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.

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.

How Roanoke reinvented itself by bringing housing to a fading downtown (CityLab)

In 1979, Roanoke was a blue-collar New South city built around the Norfolk & Western railroad. The city core was decaying as businesses and residents moved outward to suburbs and adjacent counties.

Today, the Star City has become what so many cities of its size, geography, and history want to be. It’s burgeoning, chock full of craft beer, and eminently welcoming to outdoorsy Millennials. As small cities struggle to retain young people, Roanoke is attracting them.

How did this happen? And what does downtown’s transformation mean for nearby neighborhoods like historic Gainsboro?

Read the full story at CityLab.

Appalachian communities hoping to build a new outdoor economy see threat from Trump (100 Days in Appalachia)

After years of building their regional economy around extractive industries, many Appalachian communities now are tapping into their bountiful outdoor assets to draw tourists—-and perhaps manufacturers and other job creators.

Places like Roanoke, Virginia, have created a new model for economic development, pairing traditional lures like workforce and infrastructure with an emphasis on livability and access to outdoor recreation.

Substantial challenges remain, however—-including President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which would gut a number of programs crucial to economic diversification efforts.

Read the story at 100 Days in Appalachia.

100 days in, here’s what Donald Trump has meant for Appalachia (Vice)

Donald Trump dominated Appalachia on Election Day, 2016, and he wasted no time in loosening regulations on the region’s coal industry. In the big picture, however, the regulatory shifts mean an extension of the status quo.

His proposed budget, however, which would gut the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, the USDA’s infrastructure budget and other programs crucial to economic development efforts, may well wipe out any job gains from the coal industry.

For Vice, I tried to sort out the impact of federal actions on Appalachia under Trump. Read it here.

How a billionaire Democrat could win election as governor in one of Trump’s strongest states (Politico Magazine)

When the billionaire entered the primary, longtime politicos scoffed. He had no political experience, had switched parties repeatedly over the previous decades, and had a spotty track record in business. Yet he vanquished his establishment candidates in the primary and headed into the general election running an unorthodox campaign based around his personality.

It’s not Donald Trump, of course, but Jim Justice, West Virginia’s only billionaire and owner of the Greenbrier Resort and the largest privately held coal company east of the Mississippi River. Justice stands as a figure simultaneously beloved—he coaches high-school basketball and bailed out the historic Greenbrier when it faced potential closure—and reviled, as his coal company has developed a reputation for not paying debts, taxes or environmental obligations.

Read more about Justice, his Republican opponent Bill Cole, and what may be the weirdest undercard election in America at Politico Magazine.

Mad food scientists of the Midwest (Munchies)

This year the Salem Fair featured chocolate-covered bacon on a stick, which got me thinking about the vendors at the country’s biggest food fairs who drive fair food innovation.

A trip to Iowa during that state’s fair got the wheels spinning even faster, and next thing I knew, I was eating a pineapple bowl and interviewing the man who popularized deep-fried candy bars in the Midwest.

Read about that and more in my story for Munchies.

NRV & Bristol seek passenger rail extension from Roanoke (Roanoke Business)

Amtrak is running on schedule for its arrival in Roanoke next fall. Even as the Star City prepares to celebrate the return of passenger rail for the first time in more than 34 years, its neighbors to the southwest already are pushing to extend the service.

The service arrives as part of Amtrak’s extensions of its Northeast Regional service into Virginia. The commonwealth invests in state-funded train extensions that run to Lynchburg, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News. The Lynchburg extension, which began regular daily service in 2009, outperformed expectations and sparked momentum that lead to the push westward to Roanoke.

Amtrak estimates it generates a national economic impact of $7.9 billion annually, supporting more than 110,000 jobs through its daily operations plus tourism and supplier impacts.

Local governments also desire the economic boost that goes with passenger rail, which tends to create a 3-to-5 percent growth in the number of annual visitors. While short-term construction and engineering jobs come with the line’s upgrades and related construction, that growth in visitors creates potential for a larger, more durable ripple, especially in the restaurant and hospitality industries.

Now, rail fans in the New River Valley and Bristol metropolitan areas hope to bring those benefits to their localities, too.

Read my story about their efforts at Roanoke Business.

How advanced manufacturing brought western Virginia out of the recession (Roanoke Business)

Southwest Virginians know too well the downsides of globalization when it comes to manufacturing jobs.

For decades, they have watched long-running textile and furniture manufacturers shutter factories as their owners moved their operations to new locations with lower labor costs.

The 21st century, however, has seen a resurgence of manufacturing in western Virginia. New facilities and expansions of existing factories drive the region’s recovery from the Great Recession. In a twist, it’s largely foreign-owned companies driving this new wave of manufacturing as they look to establish footholds in the U.S. and tap into domestic markets.

From 2009 through 2015, the Roanoke region saw a 7.7 percent growth in employment within the manufacturing sector, more than twice the total non-farm employment change of 3.1 percent.

Read more about how manufacturing brought western Virginia out of the recession in Roanoke Business.

How announcements of 2 new breweries validate Roanoke’s changing image (Virginia Business)

There’s been lots of talk about transitioning the economies of Appalachian communities from their historic base into the 21st Century. But what does that actually look like?

I’d suggest the Roanoke Valley as a possible example of economic transition. The railroad—which jumpstarted Roanoke as the city in 1880s—no longer is a big economic driver, but we’re seeing a cascading series of companies coming in to fill the void: Large production breweries, advanced manufacturing & more. Better partnerships between regional entities—think Carilion & Virginia Tech for one example—are generating new activity as well.

Clearly not all that success has translated equally to residents across town, but it does look like progress from the big-picture perspective. Certainly people seem more stoked to live in Roanoke now than they did a decade ago.

For more about what this transition looks like in 2016 Roanoke, read my regional profile in Virginia Business.