Front Porch Blog

Remembering Harvard Ayers, founder of Appalachian Voices

Two men stand outside a small plane

Appalachian Voices founder Harvard Ayers, left, stands beside the organization’s first executive director, Mark Shelley. The pair are standing outside Susan Lapis’ plane prior to a 2001 flight with Southwings to survey mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia.

Today we mourn the passing of a true Appalachian hero. Harvard Ayers was the founder of Appalachian Voices and a leading voice for many environmental causes. In the earliest days of Appalachian Voices, he helped call national attention to the ravaging effects of acid rain on the health of Appalachian forests, and later the devastating impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining on the mountains and communities of Appalachia.

two men kneeling in the forest near a plaque

Historian Kenny King and Appalachian Voices founder Harvard Ayers survey over 100 rifle casings found in a one-foot diameter area along Spruce Fork Ridge on Blair Mountain. The archeological finds helped convince the Park Service to put the area on the Historic Register.

Older man on the left points at a spot on a large map, talking to a younger man who is also in front of the map

Harvard in 2001 with then-recently-hired Executive Director (now Director of Programs) Matt Wasson in front of the AppMap, a wall-sized map that Harvard created with partners in the Appalachian State University Geography Department to communicate the life-cycle impacts of coal on the environment of Appalachia. The map contained information about the sulfur emissions from coal-fired power plants, locations of mountaintop removal coal mine permits, and areas of widespread tree death associated with acid rain, among other layers.

Harvard was instrumental in passing North Carolina’s Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002, the first successful effort to curtail pollution from coal-fired power plants in the Southeast. That same year, he also played an instrumental role in hosting the first-ever Coal Summit in Charleston, West Virginia. This event played a crucial role in giving a platform to local people opposed to mountaintop removal coal mining and connecting them with national organizations who were able to draw the attention of major media networks and legislators in Washington to the issue. In more recent years, he played a key role in forming coalitions to stop construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and brought attention to the urgent need to tackle climate change.

Harvard Ayers was a true visionary and leaves behind a powerful legacy for the people and environment of Appalachia. That legacy includes cleaner air in the mountains, healthier forests and streams, and thriving organizations like Appalachian Voices that will continue to defend the mountains and communities of the region that he dedicated his life to preserving.

Appalachian Voices’ current staff and board members offer our condolences to his family.

As Appalachian Voices' Director of Programs, Matt has worked on all aspects of the "coal cycle" — from mining, transportation and combustion to the disposal of power plant waste — and is a nationally recognized authority on mountaintop removal coal mining and coal economics. Matt has testified before Congress and appears frequently on expert panels.


  1. Bill Kovarik says:

    Thank you Matt for this well written and heartfelt tribute to an original voice for the Appalachians. Harvard will be missed. Condolences to his family and friends.

  2. Scott Banbury says:

    Harvard influenced me in ways that few have.

  3. Robert BRUCK says:

    HARVARD was a true gentle and a scholar. His passion for environmental sustainability and Justice motivated hundreds of students and colleagues. A true environmental hero. He will be missed.

    Robert I. Bruck, Ph.D.

  4. Steve Hofstatter says:

    Thank you for this, Matt. I’ve often wondered who cultivated the seedlings for App Voices. I admire the altruism of the organization even more in learning of its foundation. Condolences to all there who knew him well.

  5. Beverly Cruz says:

    Just introduced but he sounds like a Great Person! God Bless & condolences to family & friends.

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