Appalachia, especially its coal mining region, is experiencing a revived bit of attention as shuttered mines, a rise in income inequality and longstanding poverty received flashes of concern from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
As a native son of the region with many kin and friends unemployed by the decline in coal production, it might be logical to expect I should be optimistic that things are really going to change for the better in the mountains as a result of this latest regional revival. My experience as a journalist covering the War on Poverty and New Deal legacy institutions like the Tennessee Valley Authority, however, tempers my optimism.
After all, Clinton’s standard Democratic formulas of job retraining and federal aid that launched the 50-year old War on Poverty and the Appalachian Regional Commission have turned out to leave the region today in the same relative position to the nation that it was a half century ago: at the bottom of the poorest.
Trump’s vague proposals to make miners “proud” again and to somehow bring the continuous mining machines and Cat bulldozers back to life make me think he understands the business of coal mining no better than he knew the business of gambling in Atlantic City that bankrupted his casinos.
There is another way.
Anyone who has spent time in the mountains and hollows from Middlesboro, Ky., to Beckley, W.V., understands that most of the land is owned either by coal and timber companies or the federal government with its national forests and parks. Coal companies alone own 1.3 million acres in the Cumberlands of Kentucky and even more in the Alleghenies of West Virginia. The federal government is actually the largest single landowner in Appalachia.
With the region’s largest coal companies in bankruptcy or nearly so, I have an idea for Clinton and Trump: Let’s buy those bankrupted acres and let’s release some of those federal holdings. And then we can give the people something they have not had since industrialization and coal mining started in Appalachia in the 1880’s — land. Land for farming, for gardens, for housing, for grazing cattle, horses and hogs, and for sustainable forestry.
Let’s call this the Appalachian Homestead Act, in homage to the federal initiative that helped settle the West and build wealth in the 19th century. The Appalachian Homestead Act may be today’s single best solution to the enduring problem of mountain poverty. And it may well be the most important opportunity for a new generation looking for a place to build an economy and a community that make sense in a time of global warming and economic dysfunction.
This is the perfect policy for both candidates. Trump could probably make some real deals negotiating with these bankrupt companies. Clinton might find favor in a region that has not looked kindly on her of late, trimming some federal holdings, swapping with others, all the while turning property back to mountain communities.
Now’s the time to act. Over a dozen mountain coal producers have entered bankruptcy in just the last few years. Alpha Natural Resources, the nation’s second largest producer, is bankrupt and owns 97,000 acres of West Virginia property and thousands of acres in its home state of Virginia. It’s a safe bet that the idled mines in the famous Elkhorn coal seams in Letcher and Pike counties in Kentucky that once fueled the furnaces of Bethlehem Steel and the Harlan County mines that did the same for U.S. Steel, International Harvester and Ford Motor Company will never see miner’s lamps again or hear their lunch buckets bang against mantrips and roof bolters.
The appalling drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide rates in the mountains are the most glaring testimony to mountaineers’ despair. People have become separated from the land and from hope. Despite that, mountain folks are easily those amongst us who know the most about independent living, with a work ethic by coal miners and long-distance commuters that put the lie to tales of Appalachian lethargy. All over the region there are very successful entrepreneurial enterprises, ranging from food co-ops to small manufacturers to 21st century businesses employing the fastest broadband.
What would people do with this new land? Besides producing food for themselves and nearby coastal cities, they could replant the region with blight-resistant chestnut trees that once fattened hogs to beyond bacon tasty and furnished fine homes with some of America’s most beautiful wood. They could reforest the ravaged strip mines with apple, peach, pear and cherry trees. They could create a recreational paradise with hiking and biking trails along restored rivers and creeks.
But among the best of these “restorations,” however, would be the restoration of hope. After all, the lack of money and hope is what combines to produce poverty. For Clinton the Appalachian Homestead Act could be the ultimate vindication of the idea that it “takes a village” to solve enduring problems. For Trump, buying land at historically low prices could be the deal of his lifetime. For Appalachian communities, this could be “the change we can really believe in.”
Mountaineers saved the American Revolution at the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780. Let’s give them a chance to lead again.
Jim Branscome is a retired managing director of Standard & Poor’s and a former journalist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Business Week, and The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky. He was a staff member in 1969-71 at the Appalachian Regional Commission, a lobbyist for Save Our Kentucky in Frankfort, and a staff member of the Appalachian Project at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee. He was born in Hillsville, Va., and is a graduate of Berea College.