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Planning and Action: The Appalachian Land Study 2016

By Madeleine Isabella Hall and Savannah Dummer

November 23, 2016

The authors are Appalachian State University students, who are serving as LiKEN Research Assistants in the Fall 2016 term as part of their Anthropology of Environmental Justice class.  In this blog, they describe their experiences as participants in the September 30 meeting of a new working group to study ownership of land, coal, oil, gas, and other minerals in Appalachia.  Co-hosted by LiKEN, this meeting took place in Lexington KY. For more on this new Appalachian Land Study, please go to

Scoping out the room at the Hunter Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall, every single participant’s expression and tone of conversation rang to their passion to bring environmental justice to their community and to Appalachia. We were overwhelmed by the sense of community in this room.  All sorts of people were attending, including but not limited to, lawyers, herbalists, professors, college students, and anthropologists, all of which comprised a coalition of activists collaborating at the first planning meeting for the new Appalachian Land Ownership study. Over 65 individuals from Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Canada gathered in discussion about a collaborative design process for carrying on the original land study in the midst of new comparative data and knowledge sharing technologies.

In this September 30th meeting, we began the effort to revitalize a monumental grassroots meets scholarship movement. The meeting was on a limited time frame, from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm to be specific. Therefore, around 65 incredibly intelligent, concerned and passionate citizen activists had the task of solidifying these 6 deeply complex questions:

  1. What is the mission?

  2. What the goals/vision of the new land study are?

  3. Why is this land study important?

  4. Who is/should be participating?

  5. How can people get involved?

  6. Immediate next steps?

With this report we highlight the origins of the land study, the present social and political context in the region that could influence the outcome of the project, and most of all, the imperative for transparency between the state, the academy, and the people.

In 1979, the first Appalachia Ownership Land study was a collaboration of activists, scholars, and Appalachians to determine who owns Appalachia. Discourses of activism, community organizing, and academic research ensued with different goals and definitions in regards to land ownership and use in a post-coal transition. With that in mind, in the September 30th meeting, these three dynamics were brought together to discuss the first steps to creating a community-based participatory movement.

The original land study’s findings emphasized taxation, especially of mining corporations owning mineral rights. One issue was that corporations and absentee owners were paying low tax rates for both land and minerals. This reflects the lack of information available to citizens in affected areas. Important information about the land is not publicly accessible, if it even exists at all.

In 2008 Shaunna Scott, one of the attendees at the meeting, published an article in the Journal of Appalachian Studies, “The Appalachian Land Ownership Study Revisited”. Her article brought to light what this meeting finally can accomplish, almost 10 years later.  Scott quotes Charles Winfrey a Highlander staffer,  “We didn’t want another study to get put on a shelf that gets pulled down by some PhD who wants to cite it. We want it to be disseminated to the region to be used as a catalyst to organize and make some changes.”

Top Priorities (as expressed by meeting members):

  1. Extraction of knowledge

  2. Environmental protection

  3. Economic transition/development (What does this imply? Why would this be a controversial subject?)

  4. Civil rights (right to land and local resource control)

  5. Enabling low income families to own land

  6. More transparent land ownership

  7. Big Data and creating a database that is accessible to all is important in this process

Why is this new land study important?

In the post-coal realm, updating the Appalachian Ownership Land Study is vital for answering “who owns Appalachia?” in order to regain the land lost economically and environmentally to the coal industry. The coal industry has left a legacy of pollution, health risks, and liabilities. They need to be held accountable so that they are in the public eye for their wrongdoings. Fragmentation of land, absentee landownership, questionable land ownership/boundaries, and unincorporated towns, among many other issues call for the need to collect data on land ownership as well as making that data accessible to all. Participants were asked to share the information they believed needed to be collected and what should be done with that knowledge.

Several subjects that came up involved the difficulties of mapping land ownership due to discrepancies in land surveys, such as the acreage not being measured accurately, and bankrupt land still being owned by the corporation.

The new study is paving the way for restoration and transparency. Dr. William Schumann, a graduate professor in Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, brought up an interesting point.

“Mobilize this to plug into policy discussions. Make it comparable and connect it to other resource extraction issues” says Dr. Schumann, in regards to project design and outreach. This hints that there should a clear stance in the top priorities, like reinserting local voices, but also framing the work in a way that speaks to bureaucrats, and also speaks to the state with human stories.

The last group discussion was about who and what was under-represented at this meeting and in the study. In the spirit of collective activism, and the current social movements taking place, being able to connect the environmental justice fights happening across the nation and the world seemed extremely vital to the legitimacy of this project as well. Karen Rignall, a Cultural Anthropologist and professor at University of Kentucky, explained her work in Morocco regarding land ownership, saying that there are “…commonalities of land struggles all around the world”. This study is not only a fight for Appalachia and the deep South in a post coal transition, but, is in the forefront of a groundbreaking, nationwide, revolution to take back the land.

Overall, from reflecting back on interviews and photos, after this quick but foundational meeting, there seemed to be a fire lit in each and every participant. All members were ready to take back what they learned and ignite a fire in their communities.

After the meeting, a few key categories addressing immediate action and further information on getting involved were identified:

Stakeholders- who was at the meeting and who should participate

  1. Concerned Citizens

Any and all community members including but not limited to: artists, farmers, entrepreneurs, landowners, citizens not involved in grassroots groups, communities with land trusts, healers (health impacts/land restoration), peoples of unincorporated localities

  1. Government/Legal/Professionals

Including but not limited to: local government officials, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), policy makers, state agencies, tax collectors/assessors, lawyers, and professional organizations

  1. Non-Profit Organizations

Including but not limited to: ecotourism organizations, Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN), watershed/groups and organizations, Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY), and KY Student Environmental Coalition (KSEC)

  1. Academics

Including but not limited to: local universities represented across the region, researchers (i.e., West Virginia Land Study researchers), community and technical colleges/schools

  1. Donors

  2.  Including but not limited to: funders, donor networks, land conservation groups, local media

Examples of Stakeholders Needing More Representation:

  1. Labor (unions/workers): UMWA, boiler-workers, AFL-CIO > state level engagement

  2. Deep Southern Appalachian states

  3. Educators (reformists)

  4. Cooperatives (living wage economics)

  5. Economic development organizations

  6. Indigenous and tribal groups/nations

  7. Hispanic & Latino/a groups

  8. Anti-poverty groups

What are some of the things the community can do?

  1. Organize local planning committees

  2. Attend meetings/focus groups

  3. Media coverage

  4. Use access to help get grants

  5. Mapping

  6. Web development

  7. Research

  8. Training

What is the immediate call to action?

  1. Assembling the data already out there, already accessible in each region.

  2. Analyze that data, cross reference (if possible)

  3. Establish what is missing?

  4. Go find and digitize what is missing.

  5. Digitize it all.

What did the meeting’s participants want the land study to accomplish?

Including but not limited to:

  1. Understanding land ownership

  2. Supporting land reform

  3. Supporting accountability for pollution

  4. Empowering communities

  5. Informing economic development strategy

If you want to be involved, go to the Land Study website:

Or,  contact your community organizer:

  1. Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED)

  2. Website:

  3. E-mail:

  4. Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN)

  5. Website:

  6. Contact via website: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

  7. Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY)

  8. Website:

  9. Contact via website: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and email

  10. KY Student Environmental Coalition (KSEC)

  11. Website:

  12. Contact via website: Facebook, Instagram, and email

  13. Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee (CWEET)

  14. Website:

  15. Email:

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