Tornadoes ripped through the Midwest on Monday, including my home state of Kansas, killing at least 10 people and damaging or destroying hundreds of homes. As much as I hate to contribute fodder to those at this University who love making Wizard of Oz jokes at my expense, tornadoes are a real threat for people in Kansas and other states in the Midwest. The mayor of Springfield, Ill. said that the destruction “looks like the pictures we saw a couple months ago after Katrina.”

Andrew Skidmore

Hearing these accounts and recalling the devastation of Katrina reminds me of our connection to the places we call home. From seacoast to seacoast, from the Appalachians to the Rockies, from the Great Plains to the Great Lakes, we are defined – and at times threatened – by the land that we live on.

I recognized this relationship most clearly over Spring Break, when I ventured to the coal fields in southern West Virginia with 11 other Michigan students through Alternative Spring Break. Before the trip, I had been intrigued by the enigma of Appalachia, a region that few of us know much about other than from the publicity surrounding the recent Sago mining accident. But after spending a week in some of the oldest mountains in the country and talking to people who were born and raised there, I realized how essential the mountains were to their existence. The mountains were not just a backdrop for their lives; they defined their art, their music, their food, their economy and their heritage.

On our last day in West Virginia, we got the pleasure of visiting the land of Larry Gibson, whose family has lived on the same mountaintop for two centuries. The remains of his ancestors are buried in that mountain, but they, and everything Gibson loves, are being threatened by the coal industry. Beyond his family cemetery, the land drops off. Gibson’s 50 acres used to rest safely between two mountains, but due to the increasingly popular mining practice of mountaintop removal, the mountains on either side of his property have been leveled. His property, including his house, the cottages of family members and the cemetery, is now an island surrounded by fields of gray rubble.

This month’s National Geographic ran a pair of articles about coal and mountaintop-removal, accompanied by a full-page photo of Gibson looking out across the destruction I have just described.

One article describes the method of mountaintop removal: Cut down the forests, blow up the mountaintop, sweep the land into the surrounding valleys and collect the coal. The practice allows the inexpensive removal of coal and it requires far fewer laborers than coal mining, but it has severe drawbacks.

From 1948 to 2005, the number of coal-mining jobs has gone from 125,000 to fewer than 19,000. Unfortunately for the workers of West Virginia, no equivalent industry has replaced these jobs, and according to Gibson, many people end up working fast-food and service jobs.

The large amounts of money derived from coal, which provides half of the country’s electricity, does not go to the people. Gibson informed me that a majority of West Virginians has never made more than 10 dollars an hour.

The biggest drawback of mountaintop removal: Mountaintops are being removed. Mountains that formed in billions of years – some of the oldest mountains in this country – are being destroyed in one fell swoop. According to National Geographic, “surface mining in general has impacted more than 400,000 acres in (a) four-state Appalachian region, including more than 1,200 miles of streambeds. If the practice continues until 2012, it will have squashed a piece of the American earth larger than the state of Rhode Island.”

This type of destruction, and what it means to people like Gibson, cannot be quantified. But as long as we continue to depend on coal, as long as we enjoy cheap electricity and air-conditioned second homes, as long as we allow our leaders to keep King Coal in their back pocket, mountaintop removal is going to continue.

Gibson, however, is not going down without a fight. After repeatedly turning down large sums of money for his land, ignoring over 100 acts of violence against his property and making his 50 acres a protected park, he tightly holds onto his land. Now he has become an outspoken activist against mountaintop removal, traveling all over the country and appearing in numerous articles. And at the end of this year, this short man who claims to have the tallest voice in West Virginia will testify before the United Nations.

Before we left West Virginia, Larry asked each of us University students to ponder these question and get back to him: “What do you hold so sacred that it cannot be bought? And if someone outside your circle of life came in and tried to take it, what would you do?”

Until I had met Larry, I had never seriously thought about these questions in terms of the land in this country. But when it starts being irrevocably destroyed, you realize what it means to you. And if we are going to let the Appalachians disappear, who’s to say that the Great Plains or the Great Lakes are not next? If we aren’t willing to protect the homes of West Virginians, who’s going to protect ours?

Cravens can be reached at jjcrave@umich.edu.

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