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The Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)

Mountaintop Removal as Tourism?

Rick Steelhammer

KAYFORD, W.Va. -- From his 50-acre peninsula of forest surrounded by a sea of mountaintop removal activity, Larry Gibson hosts a sort of Exhibition Coal Mine in reverse.0718 10 1 2

"There's a 900-acre mountaintop removal mine right next to my land and a total of 13 permitted mines around me," he said. "I'm completely surrounded by it."

When Gibson was a child, his patch of woodland on Kayford Mountain used to lie below a series of higher knobs and ridges extending into Raleigh County. Now his place is the highest point on the mountain.

For better or worse - and Gibson will be quick to tell you it's for the worse - his place now offers one of the best viewpoints this side of an airplane cabin to get a look at mountaintop mining in action.

Since the late 1980s, when MTR began to change the landscape around his home, thousands of people have visited his property to see for themselves what the process involves.

"I've had people from Israel, Australia - from all over the world - come here," said Gibson, as he sat on the porch of his solar-powered cabin. In the past 18 months, more than 1,300 people have signed his guest book after making the drive to the head of Cabin Creek Road, then up a winding gravel road to the Stanley Heirs Park, the land trust Gibson created to protect his land in perpetuity.

Among them were CNN's Anderson Cooper, who later named Gibson a "CNN Hero" for his work in defending the planet; Robert F. Kennedy Jr., here to film a documentary based on his book "Crimes Against Nature," and singer, songwriter and Cross Lanes native Kathy Mattea.

"In the last 20 years, we've had over 12,000 people come here," said Gibson. "We get schoolchildren, college students, church groups, environmental groups and people who just want to see what mountaintop removal is all about. And George Bush has sent more reporters to me than anyone else."

Starting on Saturday, the West Virginia Sierra Club will begin hosting once-monthly minivan tours to Gibson's property from Morgantown and Charleston. Other dates for the tours include Aug. 16 and Sept. 13.

"Even here in coal country, a lot of people still don't know what MTR is and does," said Jim Sconyers, conservation chair of the state Sierra Club.

"If you're not an avid conservationist, chances are good you've barely heard of it. But once you've seen it, the scales will fall from your eyes. And since everyone who turns on a light switch is in a sense responsible for it, everyone needs to know what MTR involves."

"I do this to educate people," Gibson said. "MTR is still one of West Virginia's best-kept secrets. While some people outside the coalfields are beginning to hear about it, they don't really understand the effects of what it does until they see for themselves. Here, you can do that."

Gibson left Kanawha County for Ohio when the deep mine where his father worked closed. He worked in a Cleveland-area auto manufacturing plant until the mid-1980s, when he returned to Kayford Mountain, and bought what was left of the family homeplace.

"They started surface mining here in '86 or '87," he recalled. "The first dynamite I heard going off was in 1987, from off in the distance. Now, it goes off as much as 12 times a day from just below here."

Gibson said he has grown so accustomed to the constant growl and clatter of heavy equipment in operation just off his property boundaries that he barely notices it. Blasting is another matter. In addition to noise and tremors, and a series of deep, foot-wide cracks jutting across his land, rocks from blasting at the mine routinely fall on his lawn and family cemetery.

One section of his land borders a reclaimed section of an MTR mine, where a sparse growth of grass and foliage clings to a rocky slope. "When they're finished, this will be the world's biggest Chia dog," Gibson quipped. "Trees will never grow here again - there's no topsoil."

An early opponent of mountaintop removal mining, Gibson said he initially had difficulty "getting two people to listen to me," he said. He said the tide has changed, now that word about MTR and its effects is getting out.

"One thing that really encourages me is young people," he said. "When it comes to MTR and the problems it causes, they get it. They know there are better ways to mine coal. If we went back to using mainly deep mines, we would put thousands of miners back to work and we wouldn't destroy our mountains."

In addition to hosting visitors on his mountain, Gibson travels widely to get his word out. He has spoken to students at more than a dozen universities, ranging from Yale and Notre Dame to Marshall and WVU, and addressed church groups, coal symposia, environmental conferences - even a United Nations commission on sustainable development.

Gibson's anti-MTR stance draws a mixed response in the coalfields. While many appreciate his work in getting the word out about the environmental consequences of mountaintop removal, others see him as a threat to some of the few skilled jobs available the region.

While showing visitors through the campground area at Stanley Heirs Park, Gibson pointed out bullet holes in a camp trailer he once owned, and later found overturned. One of his dogs has been shot, and he has been threatened on numerous occasions, he said.

In April, a Washington Post reporter wrote of riding with the activist in his pickup truck just downhill from Gibson's home when two coal truck drivers from a nearby mine harassed them. One truck covered Gibson and his guests in a cloud of dirt as they paused along the road to look at a mine site, and its driver could be heard on Gibson's CB radio bragging about "dusting off" the trio. A second coal truck driver attempted to overtake Gibson's pickup and block it in, according to the Post account, but Gibson managed to elude the vehicle.

"Since I first got involved in this, the coal companies have destroyed more than two million acres of Appalachia," he said. "Every day, more than $5 million worth of coal leaves this hollow, yet you don't see any signs of wealth on your drive up here, do you?

"Some people say I've got an attitude, and I guess I do. But I wasn't born with it, and I didn't have it when I first moved back home from Ohio. When you've seen what it was like here before mountaintop removal began and look at it now, it just does something to you. This is a beautiful state - it deserves better."

© Copyright 1996-2008 The Charleston Gazette

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