By Hannah Zaveri and Lelia Battle, New Economy Interns
A recent webinar led by the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition (RAC) revealed hope for the Appalachian coalfields by depicting innovative work being done by regional organizations to revive coal-impacted lands and uplift Central Appalachia. The presenters shared stories of hard work, careful planning, and community organizing that are the stepping stones for efforts to revitalize coal-impacted trails and waterways for the purpose of outdoor recreation. The RAC is a multi-state group of four organizations committed to promoting and implementing innovative mine land reclamation. While we can summarize the topics discussed during the webinar, the recording is available online where you can watch the well-put-together presentations, not lacking in graphics and maps that add helpful context to the conversation.
Adam Wells (0:00-6:00)
Appalachian Voices, Regional Director of Community and Economic Development
Elizabeth W. Hughes (6:13-23:16)
Earth Conservancy, Director of Communications
Owen Mulkeen (24:08-39:10)
Friends of the Cheat, Associate Director
Zach Foster (40:20-48:10)
Appalachian Conservation Corps, Director
Matt Hepler (49:35-1:00:00)
Appalachian Voices, Environmental Scientist
The four webinar presenters were Elizabeth W. Hughes, Director of Communications for Earth Conservancy, Owen Mulkeen, Associate Director of Friends of the Cheat, Zach Foster, Director of the Appalachian Conservation Corps, and Matt Hepler, Environmental Scientist for Appalachian Voices.
Elizabeth captured Earth Conservancy’s work as an environmental, community-oriented nonprofit organization seeking to spark economic growth in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Earth Conservancy’s main initiative is the reclamation of 16,000 acres of coal-impacted land, of which they aim to conserve 10,000 acres for green space and recreation. Through a strategic land use and open space master plan, Earth Conservancy has strategized and accomplished inspiring projects to revitalize the land and have a positive community impact.
The Conservancy’s strategic conservation efforts, such as their trail development for the EC Trails Network, has connected their community and tourists to restored land, generating economic opportunities. The Conservancy also revitalizes coal-impacted land to enter the state forest system. In collaboration with a local land trust, they have contributed approximately 6,000 acres to the system and are currently working towards including an additional 700 acres. Beyond conservation, the Conservancy values opening their land to the public. They granted the hunting community access to a portion of their land in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s hunter-access program. Additionally, a section of their fertile agricultural land has been designated as a community garden that is accessible to all.Elizabeth lastly emphasized that Earth Conservancy strives to strike a balance between development and conservation through smart, equitable development. For example, in the Hanover Area Recreation Project, Earth Conservancy designated land for residential and commercial development in addition to green space conservation. Along these same lines, Earth Conservancy is currently working towards developing a region of the Hanover Area into a recreational ATV park. Owen Mulkeen, Associate Director of Friends of the Cheat, brought the community up to date on the progress of the Cheat River Rail-Trail project that will, when complete, increase access to northern West Virginia’s trail systems and clean up the contaminated water ways to improve the health of the popular aquatic playground. In addition to improvements on access to recreation on the Cheat, the group plans to add a learning park on the trail that will educate visitors on the history of mining in the area. Specifically, they are responsible for an eight-mile stretch of the Rawlesburg to Albright section of the trail — one that is particularly impacted by acid mine drainage. The success of this rail-trail has been a priority for Friends of the Cheat. They have spent the past 15 years building relationships with landowners, planning with community volunteers, and growing the pool of funding for the project and are now moving into the construction phase.
We are excited to congratulate Owen and Friends of the Cheat on the $1 million grant from the West Virginia AML Pilot Program. Following the webinar, the state announced its grant awardees and we look forward to following the progress as construction begins this year.
The next presenter was Appalachian Conservation Corps (Corps) Director Zach Foster, who talked about building partnerships with the Corps and young adults in the community. According to Zach, these partnerships are a critical part of developing community-rooted projects and building generational buy-in and pride in the sites.
His advice to organizations involved in reclamation and redevelopment is to reach out to the Corps early in the process in order to determine whether a partnership makes sense and what role the Corps will play. A partnership with the Corps can help with match-funding due to its affiliation with AmeriCorps. Zach added that projects involving elements of career development, job creation, or educational paths are particularly interesting to the Corps as they work on those items internally. Strong relationships across the region help with the progression of those projects.
Bringing the webinar to a close, we heard from Matt Hepler, Environmental Scientist at Appalachian Voices, who filled us in on the Devil’s Fork and Dante Trails projects in Southwest Virginia. Both of these projects have grown in scope since their conception in 2016. The Devil’s Fork project to close mine portals, improve existing trails, and connect a new parking lot to the trail has received additional funding, bringing the total to $283,000. The Dante project, through partnerships with the Dante Community Association, has developed a master plan that includes trail enhancements as well as community improvements. While Matt expressed his enthusiasm about the growth of these projects, he did not leave out the challenges they’ve faced along the way regarding land ownership and inter-agency cooperation.
The reality is that years of hard work is required by local and regional organizations in order for innovative, community-based outdoor recreation projects to have a widespread impact. But wins like Friends of the Cheat’s 2020 AML Pilot grant show progress and leave us feeling optimistic about the future potential for impact of these projects.
- Coal-impacted land restoration is not limited to conservation for green space; smart, equitable development can improve the local community and economy.
- Innovative work to revive coal-impacted lands can still honor the lands’ rich mining history. For example, this could be done with commemorative plaques recognizing the miners, or, like Friends of the Cheat plans to do on the rail-trail, with an educational center on the site of an abandoned mine.
- To accomplish innovative outdoor recreation projects, relationships and partnerships are incredibly important. Appalachian Conservation Corps has effectively partnered with organizations across the region on AML remediation projects.
- Inter-agency collaboration can be complicated, but it is well worth it to have strong partners. Patience and time are needed to create the desired outcome and impact.