Amid cultural and political division, can we find common ground in the outdoors? (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

Every now and then I’ll receive a list of potential story topics from my editor at Blue Ridge Outdoors. The list earlier this spring included one that began, “Culture War?” My first response was negative, as I’ve read a lot of stories that tend to overplay cultural divisions, especially in Appalachia. the more I thought about it, though, I saw the potential for a deeper exploration of the question through a variety of lenses.

In the end, I tried to write this story like jazz, taking a theme and running through variations on it. It ran in September’s Blue Ridge Outdoors, which is still available in print at libraries, coffee shops and elsewhere in the Southeast and Appalachia.

Midterm previews in rural Maine and Minnesota (Daily Yonder)

My series previewing congressional midterm races in some of America’s most rural districts continues at the Daily Yonder.

In recent weeks, I’ve looked at Maine’s 2nd District (2nd most rural in the US) and Minnesota’s 7th (7th most rural) and 8th (12th) districts.

All three are fascinating races that will attract national attention, especially in ME-2 and MN-8, both of which are extremely competitive.

Virginia’s Medicaid expansion vote shows the shifting Republican approach to healthcare in Appalachia (Belt Magazine)

Terry Kilgore saw the writing on the wall. The longtime Republican state delegate, who represents Virginia’s southwestern-most district, had watched as Republicans grabbed the White House and both houses of Congress in 2016 and then failed to act on healthcare. A year later, Democrats came within a single, disputed vote of winning parity in the Virginia House of Delegates. And Kilgore’s constituents in an economically distressed Appalachian district were struggling with paying for healthcare.

All that contributed to Kilgore’s flip after four years to support Medicaid expansion in Virginia. He and a handful of other Appalachian Republicans broke ranks to join Democrats to expand coverage for an additional 400,000 Virginians, including many in the mountainous part of the state.

I wrote about the why and how for Belt Magazine. Read it here.

How tree sitters hope to delay and block the Mountain Valley Pipeline (Blue Ridge Outdoors, Belt Magazine)

Since late February, a series of tree sitters and their allies have placed their bodies in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile interstate line intended to move natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to markets in the Southeast.

I’ve covered this story a few different times in a few different places.

For background, read my 2015 Roanoke Business story on the various pipeline proposals and my 2014 Grist story about how craft brewers were lining up against them.

The tree sits first went up on Peters Mountain, beside the Appalachian Trail near the Virginia/West Virginia line, in late February. In early April, a mother and daughter stationed themselves in trees on their land in Bent Mountain, and later that month, tree-sitters went up in Franklin County, to the east.

My first story on the tree sits appeared in Blue Ridge Outdoors in late April and covered what had happened up to that point.

In early May, however, Red and Minor Terry, the mother-daughter pair on Bent Mountain, were forced down by a court order. I live-tweeted their descent and collected those tweets at Medium. Another story also was published by Blue Ridge Outdoors.

When I was writing that first story for Blue Ridge Outdoors, a guy said to me, “Those people are way too late. They should have been fighting it years ago.” Thing is, the pipeline opponents HAVE been fighting for years, and they’ve more or less done everything right along the way: Packing open houses, filing public comments that right time, activating opposition around assets such as the Appalachian Trail, collecting scientific data to refute the pipeline’s filings, etc.

So I wrote a story for Belt Magazine specifically for the Rust Belt, Appalachian & Midwestern communities that stand in the paths of more than 100 pipelines planned for the near future, many of them moving fracked natural gas from the Marcellus & Utica shale formations. What can they learn from the tree sits & the broader fight against the Mountain Valley Pipeline? You can read that story here.

Meanwhile, the battle between the tree-sitters and MVP construction crews continues. The Franklin County tree-sitters were forced down by a federal court on Memorial Day, leaving one original tree-sitters on Peters Mountain, plus a nearby aerial blockade of a National Forest access road that was blocked for more than 50 days by one woman who has since been replaced by another.

The odds against stopping the pipeline remain long, but the sitters are buying time for a half-dozen or more court proceedings to play out. The story is still unfinished.

