By Dylan Kahle
The sun beats down on King Street as tourists and students alike enjoy local shops, dining, and entertainment. These tourists aren’t just here for the food and shopping though. They came to revel in the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. As they sit on benches in the shade, licking ice cream off cones and sipping sweet tea, they do not know that right above their heads is a hard-working nonprofit advocating for the protection of these wondrous mountains they traveled so far to see.
Appalachian Voices (often shortened to App Voices) is a local nonprofit with a huge scope. They advocate in 5 states and have offices in Boone, NC; Charlottesville, VA; and Knoxville, TN. They started over 20 years ago in Boone, NC. Their beginning is a very interesting story. The nonprofit began as a newspaper which they still produce to this day. “The Appalachian Voice” covers stories of environmental import, as well as pieces about the culture and community in Appalachia. The initial founders of the paper realized that while the paper had done a lot for raising awareness, there was a need for a non-profit advocacy group to fight for the Appalachian community.
I was given the opportunity to sit down with Matt Wasson, the Director of Programs for Appalachian Voices. We began our discussion with what Appalachian Voices is best known for, advocating for legislation restricting and ending mountaintop removal mining practices. Mountaintop removal is a strip mining practice where the surfaces of mountaintops are stripped for their coal. Mountaintop removal turns lush mountaintops into dry, dusty, and barren wastelands. This type of mining could have massive ramifications for areas all along the Appalachians. In contemporary times, these economies rely on people coming to hike in the mountains and swim in the local streams. This revenue stream is lost when these mountains are destroyed. Mountaintop removal also threatens hundreds of species of plants and animals, causing instability in the wildly diverse habitats they once thrived in.
The practice hit the Appalachian Mountains particularly hard, especially those in West Virginia. For decades this practice was used almost entirely unchecked. Wasson told me that “About 15 years ago, we decided we really needed to fight it, and make it stop, and in just a few years [we] had great success making it a national issue”. Thanks to Appalachian Voices as well as other non-profit advocacy groups, many policy changes were made under the Obama Administration that prevented and eliminated mountaintop removal mining in much of the Appalachian region, but the mining practice continues to this day.
Their work is not solely focused on mountaintop removal, and over the 20 years they have been advocating Appalachian Voices has had a hand in many different aspects of protecting the Appalachian region. Appalachian Voices also hosts collaborative, youth-led energy summits which Wasson said will “…start a conversation about what our energy future should look like here in the High Country”.
Fracked gas pipelines are another threat to Appalachian life as we know it today and is an issue that App Voices is currently fighting. The proposed “Atlantic Coast Pipeline” would carry fracked gas 600 miles, starting in Virginia moving through West Virginia and into North Carolina. The pipeline would cut through thousands of sections of privately owned land and require a large strip of permanently cleared land for the entirety of the 600 miles. This project could threaten family property, drinking water, and animal habitats for generations to come.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley pipeline are 2 pipelines that are proposed and in Matt Wasson’s words “We’re fighting those… those will either be won or lost this year”. Appalachian Voices is actively and vehemently fighting the construction of those pipelines. App Voices have backed their arguments with years of data collection and resident polling, proving that these pipelines are not what the communities want.
Anyone wanting to get involved with Appalachian Voices can visit their website (www.appvoices.org) to keep up to date with ongoing projects like the success of the fight against the construction of fracked gas pipelines in Appalachia. They accept donations via this website, as well as offer a location to sign up as a volunteer or intern with their organization. They also have links for their “Business League”, a team of local businesses partnering to protect the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can also find “The Front Porch”, a blog dedicated to informing the world about what is happening in Appalachia.
For decades the residents and communities that call the Appalachians home have been subjected to many types of injustice. Appalachian Voices offers a powerful political voice for these disenfranchised communities. In the past, these communities were left to fight billion-dollar energy corporations entirely on their own. App voices offers these communities a valuable asset to the necessary protection of their mountains.
It is refreshing to see an organization dedicated to protecting the Appalachian Mountains right here at home. I grew up deep in the heart of the Appalachians and I was lucky enough to enjoy countless afternoons as a child exploring these diverse forests and swimming in the crystal-clear mountain streams. My Appalachian upbringing was idyllic, but as a young resident I was not aware just how many threats were being placed on my way of life. I was not aware that many of the plant and animal species I encountered were in danger of having their home rivers and streams poisoned by fracked gas and mountaintop removal. It is naïve to think that everyone has the best interests of these mountains at heart. I can safely say that Appalachian Voices is a non-profit that wants nothing more than to protect these blue mountains I call home.