Land-Based Ventures: Providing Jobs and Alternative Futures
Brittany Patterson profiles three land-based projects that create new economic opportunities in Appalachia.
Cheat River Restoration
One of the largest undammed watersheds in the eastern United States, the majestic Cheat River is a fish-filled ecological wonder and paddlers’ paradise—but that has not always been the case. For decades, the Cheat was polluted, largely due to the region’s coal mining legacy. Acid mine drainage (AMD) is one of the largest contributors of pollution to thousands of miles of rivers and streams from Alabama to Pennsylvania. Across the Cheat River’s 1,422-mile watershed, more than 340 abandoned coal mines feed AMD pollution into the river and its tributaries. The bright orange, and sometimes milky white, pollution contains iron, aluminum, and manganese, which can have severe impacts on plants, animals, and river ecosystems.
Listen to an interview excerpt:
Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the Water Research Institute at West Virginia University, speaks about the Cheat River’s polluted past and efforts to return it to ecological health.
Despite the river’s gradual degradation, it remained a go-to recreation spot for whitewater paddlers until 1994, when two back-to-back blowouts from the active T&T coal mine poured millions of gallons of acidic water into the main stem of the Cheat, turning its water a shocking orange. The damage extended over 16 miles, killing fish downstream in Cheat Lake.
Today, more than two decades later, the bulk of the Cheat River and its tributaries are crystal clear thanks to the hard work of devoted locals, scientists, and state and federal regulators who worked together to restore the watershed by implementing a combination of both passive and active AMD drainage treatment strategies.
“In my lifetime, a river that was dead has now come back,” said Amanda Pitzer, executive director of Friends of the Cheat, a local conservation group formed in 1994 by a motley crew of river guides and enthusiasts concerned about acid mine pollution. The group hosts an annual bluegrass festival during the first weekend in May to celebrate the river and raise money for its continued restoration.
Paul Hart, president of local rafting company Cheat River Outfitters, agrees that the work done over the last two decades has made a difference in the river’s water quality, though he points out that its reputation has yet to recover. An area that once drew 20,000 visitors a year, the Cheat River Canyon is now estimated to attract only a few thousand.1Ted O’Callahan, “The Cheat River Takes a Turn,” Nature Conservancy Magazine, February 21, 2016.
Located within a day’s drive of one third of the United States population, the Cheat has the potential to become a powerful driver of economic growth in West Virginia. Proponents of the watershed restoration say continued investment, including in river access points as well as hiking and biking trails, is laying the groundwork for the region to rebuild its status as a unique destination spot.
“A lot of people have seen it and decided, ‘You know we can do better,'” Hart said. “And they’ve put their heads together and made it happen, which is a dream turned into a reality. The Cheat is just too much of a gem to be lost to something like acid mine drainage.”
Spruce Forest Restoration
Nestled inside the Monongahela National Forest in the eastern reaches of West Virginia, Cheat Mountain is lined with verdant spruce trees that stand like sentinels. More than a century ago, this high-elevation ecosystem would have been dominated by the evergreen spruce. After a long history of being logged and suffering the effects of a series of fires in the late nineteenth century, today only an estimated 10 percent of this Ice Age-relic of an ecosystem remains in West Virginia.2The Nature Conservancy, Places We Protect: Cheat Mountain, West Virginia.
The logging industry plays a significant role in the Mountain State’s history. By the early 1900s, hundreds of timber mills were in operation, harvesting red spruce, hemlock, and other valuable hardwoods. To extract the state’s lumber, companies built railroad infrastructure across the state. Timber boom towns flourished. Although smaller in scope today, the timber industry remains an important economic driver, employing thousands of people.3Learn more.
As a result of logging, however, few forest ecosystems in West Virginia look like they did hundreds of years ago. The Mower Tract is a perfect example of this degradation. Located on a 40,000-acre parcel of Cheat Mountain, the land was logged and mined for decades. Then, in the 1980s, the land was reclaimed by the Mower Land and Lumber Company and sold to the US Forest Service. Under its reclamation obligations, the company restored much of the tract by bulldozing the land back into roughly its original shape and planting trees on the surface.
To an outsider it looks like—well, a forest. But the forest is not thriving. Though soil testing confirms that red spruce forest grew in the Mower Tract centuries ago, the new ecosystem shows little sign of development.
Forest Service district biologist Shane Jones is hopeful about the forest’s future, however. “We’re not trying to get back what we had 120 or 140 years ago, but we’re trying to manage enough to make those very small areas of red spruce more resilient and able to survive into the future,” he said.
Over the last decade, scientists have planted over 150,000 red spruce trees across more than 760 acres in the Mower Tract. While reestablishing a red spruce ecosystem is the primary objective, the work also creates early successional habitat, which supports hunting. The creation of wetlands also helps with water quality. In addition, the agency hopes to drive tourism in the region through the creation of trails, hunting opportunities, bird-watching, mountain biking, and hiking.
