THE WAY FORWARD
I would like to profoundly thank Kelly St. Germain and the AMK non-profit organization, for allowing me the opportunity over the last few weeks to express my feelings about our wonderful Appalachian home; and to you, the reader, for your recognition of the importance of maintaining the historic identity and character of Appalachia, its land, people and traditions. Over the course of my columns I have attempted to stick to one overriding theme, that there is far more to Appalachia than just what we see. Judging from your responses over these weeks it seems we may have found that truth together. As someone whose family has called Appalachia home since the pioneer days, it gives me hope that we have this shared interest; and especially so, in that we have people coming to this region today that care about preserving its history and are helping to make the Appalachian future bright.
Last week I spoke directly about some contradictions in current Appalachian life and I did that specifically to stimulate some conversation, to draw folks to the realization that we are not just adrift on this earth—that we have a stake in and a say about where we are going and how we are going to get there. What happens to Appalachia in the future is entirely up to us, the Appalachian people, and we cannot relinquish that obligation to far-away bureaucrats that will never set foot on our mountains; that is exactly the idea upon which our system of government is predicated (individual responsibility and local control) and why it is so important, crucial, in fact, that we encourage every argument and opinion to be heard, and that we loudly proclaim that our local interests in, and decisions about, our home trump those interests of far-away folks that do not live among us. If you will take time to study the American constitution and the documents that precede it you will find that this idea of limited federal government was believed to lend itself to insuring personal, individual responsibility for privately-owned property, and this shared acceptance of responsibility would knit us together as a community, a state and a nation.
This personal responsibility cannot be ignored–and I believe it should be our first priority in moving Appalachia into the future. All of us in the New River drainage have a responsibility for the protection of the river as a regional treasure; each private land owner of river property, and every property owner in the watershed, has an obligation to minimize or mitigate any adverse effects on the river of our property ownership. The laws, regulations and best management practices for pollution abatement, and erosion and sedimentation control, are already in place-what is missing in some cases is the commitment of the individual folks to recognize their responsibility while using their property to their best advantage. This is changing for the better every day and as a long-term resident I can make that statement with confidence, having seen first-hand the problems we have overcome in the past 6 decades; but I reserve the right to call out those that have let their obligation slip, and will be especially vocal when the slacker is the federal government itself, as in the case of the National Forest folks (the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture) or the state agencies that are charged with regulatory oversight. What is important here is that we, the Appalachian people, educate ourselves to the problems and alternative solutions; knowledge is the light and ignorance is the darkness—so we must talk to each other and share our experiences and opinions. This alone justifies the existence and emphasizes the importance of organizations like Appalachian Memory Keepers. Every story has something to teach us.
Appalachia has some wonderful natural resources. As a strong proponent of private land ownership I believe that we can manage the utilization of these resources to the betterment of our people while still insuring those resources will be here for generations to come. If our natural beauty is high on our priority list, but at the same time we know that the utilization of these resources can have great benefit for our people, we must re-awaken the true definition of conservation: Wise use without waste.
Probably one of the best examples of this idea is the coal industry; we had to have the coal, and even today as coal is receding in importance as an energy source, we still count on coal for about 40% of our electrical power, even though it is giving way to natural gas and other energy alternatives. As the landscape was altered to extract the coal we over time developed strategies to mitigate the environmental effects of that extraction. That reclaimed strip-mine land in the central Appalachians is now home to a growing elk herd (eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western North Carolina, northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia all used reclaimed land for initial introductions), and this cooperative effort between state conservation agencies and local private interests and groups has spawned a new tourist industry where before none had existed. I believe this story is a perfect example of finding the opportunity within a dilemma. In last week’s column I highlighted the Christmas tree industry; I am delighted that folks have found this agricultural alternative for land use, because it generates jobs and provides a product that meets a need, but I wanted to highlight that this industry is really no different than the coal industry; there are environmental impacts of land use and the Christmas tree folks are just as responsible for these impacts on their land and downstream as are the coal operators on their property. Coal operators today must plan (as a legal requirement) for the restoration of mined land; shouldn’t the tree-farmers be likewise expected to do the same?
If we are looking for a single, simple solution to the complex economic, environmental and societal problems of Appalachia we are being naive. If we think that an all-powerful federal government can or should assume our responsibility for our well-being as a region, we are being dangerously naïve. In the future we are going to see the Appalachian region grow in population and as this happens we have an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the best of land-use planning. We certainly have that capability.
As we preserve, share and learn from the honest lessons from our Appalachian past, we are better preparing ourselves and our children for the future. Thank you, once again, for hearing me out. Now go forward, talk to each other and get involved; somewhere down the river a new generation will thank you.
May God bless you all.