Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Battle for Gauley Mountain

West Virginia's state quarter entered circulation in 2005. The coin bears the image of the New River Gorge Bridge, that BASE-jumping mecca and for many years the world's longest steel-arch span. There in the background, downstream from the iconic bridge rises Gauley Mountain, one of the soft-shouldered sentinels standing watch over the Gauley, New and Kanawha Rivers.

During the Civil War, Gauley Mountain was at the center of numerous pivotal skirmishes. The Ohio Infantry's 12th Regiment famously scaled its slopes on the night of August 24th, 1861, as Union forces fought to establish a line of fortifications along the high ridges of western Virginia.

Ultimately the Union prevailed in the difficult campaign, never letting Confederate elements advance much more than a cannon shot past the western bank of the Ohio River. Now, almost 150 years later, a new struggle is joined.

This fight isn't on Gauley Mountain. It's a battle for Gauley Mountain.

Within the next few months, this symbol of Wild & Wonderful West Virginia is slated to disappear, obliterated by a coal-mining method called "mountaintop removal." Think of it as strip mining on steroids.

First, the forest would be clear-cut and the mountain's flanks scraped bare of life. Next, explosives would reduce hundreds of vertical feet of Gauley Mountain to rubble to be hauled away or pushed into the adjacent valleys. Finally, a massive dragline would work the exposed coal. The resulting overburden would be dumped into the valleys, choking rivers that sustain life and livelihoods -- permanently.

Small mountain towns would wither and, for all practical purposes, die. The wild Gauley River, a popular fly-fishing destination and one of the most technical whitewater runs in North America, would be damaged beyond repair. Far beyond the confluence of the Gauley and New Rivers -- a watershed that includes the Kanawha, the Ohio and the Mississippi -- ecology and commerce would suffer as well.

I don't give a rat's red ass how much we need the coal, and I don't care how precarious the global economy is. The price is too high.

When New Hampshire's state symbol, the Old Man of the Mountain, collapsed three years after appearing on that state's quarter, the Great Stone Face fell to the forces of Nature. This is different.

This is wrong.

Watch the
video. Sign a petition. Learn more at Appalachian Voices and iLoveMountains.org.