Can elk help restore wildlife habitat and soil on strip mines? (YES! Magazine)

Central Appalachian communities are home to more than a million acres of former strip mines, many of which have been restored on the cheap.

Faced with the quandary of what to do with these lands, several states have used them as reintroduction sites for elk in hopes of enriching the habitat for diverse animal species—and, more to the point, the potential for an economic boost from tourist dollars spent by wildlife watchers and hunters.

For YES! Magazine, I visited an elk reintroduction site in southwestern Virginia and asked whether it might be a viable solution for reclaimed mineland. The answer: It’s complicated. Read more at YES! Magazine.

Virginia considers new methane regulations & pumped-storage hydro-fueled R&D (Southeast Energy News)

Virginia is considering regulatory action to restrict methane emissions, and the state legislature passed a bill to create a research and development authority based around the potential for pumped-storage hydropower and renewable energy development on former coal mines in southwestern Virginia.

Both of those stories were featured in 2019 in Southeast Energy News. Check them out.

Will 2019 be the year Virginia cracks down on methane emissions?

A task force is expected to propose new regulations to limit leaks from landfills and natural gas infrastructure.

Could pumped-storage hydro help Southwest Virginia reclaim its role as an energy hotbed?

A bill awaiting the governor’s signature would create a state authority to win grants and other research funding.

Roller derby, pipelines, hip-hop & hillbilly comics

If you’re looking at that headline trying to figure out a connection, those are all topics featured on Blue Ridge Free State in recent months.

The podcast was included in a Poynter story about independent journalism projects in under-covered parts of America. It’s a thrill to be included alongside Southerly and Postindustrial, among others.

Check out our recent episodes:

8: One team, one goal (w/ Twin Valleys Roller Derby)

This episode is all about roller derby in Appalachia, through the lens of Twin Valleys Roller Derby in Roanoke. We visited their home finale double-header, with Twin Valleys Roller Derby versus Rail City Rollers and then Virginia All-Stars versus the World. Interviews with team skaters Black Bolt, Tar Hellion, Wedneslay Addams & Speed Junkie. We also talk to Arrak-kiss of Houston Roller Derby, Bettie Lockdown of the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes, and Slingin Gritz of  Carolina Wreckingballs Mens Roller Derby—all past NRV Rollergirls. Plus, Mason spiels about his own past as a derby ref.

9: Inside the fight to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline

On this episode, we talk about the 2018 battles we saw in court and on the ground to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile interstate natural gas line connecting the Marcellus Shale formation in northern Appalachia with lines in the Southeast U.S. We hear a segment from West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia involving Mason’s reporting on tree sits to block the line in April. We hear more reporting from over the summer with the Mountain Valley Watch, a group of citizen scientists monitoring pipeline construction. And we wrap up with a look at where the movement goes from here, via a visit by a former Virginia State Water Control Board member to the Bent Mountain community on Jan. 2, 2019.

10: #TruthIsNotHate (w/ Poe Mack)

Byron Mack is a rapper, promoter, and beat maker from Salem, Virginia, who performs as Poe Mack. We talk about what it takes to rise up from the grassroots in a scene that doesn’t want to take chances on hip-hop, and what it takes to keep going strong 20 years into the game. We talk about how a new daughter and broken leg shaped the production of Poe Mack’s new album “#TruthIsNotHate.” Also: How the hip-hop scene in Appalachian mountain towns differs from that on the coast, how to build a home recording studio in the ’90s, and how to sell your CDs in the Walmart electronic section.

11: A century of Barney Google and 85 years of Snuffy Smith (w/ John Rose)

This episode features an interview with John Rose, the cartoonist who creates “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith,” the syndicated comic strip that turned 100 this year. Rose talks about how he goes about writing and drawing a century-old legacy strip, from his daily routine to the changes he’s brought to the characters since taking over in 2001. He also addresses Barney Google’s origins as a sporting strip all about horse races and boxing; Snuffy’s moonshining origins; why he brought back Barney after a 15-year absence; and how he responds to criticisms of the broad hillbilly stereotype that gave rise to Snuffy and which he still exemplifies.

