mountaintop removal mining.

BREATHTAKING BEAUTY IN THE BANKHEAD – Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest hosts some of the most beautiful waterfalls and hiking trails in the South. Thanks to the efforts of groups such as WildSouth and Wildlaw, the Bankhead is now a model of a sustainably managed national forest.

CHIPPING THE SOUTHERN FORESTS – As wood production shifted from the national forests in the west to private southern forests during the 90’s, hundreds of satellite chip mills sprung up across the South.

The Appalachian Voice newspaper is celebrating ten years of providing a voice to the land and all its living things from across our Appalachian Mountain home. From a community in the coal fields of West Virginia threatened by mountaintop removal mining, to an endangered Indian site in the Bankhead National Forest of Alabama, to the disappearing vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park of Tennessee and North Carolina, the Appalachian Voice has attempted to alert residents and visitors alike to the threats to our communities and to our environment.

The middle 90’s were a time of a major awakening of environmental consciousness in the southern and central Appalachian Mountains. The major national environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society had been in existence in the region for decades, but these groups were mostly focused on national environmental issues rather than regional ones. Sneaking in under the radar screen of these national groups were threats such as the invasion of the Southeast by wood chip mills that grind up hardwood trees for grocery bags and mountaintop removal coal mining that blows up mountains and fills in valleys in central Appalachia.

Fast forward to 2006. Groups such as the sponsoring organization of this newspaper, Appalachian Voices, the Dogwood Alliance, Southwings, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, Wild South and numerous others are on the scene working to protect our Appalachian Mountains against these and other threats.

This is the story of the vital work these groups have been doing over this last decade to protect Appalachian communities and our air, water, and forests and. It’s also the story of the challenges we face in the future.

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining in Appalachia

Strip mining coal in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia has been practiced in our mountains for over 50 years. But a coal mining method called mountaintop removal has only been with us to any extent for the last 20 or so years. It is done by blowing up mountains with high explosives to get at deeper and deeper seams of coal, and pushing the rest of the mountain off into nearby valleys. Entire mountains are destroyed and small valleys filled in, essentially leveling the once mountainous terrain. Mountaintop removal is frequently called “strip mining on steroids,” and is the cheapest and also the most destructive way to mine coal.

Not only are mountains leveled and the valleys filled in, but the Appalachian communities around these once mountainous regions are devastated. Now-treeless mounds of rock that were the mountains cause floods as they do nothing to stop rain water. These floods wash away homes and people as well. Dams holding back coal waste threaten schools and entire communities should they break like the Buffalo Creek disaster in Logan County, West Virginia, in 1973, which killed 125 people in a matter of minutes.

Law suits over the last eight years have had some success at stopping mountaintop removal. Joe Lovett, an attorney in Charleston, West Virginia, and other attorneys have won several suits, all of which have been at least partially overturned by the conservative Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, but several legal victories have been allowed to stand. The size of valley fills has now been reduced by one third to one half for mountaintop removal mines nationally. The proposed massive Spruce mine in Logan County has been rejected, the meaningless designation of the “reclaimed” mines known as fish and wildlife habitat is no longer accepted, and an expensive re-forestation of mined out sites has begun.

Joe Lovett, however, has found his job increasingly more difficult over the last several years. “The Bush Administration’s anti-regulatory policies have made litigation and enforcement actions much more difficult at the state as well as the federal levels,” Lovett explained. This anti-regulatory atmosphere in the coal fields no doubt played an important role in the recent underground mining deaths in West Virginia, as well as the deaths from floods induced by mountaintop removal and numerous fatal accidents at the mountaintop mines.

Groups that have been active in recent years in opposing mountaintop removal include Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalachian Voices, and Save Our Cumberland Mountains. One community group, Coal River Mountain Watch, has been successful in fighting the practice from inside the West Virginia coal fields. Based in Whitesville, West Virginia, Coal River has given a voice for the first time to many who are on the front lines of destruction.

Local citizens who never knew what to do in the past now protest the coal mining impacts to their state government, and have become players in the halls of Congress in Washington, DC, as well. They have succeeded in improving driving safety in the coal fields by gaining tighter enforcement of weight limits on huge coal trucks; caused Massey Coal to place a dome over a Sylvester, West Virginia, coal processing plant; and have stymied a coal processing plant expansion near Marsh Fork Elementary school in Sundial, West Virginia.

