What Does Appalachia Mean to You?

 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 http://www.appalachianlandstudy.com/


“For decades, Appalachians have been told what we want and need. And I am fed up with that.  So we need to hear from you! What do you want to see? What do you want?” – Landra  Lewis


Community members began by introducing themselves by name along with why they loved Appalachia, starting with a letter from the alphabet. Bill Price kicked it off with,  “We all love Appalachia because it’s awesome, with an A, get it?”, expressing, as did many others, how beautiful, picturesque, and inspiring this region is.to the people gathered for the first Appalachia Ownership Land Study meeting on Sept 30 in Lexington KY.


Many participants gave more intimate responses that offered a peek into how Appalachia is more than just an escape from the city or a part of the backwoods stereotype.


“Its shared its secrets with me”, Mary Cerillo.

“It’s just”, Mary Hufford.

“It’s righteous”, Shanna Scott.

“It’s youth”, Ashlee Lane.




Understand, Support, Empower, and Inform

Each and every community member, researcher, activist, grassroots member, and organizer who has a stake in this land study inspired the artwork displayed here. Painted in the center, are the Appalachian mountains with the main components of the new land study written in the peaks to show their importance in the community taking back this region. The hands symbolize the community members, as a whole, with academics (tassel) and the legal system (scales) all working together. Some groups, including labor unions, economic development groups, and the deep-southern states are written along the hands to better represent their involvement. Each member in a community should have an equal part and say in this process.

The tassel wrapped around one of the fingers in a nod to the original Appalachian Land Ownership Study of 1979, because we are building upon it. In between the hands, is a pine tree that symbolizes grassroots organizations that are making a real comeback in this collective collaboration. As Carol Judy puts it, “…this is a time for grassroots academia and grassroots strategists”. Marie Cirillo discussed successful grassroots efforts where land trusts were created in rural towns, and suggested that research into the question of “why can’t community land trusts work?” should materialize. She also added that she felt like “…we don’t have a place in planning anymore”.


An important step in the new land study is to establish agency for every single individual and a platform on which they can act together. The tree also symbolizes growth in the community to work together on issues (each tree branch) that were caused by the coal industry in this region. Such issues include deforestation, poverty, relocation, erosion, pollution, and exploitation of the community. Carol Judy brought up the importance of the temperate rain forest and watersheds and asked, “When does government have responsibility in broader based commons?” Davie Ransdell discussed generational leases where people may be leasing land from coal companies, but do not own the land or the mineral rights. She added that this would make records not easily available, if they even exist. Joe Childers chimed in to describe how permits can even overlap. Davie voiced her concerns over the issue of property being passed down through the generations to multiple heirs, resulting in unclear ownership and decision-making left out of the hands of landowners.


Above the mountains, is a pair of eyes that shed tears not of sadness but of joy. They were inspired by the reaction of a member who attended the first Appalachia Ownership Land Study meeting in Lexington, KY; Deborah Bahr.  Carol Judy turned to her to say, “…realizing the pearls of the moment” as Deborah had tears of relief from the sprouts of communal action unfolding.  This is a sign of healing. This meeting is giving hope for the future and that’s what this painting is all about–healing in Appalachia and in what this beautiful region means to its people. It’s about every single Appalachian dweller taking back their home by being informed, empowered, and supported by one another. These tears are no longer tears of sadness but joy and relief that a very promising new land study is already underway and participants are growing in number. Our vision is to make data and knowledge, in general, more accessible to everyone through digitizing it in a language everyone can understand.


Art is a powerful tool for advocacy and sharing knowledge. It’s also a testament to the fact that there are many routes that can be taken to spread information, to speak to the hearts of every stakeholder. One member voiced that visual and descriptive models for change are needed to accompany quantitative data. Every person has a different set of skills and background that can be valuable and open up the door to more resources that can used for this land study. This is not a process that is reserved for just professionals and academics. All walks of life and all forms of expertise are vital.

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 http://www.appalachianlandstudy.com/


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):

  • Extraction of knowledge
  • Environmental protection
  • Economic transition/development (What does this imply? Why would this be a controversial subject?)
  • Civil rights (right to land and local resource control)
  • Enabling low income families to own land
  • More transparent land ownership
    • 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

  2. 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

  3. 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)

  4. 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

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


Examples of Stakeholders Needing More Representation:

  • Labor (unions/workers): UMWA, boiler-workers, AFL-CIO > state level engagement
  • Deep Southern Appalachian states
  • Educators (reformists)
  • Cooperatives (living wage economics)
  • Economic development organizations
  • Indigenous and tribal groups/nations
  • Hispanic & Latino/a groups
  • 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:

  • Understanding land ownership
  • Supporting land reform
  • Supporting accountability for pollution
  • Empowering communities
  • Informing economic development strategy


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



Or,  contact your community organizer: