Saving Appalachia

A peculiar phenomenon is taking place in rural America.
After decades of people leaving their hometowns in search of better pay, safer work and urban conveniences, Millennials are beginning to move back to the mountains to save their communities from seemingly inevitable deterioration.

“In Appalachia, we’re taught that in order to be ‘successful’ we have to leave. There’s this notion that if we stay, we’ll be stuck here forever.”

— Kendall Bilbrey, native of Wytheville, Va., now lives in Big Stone Gap, Va.

Millennials Return

As a kid growing up in Appalachia, you’re given two choices: get out while you can, or stay. Kids who have the chance to leave are told to go elsewhere for college, get a good education, have a career and make something out of themselves, but they’re never told to return home. Home is painted as a picture of minimum-wage jobs, no opportunity to grow, and frankly, a road to poverty.

“It doesn’t cross our minds that there could be a place for us here,” said Kendall Bilbrey, 23, who grew up in Wytheville, Va., an agricultural town of about 8,200 people that is slowly becoming urbanized. “Upon actually leaving is when you realize what you’re missing out on in Appalachia.”

Bilbrey was a small percentage of the George Wythe High School class of 2010, a little over 100 students, to go to a four-year university.

“I was one of the lucky, privileged kids who had a lot of support and love from my parents that led me to be able to go to college,” said Bilbrey, who decided to major in integrated and conservation studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. — a five- or six- hour drive from home.

“I was really excited as a queer kid growing up in southwest Virginia to try and find more people like me, so I wouldn’t feel so isolated,” Bilbrey said. “I wanted the freedom to be myself. It was something I was really excited about, and something that ended up being a disappointment to me when I actually got to D.C.”

Bilbrey said the queer community in D.C. didn’t “get it.”

“The people I met didn’t have the same sense of caring and support and neighborliness that people back home did,” Bilbrey said. “I never thought of that as an Appalachian thing.”

After a while, Bilbrey began struggling with the idea of staying in DC. Identifying as queer, Bilbrey kept thinking: “This is where I’m supposed to fit in, but I’m not.”

In three years, Bilbrey graduated from Mason and interned with the Smithsonian Institute in China researching panda bears and conservation. This internship set Bilbrey up to do further research, potentially, in graduate school.

“It was fun, but it made me realize even more that I wanted to go back to Appalachia,” Bilbrey said. “China was actually very similar to home in how the people were. It’s very localized, people look out for you, and there’s this sense of community that you don’t really see in the U.S. anymore — except in Appalachia.”

After China, Bilbrey didn’t go back to school to do further research in animal conservation. For a while, Bilbrey was in Roanoke, Va., working at a restaurant and call center. While Roanoke is in southwest Virginia, Bilbrey didn’t necessarily feel at home. Through a friend involved with the STAY Project, a network of young people who want a more inclusive, diverse and sustainable environment in Central Appalachia, Bilbrey became involved with the organization, got on the steering committee and moved to Big Stone Gap, Va.

This is where Bilbrey’s involvement in the Appalachian community took off.

Kendall Bilbrey feels at home in Appalachia. “I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as I am now and here, doing the work I’m doing,” Bilbrey said. “I feel like I’m doing something that’s meaningful.” Photograph by Ryan Weisser.

Bilbrey, who five years ago couldn’t wait to leave southwest Virginia, is now involved in several organizations to help revitalize Appalachian communities.

Working as an Appalachian Transition fellow doing policy research in a social justice framework for the Highlander Research and Education Center, Bilbrey focuses on making the Appalachian region a sustainable place to live. Through work with Highlander, Bilbrey became involved in the Alliance for Appalachia, a group that wants to introduce new and diverse economic opportunities for Appalachia and put an end to mountaintop removal coal mining. With the Alliance, Bilbrey focuses on finding sustainable solutions for abandoned mines.

“All of this work comes together in one way or another,” Bilbrey said. “Each group focuses on specific parts of building a better economy for Appalachia, but we’re all working toward the same thing: Appalachia being sustainable.”

Specifically in Big Stone Gap, there is a group of young and old community members are fighting for the safety and sustainability of Wise County, Va. A tragedy in the nearby neighborhood of Inman Hollow prompted the organization of this group called the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, or SAMS. In 2004, a bulldozer pushed a boulder from a nearby strip-mining site. The 1,000-pound rock rolled into a 3-year-old boy’s room and killed him. Since that event, SAMS has stalled and halted multiple permits for strip mining in the Big Stone Gap and Appalachia, Va., area.


Through the Alliance for Appalachia, Bilbrey got involved with SAMS. “They have been a huge part of the community here that welcomed me,” Bilbrey said. “They get a lot of shit in this town — in a place that the coal industry has dominated for so long. It’s really scary and hard to stand up to that, and the folks at SAMS do it like they’re pros.”

Other Millennials are getting involved in SAMS as well. Most are from the Big Stone Gap area, or in surrounding counties, but some, like Adam Wells, lived away from Appalachia most of their lives.

Wells visited the region as a child, spending time with his grandparents on their land, which has been in the family for eight generations. Though Wells lived in southeast Virginia most of his childhood, he always felt at home when visiting his kin in Norton, Va., a few miles outside of Big Stone Gap.

“I just feel genetically wired to this place,” said Wells, who works with SAMS and Appalachian Voices, an environmental non-profit dedicated to conserving the central and southern mountains of Appalachia. “I’ve lived in a lot of places, and I never feel at home the way I do here.”

This feeling of attachment has to do with the strong family ties and the strong place ties people have, specifically in Appalachia.

Holly Barcus, a population geographer who studied migration patterns and the attachment people in Appalachia have to their homes, admitted that she is little surprised that young people are returning to Appalachia.

“What’s really interesting, though, is that these young adults and students aren’t returning solely because they have this strong attachment to Appalachia,” Barcus said. “They’re going back because they want to create societal and environmental change in their communities, and that is quite impressive.”

Though Adam Wells didn’t grow up in southwest Virginia, he says he’s always felt a connection to the area. Photograph by Ryan Weisser.

Wells’ interest in sustainability and doing away with harsh coalmining operations began in college at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

“I lived in a co-ed dorm at Appalachia State, and there was this girl across the hall that I had a huge crush on,” Wells said. “She invited me to a speech Judy Bonds was giving on campus about mountaintop removal, so I went, not really knowing all too much about MTR.”

The late Judy Bonds, who died of lung cancer in 2011 and was referred to as “the enemy of mountaintop coal-mining” by the New York Times, was a well-known activist and considered a godmother of the movement to end MTR.

“After hearing Judy talk about MTR and what it was doing to Appalachian communities, places like my home,” said Wells, “I knew I wanted to get involved.”

When Wells graduated Appalachian State, he went on road trip with a college friend to West Virginia and Kentucky.

“We were passing through all of these coal-mining towns and I was just shocked to see how mountaintop removal was affecting people,” Wells said. “It became personal.”

During that trip, Wells received a call from the Sierra Club, a grassroots environmental organization, offering him a job in Wise County. He cut his trip short and moved home. “It was all being in the right place at the right time,” Wells said. “I always knew I’d come home, and this was my chance.”

“For so long we’ve given — we give coal, we give timber, we give gas. We give brains — people leave and they don’t come back.”

— Adam Wells, whose family has been in southwest Virginia since the Revolutionary War.

Kendall playing “Darlin’ Corrie,” an old Appalachian song, on the banjo. Photograph by Ryan Weisser.
“They Say in Harlan County.” Photograph by Ryan Weisser.
A rare Mabel Carter record that spells Mabel’s first name incorrectly twice.
The SAMS office in Big Stone Gap, Va.
SAMS members hold workshops through the APPLECEED Committee to educate locals on how to grow mushrooms, wild ginseng, and other valuable, sustainable resources.

“As my friend Teri Blanton likes to say: ‘A lot of people like to call us coalfield communities, but that’s not who we are — we’re mountain people. We’re not defined by the coal that’s in the ground.’”

— Kendall Bilbrey, native of Wytheville, Va., now lives in Big Stone Gap, Va.

An Excavated Society

Adam Wells’ family has lived in southwest Virginia for eight generations, since the Revolutionary War.

Most everyone in Wells’ family stayed in the Appalachian region — except his father.

“My dad went off to college, and then he just never came back,” Wells said. “He thought the only thing to do was work in a coal mine. He didn’t see opportunity in living in Appalachia.”

Wells’ father wasn’t the only young adult in the mid-20th century to believe that Appalachia had nothing to offer. Education wasn’t enforced, and if you did go to college, chances are, you’d struggle trying to pay for it. If you couldn’t leave, coal-mining was the best job out there for a young Appalachian man without a higher education. Until recently, this has been the mindset among young Appalachians.

Many towns along the Blue Ridge mountains and Smokies were created by coal companies for miners and their families. Coal was the source of jobs for people in Appalachia — if you were against coal, you were against people’s livelihoods. Because of this, coal is just as much a cultural part of Appalachia as it is an industry.

However, more than a century of dangerous mining practices has led to poor environmental conditions for the ecosystem and for the people of Appalachia.

In October 2014, West Virginia University released a study that showed coal dust can lead to tumor formations on the lungs and become cancerous. A significant amount of earlier studies about coal dust and increased illnesses have been criticized because the studies only showed a correlation, not causation.

14.4% of Appalachians living near coal mines have cancer.

The environmental impact has been equally devastating.

“We don’t drink our tap water,” said Bilbrey, the Mason graduate now living in Big Stone Gap. “It won’t do anything to you immediately, but over time, having long-term exposure to high levels of minerals and chemicals…it can’t be good.”

Instead, Bilbrey drinks from a water cooler. “Accidents happen. Our water could get contaminated from a dam bursting or from slurry,” Bilbrey said. “I just don’t want to take the chance.”

