Citizens Begin Reclaiming Coal Country After Decades of Corporate Land Grabs

Across central Appalachia, once-thriving mining communities have been ravaged by the collapse of the coal industry and the flight of jobs from the region. For a region that remains rich in natural resources, Appalachia’s local governments continue to struggle to fund basic services such as housing, education and roads.

One significant factor in the region’s decline is the land. Since the coal industry began its decline, and even beforehand, millions of acres have essentially been removed from the region’s economic production and tax rolls, and nothing has replaced them.

In 1978, a group of citizens from the central Appalachians came together in frustration over what they felt were unjust practices of land ownership and distribution. Strip mining operations used mineral rights to displace people from their homes, and local business were unable to develop the land because it was owned by corporations based in other states. But in those discussions one common theme emerged: not knowing who owned what land and why was a major obstacle when it came to creating a stronger and more diverse Appalachian economy.

Researchers at the Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, and the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee, assembled a team of more than 60 volunteers to study the land ownership patterns of 80 mountain counties in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. The investigators were activists, researchers, scholars, and citizens who received training in how to examine county property tax records to determine land ownership, the location and value of property owned, and property tax amounts.

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