Appalachian Studies Conference: Appalachian State University; Boone, NC and the Appalachian Coal Country Team Spring Training: Hawk’s Nest; Ansted, WV

The 36th annual Appalachian Studies Association conference celebrated the identity of Appalachia and produced salient points about economic development in the region. I attended with my AmeriCorps Office of Surface Mining and Volunteer in Service to America (OSM/VISTA) Appalachian Coal Country Team; under sponsorship of Friends’ of the Cheat Brownfield Revitalization Program.

Members of the Appalachian Coal Country Team (ACCT), who foster sustainable food initiatives and environmental stewardship, had a variety of panels and papers to hear during the three day conference. An exhibition hall featured used books and new publications of Appalachian history, music, and cooking; a silent auction buzzed in frenzy on Saturday, as conference attendees – from Universities and Coalitions across over 7 states – set their bids on artisan crafts.  Research papers and journals on Appalachian Studies spoke of the interconnectedness of the Appalachian people with the Appalachian “place”.

The Appalachian Coal Country Team led a panel on the Core Goals of OSM/VISTAs, speaking in turn about building capacity, economic and resource development, and environmental stewardship. The community effort for redevelopment of the Kingwood Shops Property was showcased as a case study for economic opportunities garnered by the AmeriCorps OSM/VISTA partnership with Friends of the Cheat.

The Department of Interior Secretary of Youth, Partnerships and Service, Michael Gale, speaks to the Appalachian Coal Country Team of the changing landscape of federal programs, and encourages the team to innovate and create opportunities for this generation. 

The underlying message of these presentations hit a sobering note, as the topic of sequestration, and the potential impact on WV AmeriCorps programs, inevitably came up. The West Virginia based Appalachian Coal Country Team is especially impacted by proposed cuts to the federal program, including a projected loss of twenty OSM/VISTA positions. The magnitude is multiplied in communities which benefit from VISTA involvement, which averages $35,000 in grant and cash resources raised per VISTA and hundreds of hours of volunteer engagement.

Friends of the Cheat has hosted OSM/VISTAs for thirteen years, and certainly has witnessed expansion in its Monitoring and Mapping Program as well as stewardship in the volunteer-run activities such as Cheat Aquatic Pollution and Baseline Ecological monitoring program and recreational trails, due in part to OSM/VISTA activities over the years. FOC has grown in capacity over time, and is an exemplary success story in the ACCT year book.  Many of the other ACCT partner organizations have not had such a long incubation time with the Appalachian Coal Country Team, and often, the OSM/VISTA is the only staff person. The proposed cuts do not hinder this team’s dedication to their communities; however, many OSM/VISTAs and their partner organizations are identifying ways to adapt to the changing fiscal times and create new means to support the service of youth in their organization.