The Marsh Fork school is still impacted severely by the existing processing plant. But according to Bo Webb of Coal River Mountain Watch, “We are determined to get those kids a new school about three or four miles up the river.” He continues, “We are now organizing citizens at nearby Horse Creek and Dry Creek to oppose the new mountaintop removal mines right above their heads.”

Protecting Alabama’s National Forests

Forestry practices of the US Forest Service on the Bankhead and Talladega National Forests in Alabama have for decades been slanted toward maximizing the output of lumber. Harming other important functions of the forest such as providing recreation, wildlife habitat and a clean drinking water supply, massive clear cuts have been the rule in managing these forests. In many cases the native hardwoods have been replaced with fast-growing, non-native loblolly pines which are used to make paper products. These pine plantations have indeed become like any other crop such as corn or cotton.

In 1991, Lamar Marshall, an Alabama native, had had enough. He founded the Bankhead Monitor, a non-profit, educational corporation to stop the destruction of these public lands. The primary instrument for public involvement in decisions about the forests was a magazine called the Bankhead Monitor. In 1996, public demand for the magazine and the grassroots-based protection activities of Lamar and his associates led to an expansion of his work and a change in the publication’s name to Wild Alabama, and in 2004, regional work expanded the organization to a new name, the current Wild South.

Wild South with strong support from an environmental law firm, WildLaw, spent a decade of putting pressure on the US Forest Service to change their ways. Administrative appeals, law suits, and grassroots pressure from those citizens that spent time enjoying these National Forests finally succeeded.

According to Marshall, “In 2003, the federal managers of the Bankhead and Talladega National forests turned over a new leaf. For starters, they eliminated the emphasis on lumber production. Even more impressively, the Forest Service decided to stop converting native hardwoods to pine plantations, and in fact began a reforestation plan to convert thousands of acres of the plantations back to native hardwoods. Further, they established thousands of additional acres that would be managed as old growth forests where trees would not be cut down at all and trees could grow till they died of old age at 200-300 years.”

Protecting Private Forests

On the southern forests that are owned by private landholders, 80-90 percent of the forest total, massive clear cuts have also been the rule rather than the exception. Despite replanting of seedlings, in many cases replacing native hardwoods with pines, this clear cutting is not sustainable over the long haul. With removal of all the tree cover, massive erosion can occur and loss of critical topsoil is difficult to prevent, reducing the fertility and productivity of the land.

In the early 1980’s, about a decade prior to the dawn of regional environmental group beginnings, a new challenge to southern forests appeared. For decades the tree-to-pulp-to-paper industry had depended not only on massive pine plantations along the coasts of the South, but had been getting much of its natural resource in the forests of spruce and fir in the Northwest of Washington, Oregon, and nearby states and Canadian provinces. But by about 1980, those supplies had been exhausted, so the South became the national focus of logging for the country for the first time since the turn of the century, when 90 percent of the region’s forests were clear cut. Thus, by the 1980s, both the exhaustion of the Northwest forests and the recent re-growth of forests in the South combined to make southern hardwood forests ripe for the harvest.

Enter the wood chip mill industry. They needed trees to chop up to make pulp and paper, and we had it. It was not in the form of pines but mainly of hardwoods and it didn’t matter what size. By the time we realized it, dozens of these giant pencil sharpeners had set up in the Southeast, and our hardwood forests began disappearing much faster than when only lumber was being extracted.

Fortunately, in the early and middle 90s, groups like the Dogwood Alliance, Wild South, Appalachian Voices, and Western North Carolina Alliance appeared and blew the whistle on the chip mill invasion. We began educating southern landowners and others about the damage to our forests including reducing their future productive capacity of lumber wood. The chip mills were chipping up the so-called growing stock, the future lumber trees.

Within a couple of years, the stream of new chip mills had all but dried up, either because we had stopped them or because there were enough of them to handle the needs of the industry. Since about 2000, there have been virtually no new chip mills in the region.

