By Robert Beanblossom
Thanks to President Biden, West Virginia will receive billions of dollars in infrastructure funds.
However, if the state’s track record holds true, much of the money will be squandered on projects of little lasting benefit to those in most need of help.
I have always been a strong supporter of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and the Appalachian Regional Commission, which his administration created, has poured millions of dollars into West Virginia. But can anyone really say that the average West Virginian is better off today than when the ARC was created in 1965?
If southern West Virginia ever expects to move from dead last in virtually every negative category, radical changes in thinking must be made to improve the poor quality of life found there. We cannot maintain the status quo, which most state and federal programs have done, and expect conditions to magically change.
There is an old adage that says: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
Here are a few of my suggestions to improve the environmental health of the region, a requisite first step to economic growth.
Immediately ban strip mining. Now. Today. Strip mining is an evil that has destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of our valuable forests which will not return to full productivity for decades and has destroyed water quality and the lives of many people living near them. It’s time to put an end to this scourge.
Deep mining should be curtailed and coal should be eliminated from our energy portfolio as quickly as possible. Burning coal is one of the major drivers of climate change; and it is a pipe dream to suggest carbon can be captured and stored economically. Not one dollar of federal funds should be spent on research to that end. Even if CO2 could be successfully captured, coal would still be an expensive, dirty, environmentally-destructive energy source.
In the meantime, the state should drastically increase the taxes on coal, oil, natural gas and timber. I can hear the outcry now — “Oh! We can’t afford that! It will cost jobs! It will destroy our way of life!” I have often wondered what that last phrase meant when uttered so often by our politicians. I guess our “way of life” means tied to an oxygen tank like my dad until he died of black lung.
I predict that all of these industries could afford an increase in severance taxes. If not, and coal companies go bankrupt, West Virginia wins. None of these industries have ever paid their own way, but the coal industry in particular has always capitalized profits and socialized costs. Talk about a welfare state. If the coal industry in West Virginia was eliminated entirely, the huge subsidies it is now receiving would also be eliminated. That, alone, would be a dramatic, positive financial gain for the state.
The state should also enact stringent laws to protect water quality. Outside of people, water is our most precious natural resource. We can’t survive without it. After living almost all of my life in West Virginia, I now live in an area of North Carolina which is growing at an incredible rate. Brevard, where I live, is a thriving tourist town, and nearby Sliding Rock attracts 250,000 visitors or more a year at a time when swimming pools are closing across the nation from lack of use. Nearby Asheville has more breweries than the entire state of West Virginia.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, a large producer from California, made a huge investment at nearby Mills River to supply the East Coast. Why? Access to clean water from the Pisgah National Forest. If the nations of the world do not address climate change, the West will collapse one day forcing a mass migration to the East Coast of the U.S.
West Virginia should be prepared for this influx of people and clean water is the chief way to attract them.
West Virginia needs to quit chasing smokestacks. The United States has moved beyond manufacturing and now relies on a service economy. The future for manufacturing jobs is not bright. I predict this: no company will ever locate to the Hobet mine site in Boone County if it is developed as now planned, and millions of dollars of our hard-earned tax dollars will be wasted. Further, I believe the entire proposal should be closely scrutinized. I suspect the move to establish an industrial site there was more of a corporate bailout with West Virginians’ tax dollars than anything else.
Next, do away with the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System. The concept of providing recreational opportunities for ATVs was a laudable goal and has generated some economic activity, I’ll concede.
But it is not sustainable and is another environmental abuse heaped upon southern West Virginia. I have been on the trail system on several occasions and have seen first-hand the tremendous amounts of soil erosion it creates. ATVs spew carbon into the atmosphere and disrupt wildlife habitat. Furthermore, it was a mistake to allow them on one of our valuable public lands — Cabwaylingo State Forest.
Border states need to work together to federalize southern West Virginia’s, eastern Kentucky’s and southwest Virginia’s coal fields. The best use of federal funding would be to create a new national forest and employ residents living in these areas to reclaim the land. It will take tremendous time, resources and effort to accomplish this task but the area’s timber, water (with requisite impoundments) and recreational potential can be developed and a sustainable economy established.
I had a wise forester once tell me, “The only thing wrong with southern West Virginia is what has been done to it.” Truer words were never spoken. With proper forest management under federal ownership, we can heal the wounds inflicted by the extractive industries that have decimated southern West Virginia for far too long.
Robert Beanblossom grew up in Mingo County and retired after a 42-year career with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He now resides in western North Carolina and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This previously appeared in The Charleston Gazette.