For my last two columns in this series I thought we would take a look at our home from my perspective and perhaps give you a few things to think about. I preface this discussion with the fact that I love Appalachia and over the years I have given my best effort to honestly assess our land and people and where I fit in to all that; and that I truly believe in the statement that there is no ‘your truth’ or ‘my truth’, only THE truth. Sometimes the truth is not what we want to hear but our feelings do not change the truth. We, in our region, have some hard choices to make. For the folks of Appalachia this is nothing new.
In 1900 the population of the United States was approximately 90 million people; our last census (nearly 10 years ago) gives us a figure of approximately 325 million. Until very recently the population of the Appalachian region counties have held fairly stable; for instance, the population of Grayson County, Virginia, my home county, has stayed around 17,000 for many years, give or take two thousand or so. But there is no denying that we Americans are increasingly competing for resources on a landscape that is getting no larger. This alone dictates that some things must change.
During the last century we have seen unimaginable technological advances in our society. I remember sitting with my grandmother (Dad’s mother) on a summer evening in 1969 watching the moon landing on television. Granny Hampton was born in a time when horses were the transportation and electricity was science fiction. Her take on the progress of people was interesting and I never forgot the look on her face when Mr. Armstrong stepped off of the LEM. The seemingly placid simplicity of her childhood days was in stark contrast to the complicated modern world; but she would be the first to tell you that no one in their right mind would want to go back to the time before modern pharmaceuticals such as vaccines and antibiotics, and that using an automobile beat the heck out of saddling a horse in the pre-dawn snowy darkness to get to school. She thought running water and indoor plumbing were a pretty big deal too, and until you have had to brush the snow off the privy seat your perspective might be incomplete. I think Granny had a firm grasp on the unchanging human condition; we strive for happiness and to leave a better world for our children, to try to hold on to the best of the past while recognizing that we must adapt to new challenges. This means we have to fix our priorities; the question is what things are so important to the Appalachian region (our identity) that we must not destroy them or leave them behind, and what things must be changed so that we have a clear way forward? Can we preserve that uniqueness of the land and people that sets us apart while we grow?
With population increase, technological advancement and societal progress come a cost; in any evaluation and decision of choices there will be intended and unintended consequences of those choices. We love the New River, we hold it up to the world as our own special, unique Appalachian feature, yet we allow it to be fouled with trailer cities in the flood plain, where sewage and run-off are ignored, and where we allow the removal of the protective buffer strip of native vegetation along the banks so it ‘looks nice’. We cry about the rain-storm mud and summer river grass and algae, but we ignore the point-source pollution on the creeks and drainages miles away that generate that sediment and nutrient-pollution. We say that our beautiful mountains are what draw new residents and tourism and thereby bring economic progress to our people, but we allow these same people to build their castle-like homes on the tops of the ridges, spoiling the very thing we say is important; or simply look the other way when renewable-resource forestry is shut down because of the aesthetics of a new timber sale, but we have no problem with the permanent removal of that forest resource by the Christmas tree industry, which can utilize the land then walk away without regard to restoring what has been taken. We swell with pride over the pastoral beauty of the large land-holdings and farms, but we ignore the fact that without industry and jobs, the property taxes those landowners must face make it impossible to keep those farms within the families that have for so long managed and loved them, and we force those landowners to either overstress that land with over-grazing and ‘farming to the fenceline’ just to make ends meet, or sell the land outright to developers. When these large properties are developed no consideration is given the populations of wildlife that must be managed (and have been, through hunting) and now they become ‘nuisance’; to the long-time residents of Appalachia, instead of adjusting to the Appalachian way of life the newcomers seem only bent on converting the place to something our ancestors came here to escape. Resentment finds a home.
When I graduated from Galax High School in 1972 there were over 20,000 people employed in that town of 5000, in the forest products, furniture and textile industries. The mills and factories were starving for workers; you could walk out of high school and find a job that would allow you to own a home, raise a family and be a part of a vibrant community. The tax revenues from those industries built hospitals and community colleges, improved roads and services (schools, fire departments, rescue and police departments, etc) and kept alive the work ethic so important to a fulfilling life. Today the industries are gone and our graduates must leave Appalachia to find a job, and most will never return.
As the tax base in a county shrinks either the taxes must rise or the level of services must be cut. Both will have consequences. Without a clear, specific plan of what and where we want to be in the future, we are simply floundering around watching the best of our home disappear. Tourism? Great Idea! Now tell me, specifically, how we are going to compete with the dozens of other counties around us nosing at the same trough? Tourism can help, yes, I get it; but to think we are going to be able to compete with Asheville and Gatlinburg when we don’t even have a motel in the county, and only 100 or so campsites, is just idiocy. Sure, we have great natural beauty, but the minimalist recreation folks that are drawn to this area because of its remoteness are just that; they don’t spend much money. As late as the 1980’s our National Forest areas had game populations that brought great numbers of hunters into the county, generating a tremendous income; but now with the Forest Service radical policy change from a working forest to one of virtually no timber harvest, those game populations have nearly disappeared; visitorship on the National Forest has never been lower.
Just a very few years ago the vast majority of food that crossed our Appalachian tables came from within 50 miles of those tables; today the grocery stores have produce and meat that come from thousands of miles away. In 1972 there were over 50 grade-A dairies in Allegheny County, North Carolina; today there are two. A drive through any of the area or towns within 50 miles of where I sit tells the same story: ‘for sale’ signs, closed businesses, empty streets. As we become more detached from the land and the self-sufficiency that sustained our ancestors, we become more dependent upon the government.
I, for one, do not have confidence in that prospect.
(Next week: yes, we have a way forward…)