It may sound extreme: dams bursting or slurry, a soupy mess of coal, ore, and chemical waste, contaminating water supplies. But catastrophes like this have happened in the past five years.

On January 9, 2014, the Elk River in West Virginia was contaminated and left more than 300,000 people without clean water for drinking, cooking, bathing or cleaning. For 15 months, from 2012–2013, MarkWest Energy Partners spilled slurry into Ohio wetlands near Colombus. The spill wasn’t harmful to humans, but it took a toll on their wetland fish and plant population.

The hold on living-wage jobs in southwest Virginia is even creating an environmental issue out of economic distress. coal-mining jobs have dropped 10.5 percent since 2012 — that’s more than 10,000 jobs lost. In Appalachia, minimum wage jobs take the place of coal-mining jobs when layoffs occur. Job loss and huge cuts in annual pay create a desperate need for extra income. Where do Appalachians find this source of income? The environment.

Wild mushrooms, or morels, ramps and ginseng grow well in Appalachia, and they’re worth a pretty penny. Wild American ginseng can sell for more than $1,000 per pound. Organizations like SAMS encourage people to grow their own morels and ginseng to sustain themselves; however, residents no longer have proper knowledge of harvesting and cultivating these valuable, small crops, and are wiping out natural resources.

Aside from the health and environmental repercussions of coal-mining, the market for jobs in the coal industry is dwindling, leaving Appalachia’s future in a precarious position.

“We need to be bold and creative. I don’t think we need to run away from our heritage of coal, but at the same time we need to be looking forward, and coal’s not what is going to sustain us.”

— Adam Wells, an eighth-generation Wells living in Norton, Va.

An Uncertain Future for Appalachia

“When I was working in the White House, we passed a pretty big coal-mining safety law. And I remember my father was quite old at that time, and I was spending the last few hours with him, and I was bragging about this big bill,” S. David Freeman said. “My father looked up and said to me, ‘Son, I just have one question,’ and I said, ‘What, Dad?’ Then he asked me: ‘Well, are you gonna enforce it?’”

“He got right to the heart of the problem.”

Freeman was the chairman of the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority when Jimmy Carter was president. Throughout his entire life, Freeman has worked for safer, more sustainable energy options in America, specifically finding alternatives to coal-mining and nuclear power. Freeman believes that Appalachia could have options for a more sustainable future if people are willing to go against the grain, be bold, and face facts.

“People don’t like to face up,” Freeman said. “In this country, we try to sugar-coat history. Here we are lecturing others, lecturing the world and saying we’re exceptional — well, we need to get ourselves a fucking mirror, if you pardon my language.”

“We need to face the truth and move on. You don’t find anyone working in the automobile company and bemoaning the fact that we don’t have horses and buggies any more.”

Freeman thinks that if the people of Appalachia “face the truth” about the coal-mining industry, the region could introduce other forms of energy, such as solar and wind power, and find a lot of economic opportunity in the reclamation and reforestation of Appalachia.

“I would imagine that there is just as much solar energy in Appalachia than there is coal,” Freeman said. “If you harness the solar potential in that area, I think you could replace coal. That would be quite a statement if the heart of the coal country had a major initiative for solar power.”

But to get to that place where Appalachia introduces solar and wind energy seems nearly impossible. coal-mining has deep roots in Appalachian culture, and in many ways, if you insult coal, you’re insulting people and the sacrifices they made as coal miners.

“It takes the grandchildren, it takes your generation,” Freeman said. “I think up to now the reaction has been to just leave. The fact that people are thinking of coming back to Appalachia is an inpsiration, and I feel certain saying that they sure as hell aren’t coming back to mine coal.”

In some ways Adam Wells’ agrees with the sentiment that it will take a younger generation, and a new way of thinking about the coal industry, to make change.

“Honestly, I think it might have to get a little bit worse, actually a lot worse, before it gets better,” Wells said. “Nothing can totally replace the coal economy. The generation that’s in power now, the people in their 40s and 50s, they just don’t get it. They have to just get old and die, or they have to get with it. There needs to be a generation recycle.”

And as far as the future of Appalachia, there are two possibilities: overdevelopment or degradation.

“On one hand, yeah, we don’t want Anywhere America coming in and blotting out our culture, but on the other hand, if that’s what we’re fighting, I’d rather fight that. I’d much rather be fighting: ‘We’re losing our culture because of too much development!’ than the alternative of: ‘We’re losing our culture because no one wants to be here.’”

But these ideas of solar and wind power, fending off development, economic diversity and growth — at the moment, they are just ideas.

“These kids moving back to Appalachia — this is a reverse of what’s been happening over the last 30 or 40 years,” Freeman said. “Are there actually tangible results? Is there really more economic opportunity in Appalachia than there was 30 or 40 years ago?”

“If this works,” Freeman said, “Appalachia will be a tremendous inspiration. This younger generation will be an inspiration.”

Learn why I decided to write this story and read the original feature, which includes additional photos and visualizations.