At that point, the private lands forestry movement split into two different complementary campaigns. One was concerned with spreading the practice of truly sustainable forestry, not what the industry refers to as sustainable forestry which is simply a steady stream of pulp and lumber production. By this term, we mean forests that sustain clean water, good animal habitat, and that retain the qualities of an old growth forest.

To get an idea of how some of our southern forests could truly sustainably produce lumber products and limited pulpwood, as most landowners desire, many of us journeyed to Missouri, where the 150,000 acre Pioneer Forest is located. Pioneer Forest was purchased in the early 50s by a far-sighted individual who wanted to produce wood products sustainably while making a substantial profit. His foresters were up to the challenge. They found that the original 150,000 acres were heavily degraded by massive clear cuts. But by taking the worst trees out of the forest at first, and encouraging the better trees, they were able to slowly but constantly improve the timber supply. Now after 50 years of selecting single trees for cutting while leaving the other trees intact, the lowest grade trees they now harvest are much superior to the best in the 50s. Clint Trammel, chief forester of Pioneer Forest, has mentored many from the Southeast in sustainable forestry.

The other segment of the groups at first working to stop chip mills began an innovative, well-conceived campaign to convince the corporate consumers of wood products that they should not buy timber that is cut in a non-sustainable way. These corporate consumers included Lowes, Office Depot and Staples.

According to Scott Qaranda of the Dogwood Alliance, “Through a combination of concerted public consumer pressure and meetings with corporate managers by our Dogwood Alliance, these wood product consuming giants of the industry agreed to purchase no old growth trees or trees that were produced by the worst of the massive clear cutting of native forests. So the idea was to dry up the demand for irresponsibly produced wood.”

Both of the two prongs of the sustainable forestry movement have made further progress. Through landowner handbooks and on-the-ground demonstrations, groups such as Appalachian Voices are now training large numbers of individual private landowners to follow practices similar to those at Pioneer Forest.

The Dogwood Alliance has moved on to pressuring wood products producers to log sustainably. A recent success with timber giant Bowater according to Danna Smith, founder of Dogwood Alliance, “will not allow them to purchase wood from a landowner who would covert native forests into pine plantations.” While there is still work to be done, these activities are improving the quality of Southeastern forests. The best is yet to come.

Air Quality

The southern Appalachians have some of the worst air quality on the North American continent. According to a study by National Parks Conservation Association and Appalachian Voices, the three national parks in the region, Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave, and Shenandoah National Parks are the three most air-polluted out of all 50 or so in the country. Our southern Appalachian cities represent the ten worst from across the country in terms of premature death rates from coal-fired power plant pollution. Trees in our mountains are declining and dying in many cases and many of the streams are acidified. Visibility in the parks is sometimes less than one mile due largely to power plant haze, and the toxic ozone readings in these parks at times rivals even that of big cities like Atlanta and even Los Angeles.

While automobiles play the largest role in air pollution in the West, coal-fired power plants, even sixteen years after the latest Clean Air Act, are the main source of the majority of the serious air pollutants in our region. Power plants in the nearby Ohio and Tennessee valleys supply most of the mountain’s pollution, but states such as North Carolina and Virginia have numerous such plants, and they do their share of the damage as well.

Solutions to southern Appalachian air pollution must therefore include cleanup of power plants across region. Tennessee Valley Authority and American Electric Power, but also Duke Power and Progress Energy must clean up their act. The latter two energy companies have made a bold move in North Carolina by supporting the passage of the 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act. All the major pollutants other than carbon dioxide are being slashed by 60 to almost 80 percent at both Duke and Progress coal plants across the state, making the law among the strongest in the country. Virginia is currently considering similar legislation for passage this year.

Under the current anti-regulatory environment in Washington, DC, many challenges remain. Several attempts have already been made to weaken the existing federal Clean Air Act. And perhaps even more ominously, states are now, with federal blessing, considering building not only more coal-fired plants, but also new nuclear power plants.

Fighting these battles will take the maximum combined efforts of both the national environmental groups and the new generation of regional groups. These groups must rally the general public of the region to stand up to the powerful energy corporations and insist on maximizing conservation and efficiency improvements as well as renewable energy producible in the region, including solar and wind power.


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