Era Incognita:
What Will Happen to Appalachia?
By Ole Bye

I’ve talked to people who think coal mining will be over in 20 years in western Virginia. Some say ten years. Horace Kephart, in his book Our Southern Highlanders, wrote that the problems faced by Appalachia in the 20th century would be “chiefly economic”. This prophecy was set forth in the second decade of that century, and proved to be entirely accurate. Although the region has seen vast improvements in its quality of life in the past thirty years, the end of coal will turn back the clock. What will happen then? What will western Virginia look like in 30 years? Although I’ve thought a lot about this, I haven’t come up with much of an answer yet. I’ll keep listening to people, though, hoping to glean tidbits about the event no one really wants to think about.

Many of the region’s current coal miners may not live to see the end of coal. Those that do will probably have a hard time adjusting to a new career, especially if coal is all they have known. The younger coal miners, men in their twenties and younger, are the ones who will face this change in the middle of their lives. It is they who will have the need to change western Virginia, and indeed, all of Appalachia.

I’ve only just met a few young coal miners, as they are few and far between. One old miner told me, “They want a twenty-two year old with fifteen years experience.” Training a new miner costs the company a lot of money, and a chaperone must accompany the trainee, sometimes for as long as a year. Therefore, the job market is good for experienced miners, but few men enter mining fresh these days.

How will current events in Appalachia influence the course of the future? Most assuredly, we can predict that the region will have no natural resources left to extract, except isolated gas and oil deposits, and timber, when it grows back. Mining will have left a great deal of developable land, suited to heavy industrial construction, but land which is nearly devoid of any other potential. Minimal reclamation causes the unstable rubble left by mining to erode, making it ugly and potentially dangerous. An eco-tourism economy is out of the question for most of the region.

The only hope I see is if communities come together in conscious effort and diversify their local economies. If the region is to survive at an acceptable standard of living, each community must bind itself together, must create an atmosphere that encourages small businesses, must design communities that are centralized, and must communicate effectively within the community to ensure that business stays in that community. I can envision an Appalachian town with a baker, a hardware store, a newspaper, a grocer, a family-owned furniture store. Yes, this is an obsolete economy in the rest of the country, but I think geography and lack of alternatives makes it feasible. A trend towards small, family-owned businesses will help to sever Appalachia from the revenue-sapping bondage of chain businesses.

Appalachia has always been a region that has given its services to the rest of the country; its coal has been burned elsewhere, its wood pulp shipped out, its culture packaged and exported. Now the time has come to stem that outward tide. Appalachia needs to take responsibility for its own sustenance, and not rely on outside economies. This of course will take a great deal of willpower. Willpower that many tired ex-miners may not have when coal mining ceases. To update Kephart’s quote, I think Appalachia’s problem in the coming century will be chiefly one of willpower.

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