12: Snuffy Smith through the eyes of an Appalachian historian (w/ Bob Hutton)

Like Mason, Bob Hutton grew up reading Snuffy Smith in the pages of his local newspaper. Unlike Mason, Dr. Bob is a history professor at the University of Tennessee who specializes in the American South and Appalachia, which gives him a great perspective on Snuffy’s place in pop culture and how it fits into the broader history of the hillbilly stereotype. This is a fun interview that goes in some unexpected directions.

Central Appalachia’s local government crisis (Southerly)

Coal’s decline in central Appalachia has decimated the tax base for local governments, and some are now cutting into waste management and even law enforcement.

The revenue squeeze from that diminished tax base is exposing financial mismanagement, worsening a dire economic situation, and resulting in partial government shutdowns and cutbacks in core government services like infrastructure, education, and healthcare.

I wrote for Southerly about this broad-based problem that’s affecting local governments around central Appalachia, but particularly in eastern Kentucky. Read the whole story at Southerly.

Can an outdoor adventure economy take root on former mines? (Ensia)

Communities throughout central Appalachia are looking for a future after coal. Part of that challenge involves figuring out what to do with former mines.

For Ensia, I visited St. Paul, Virginia, one among the many Central Appalachian coalfield communities building outdoor recreation opportunities to benefit the regional economy and fill a gap left by the dwindling coal industry. I found the early signs of an outdoor industry taking hold, and other communities like Dante, several miles up the road, seeking to follow the same path. Change doesn’t come easy, however, and the growing outdoor industry faces challenges from the effects of coal’s remnants on the environment, economy and culture.

Read the story at Ensia.

Supreme Court case looms over Virginia uranium ban, & local pipeline politics (Southeast Energy News)

The photo above shows the largest uranium deposit in North America, just north of Danville in rural Pittsylvania County, Virginia. It was discovered in the 70s, but Virginia lawmakers placed a moratorium on uranium mining in 1982. In early November, however, the Supreme Court of the US heard lawyers argue over whether the state moratorium runs afoul of federal law.

I looked at the history of the deposit, talked to locals, and previewed the case for the Energy News Network. Read the story at Southeast Energy News.

Also for Energy News Network, I looked at a pair of supervisors in Franklin & Montgomery counties (Va) who won election last year on platforms that included opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline. But their opposition is being tested with local decisions on gate stations that advocates argue could boost economic development. Read the story at Southeast Energy News.

Outdoors at stake in the 2018 midterms (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

Whether it’s ownership of public lands or the quality of our environment, funding for land management agencies or the trade and tax policies affecting gear manufacturers, what happens in the outdoors is dramatically affected by elected lawmakers.

I wrote about six races in Appalachia and the Southeast to watch in the November midterms, plus two gubernatorial elections & a ballot measure.

Read the story at Blue Ridge Outdoors.

Kentucky program retrains miners for energy efficiency jobs (Yes! Magazine)

By 2013 the number of coal jobs in Kentucky declined to 12,550—-the lowest since the state started recording the figure in 1927. By August 2018, the number had dropped about 50%, to 6,238.

A number of organizations are trying to retrain miners for other professions. I wrote about a small-scale program in eastern KY that’s retraining miners for energy efficiency jobs.

Read the story at Yes! Magazine.

Legendary West Virginia energy writer wins “Genius Grant” (Southeast Energy News)

I’m an unabashed fan of Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Ken Ward. I started reading his stories and Coal Tattoo blog when I was a reporter at the Roanoke Times, and I was fortunate enough to meet him in person during an Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) training in Charleston.

So I was pretty thrilled when Southeast Energy News asked me to do a Q&A with Ward about being awarded a MacArthur Grant.

Read the Q&A at Southeast Energy News.

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.