Listen to an interview excerpt:
Forest Service district biologist Shane Jones describes efforts to restore the state’s red spruce forests.
The restoration of red spruce forests in West Virginia has implications not just for the local habitat, but also for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Mature forests are full of rich soils that store carbon. The central Appalachian Mountains are an important wildlife migration corridor, and these ecosystems will likely serve as climate refugia for species that may flee lower-elevation climates as they warm. “What we’re doing is taking an area that was like a biological desert, stuck in arrested succession, and putting it back into a forest that eventually will be a functional red spruce ecosystem,” Jones said.
Sprouting Farms / Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective
The shrill whistle of a coal train periodically punctuates the air of Greenbrier Valley in Summers County, West Virginia—a reminder of the region’s industrial history. But the relatively flat land also provides a unique opportunity for those who want to create something new, like Sprouting Farms, an 83-acre nonprofit farm and resource center. Sprouting Farms’s mission is much more than growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs: It aims to boost the reach of small-scale agriculture in southern West Virginia by training new farmers and providing budding agriculturalists access to inexpensive land and tools.
Listen to an interview excerpt:
Sprouting Farms director Fritz Boettner describes his efforts to bring together farmers to create economically sustainable markets for agriculture.
West Virginia leads the nation in small farms. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 98 percent of the state’s more than 20,000 farms are family owned, and 96 percent are considered small, meaning their annual gross income doesn’t exceed $250,000. Most vegetable farmers in the state gross less than $50,000 a year, and once expenses are accounted for, that hardly makes for a good living.4United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, “2017 Census of Agriculture State Profile: West Virginia.” But selling more produce, or higher-value produce, to restaurants and grocery stores could help.
In 2017, Sprouting Farms received a $1.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) as part of its inaugural POWER initiative, which provides federal dollars to coal-impacted communities. Director Fritz Boettner explains that Sprouting Farms is trying to break down barriers—physical, financial, and market-based—to help farmers succeed in West Virginia. Some of the farm’s 30 greenhouses are used by Sprouting Farms itself, but others are rented by local farmers who may not have the space or ability to invest thousands of dollars into the equipment needed to farm in this way. Renting offers the opportunity to grow a business without making costly upfront investments, including staff time and tools, Boettner pointed out. Sprouting Farms’s decision to be a fully operational production farm while also offering an education program is intentional: By running their own farm, the team can workshop the best ways to grow on a larger scale in West Virginia, which doesn’t have big swaths of flat land like the Midwest or California.
“I’m a West Virginian, and I don’t know . . . it’s like, everybody always wants to come back, but opportunities aren’t flourishing,” he said. “I also believe in trying to make things better than when I started. Right now, we need to be that catalyst, and we need to be some of those risk takers,” he adds. “To me, that’s what the investment of the ARC grant is: To try to build something that does not exist currently. And it’s hard to do that.”
During the project’s first year, the team quickly realized that in a state with challenging topography and a spread-out population, it needed access to markets to succeed. Every market helps, from the more traditional farmer’s markets to the wholesale level, including local restaurants and grocery stores.
“That’s what we’re doing with a new regional food hub called the Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective,” explained Boettner. “The demand is there. I’ve never really had that issue,” he said. “It’s just, how do we get supply and demand [to] line up, and how do we get the infrastructure in the middle to pull it all together? Our goal is to not just make this site work, but [to make] the whole regional food system work. We have lots of farmers and partners who are interested in making that happen.”
Turnrow acts as the intermediary between small farmers and schools, restaurants, and other markets that want to use more local produce but are used to ordering what they need from giants like Cisco and US Foods. Local farmers often don’t have the capacity to supply everything a restaurant might need, and restaurants don’t have time to call multiple farmers to source their weekly orders. That’s where Turnrow comes in. The food hub queries dozens of farmers each week, gathers what they have to sell, and delivers it.
According to the ARC, investment in Sprouting Farms will create 125 new jobs and serve more than 150 businesses.5Appalachian Regional Commission, “POWER Award Summaries by State,” 68. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Turnrow growers have lost some of their biggest markets, including restaurants and schools. But they have seen record sales from individuals placing orders through their online marketplace. While traditional food systems have been tested and stretched by the pandemic, small farmers are capable of playing a vital role in strengthening West Virginia’s food systems and food security.
“I’m happy with the progress we’ve made, absolutely, but I also know there’s an extremely long way to go,” he said, laughing. Boettner said as the project goes into its second year, it does so with more data and feedback on what has worked so far and what hasn’t. One thing he doesn’t question is the appetite for more local food.