The privilege of covering the Faculty Women of Color in the Academy National Conference (Virginia Tech)

My role as a reporter and writer often puts me in places that may be a little uncomfortable, but which can open up entirely new vistas and perspectives on life and the world we live in.

Honestly, I was a little intimidated covering the Faculty Women of Color in the Academy National Conference at Virginia Tech, but wow was it an amazing opportunity. I was privileged to even be in that room with 400 talented, accomplished faculty women of color who came together for the conference. I got to hear keynote presentations from Maria Hinojosa of NPR’s “Latino USA” and “In the Thick” podcast, and Brittney Cooper, assistant professor of women’s, gender and Africana studies at Rutgers University, co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective and author of books, including the recent “Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.”

Those two speakers were both incredible, as were the other presentations I attended. This was clearly an experience I was only able to access because of my job, and I hope I did the job well with my coverage, because the experience was a personal highlight of my time at Virginia Tech so far.

Read my story at Virginia Tech News here.

Upcoming midterms in New York & West Virginia give glimpse of rural politics in 2018 (Daily Yonder)

I’m writing a series of previews of congressional midterm elections for the Daily Yonder, a website about rural America published by the Center for Rural Strategies out of Whitesburg, Kentucky.

“Rural” as measured by the US Census—which is based not on geography but what percentage of a population is living in metro vs non-metro areas.

My first story focused on upstate New York, home to two of the 20 most rural districts in the US. This story looks at developing midterm races in NY-19 (a toss-up) and NY-21 (safe R). Read it at the Daily Yonder here.

The second story looks at West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district, which Donald Trump won by 50 points but which is an open seat with unpredictable dynamics. Read that story here.

Legislation to add bikes to federal wilderness threatens to crack conservation coalition (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

A bill to allow mountain bikes in federal wilderness areas appears stalled in the House, & would seem to be DOA in the Senate anyway. Still, this story is important for what it signifies in the conservation coalition.

At 1st blush, this may seem simple. The Wilderness Act is a bedrock environmental law in the US, & preserving wilderness is important. & yet, I had not thought about how wilderness is regularly added by Congress, & what that means for areas once home to well-used bike trails.

I break that dynamic down a bit in this story through the example of Dolly Sods in WV. Expansion of that wilderness a few years ago was trumpeted as a major victory, but it also involved a breakdown between mountain bikers & wilderness advocates.

Politics & personalities ultimately contributed to the final outcome, & there is still bad blood today over how it went down. That’s the real danger of HR 1349—that it may splinter the coalition between recreationalists & wilderness groups.

My story in Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine digs into that dynamic, with voices from across the spectrum. Check it out in April’s issue or read it online here.

Schools, snow days & hungry students (Scalawag)

“I was working really late in my office on a Thursday night, and we had been closed for four days for snow, when my phone rang and this little boy said, ‘Lady are you going to open school tomorrow?’ I said, ‘I really don’t know, honey, but I’m going to make the call and it will be on television.’ He replied, ‘Please open. I am SO hungry.’ It was life-changing for me.”

👆 That’s Roanoke School Superintendent Rita Bishop talking about what goes into the decision to call off school for snow and other inclement weather. It’s a reason why city schools began opening cafeterias to students & their parents three years ago.

Buoyed by a USDA memo, other western Virginia school systems have increasingly been doing the same, including here in Floyd County, which twice this academic year have opened their cafeterias to the community on snowy days.

Read my story about that + how schools and non-profit organizations are increasingly partnering to feed children in economically distressed communities, at Scalawag Magazine.

Don Blankenship has turned WV’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate into a 3-way race (New Republic)

When he first entered the West Virginia Republican primary for U.S. Senate, I kind of wrote off Don Blankenship’s campaign as an effort at rehabbing his image after a year in prison. But now, five weeks out from the primary election, it appears that the former apex predator of blood capitalism is in the hunt.

Read my story about Blankenship’s background & the current moment at The New Republic.