I recently spent a weekend in the mountains of my home state of West Virginia rafting one of the world’s best whitewaters, the Gauley River. The trip was a much-needed break from graduate school, a chance to unwind and to share with my classmates some of my favorite things about West Virginia. Before negotiating the river’s Class V rapids, I enjoyed a few hours of pure relaxation and reflected on my love for the beautiful mountains and the friendly, hard-working people of Appalachia. I felt lucky to have grown up surrounded by both.
Then I remembered what I had witnessed as I flew home and passed over the coal-rich region of the southern part of West Virginia. Excited to be heading to West Virginia, I watched the ground below, the leaves just beginning to change and set fire to the mountains with the colors of fall. And then came the destruction: what seemed like miles of blasted, damaged land, as if the belly of hell had opened up and consumed large patches of the oldest mountain range in the world. I had returned home for rejuvenation and instead was thrust into the reality of the modern coal industry and the wasteland created by mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so lucky anymore, knowing my children and grandchildren may not enjoy the chance to experience West Virginia as I have. I know that there are people in the coal industry who believe mining offers the best chance for our state’s economy. For some, a return to the Company Town and Company Store mentality would offer security of a sort. I disagree. Dependence on a single industry – especially such a destructive one – isn’t in our best interest. Do we really need to blast off the tops of our God-given mountains to mine precious coal while poisoning our water, destroying our small-town life, and locking us into economic stagnation? What would the Mountain State be without mountains?
The coal industry says that MTR is a necessary sacrifice if we want to enjoy “cheap” energy. Having grown up in modest circumstances, and served in combat in the US Army, I know that blowing off the tops of mountains is a senseless sacrifice.
I consider myself fortunate not because of any economic advantage I had growing up (as the son of a union electrician and public school teacher), but because I have been presented opportunities that most folks from West Virginia don’t get. Out of high school, I was selected to attend the US Military Academy at West Point. I am proud of the five years and two overseas deployments I gave to my country. Serving in a tank battalion, I made it through the first year of the Iraq war relatively unscathed and was able to see the soldiers I led into war all make it home safely.
My years in the Army and in business taught me many things: the value of integrity, the responsibilities of leadership, and the rewards that come from seeing those whom I lead succeed. I have a profound love for this nation of ours, one where so many have sacrificed so very much. The Army showed me firsthand what that sacrifice truly entails. In planning for military operations, we have learned that we must be judicious with our use of destructive force. The Army, and my experience with counterinsurgency operations, also taught me the importance of always evaluating and re-evaluating tactics and strategies. We must force ourselves to look at our long-term goals and reassess the methods used to achieve them. These lessons apply just as readily in civilian life.
Our environment is all we have; everything else is a subset of it. The strength of our long-term economy will depend on how well we manage the resources we have today. The viability of society depends on the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Mountaintop removal coal mining meets none of the criteria of a smart sacrifice.
We are natural creatures. We love and need our wild places. Like many others born in Appalachia, I need the mountains and the lakes and the rivers to survive the life of modern man. As President Theodore Roosevelt understood at the beginning of the 20th century, the wildlands of America have a unique ability to provide spiritual respite. It is in that vein that I have committed myself to doing all I can to help the wilderness of West Virginia thrive.
Jon Gensler is a native of Huntington, WV and a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He is currently studying for dual masters degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and is a member of Operation FREE, a progressive national security organization.
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