NEW RIVER GORGE, WEST VIRGINIA—The blue rubber rafts shriek as they slide down steep metal rails, each guided by a crew that will soon be floating down a 9-mile stretch of river, replete with Class III, IV and V rapids and the ghosts of now-shuttered coal mines and processing plants.
Raft after raft descends the skids from a parking lot for commercial outfitters before arriving at the put-in, where guides instruct their crews of clients. The churn of activity is a little lower than what it might typically be on a hot day in late July, but it’s still surprisingly busy for a Monday morning in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The steady flow of boats into West Virginia’s New River also exemplifies the progress that the outdoor adventure industry has made toward diversifying the regional economy around the river.
Signs of the industry’s past in the New River Gorge can still be seen at Kay Moor, where remnants of a coal tipple, coking furnaces and an iron frame reading, “Your family wants you to work safely” can still be seen in the forest above the river.
Fayette County produced 3.2 million tons of coal in 2019, about 3% of West Virginia’s total, but today the county is known less for coal than its plunge into outdoor adventure, beginning with the rafting industry that emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s as coal was winding down. Outfitters and adrenaline junkies were attracted by access to the gorge and surpluses of cheap housing and storefronts in the wake of coal’s post-World War II decline.
The New River Gorge became a magnet for rafters, climbers, hikers and mountain bikers, to the point that West Virginia historian John Alexander Williams included it as an example of a possible economic path forward in his comprehensive 2002 history of Appalachia, citing “the growth of whitewater rafting and other recreational activities that have changed the New River Gorge from a transportation barrier into a tourist attraction.”
Tourism creates seasonal jobs and economic activity, not just among outfitters and guide services but in restaurant, lodging and other service businesses.
But “that in and of itself isn’t enough to create resilience in the community,” said Kelly Jo Drey, a part-time raft guide and former Fayette County employee who worked on turning recreation into economic development. “The thing that outdoor recreation provides for the community that’s more far-reaching in its impact is the ability of those amenities to bring people here and keep people here for other reasons.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic pushes more people to work remotely, communities like Fayetteville hope to attract new residents who can do their jobs while living in a beautiful region in close proximity to recreation opportunities. In doing so, the town is competing against numerous other coal communities trying to emulate its relative success by using outdoor recreation as one strategy to diversify their economies.
Dozens of communities in the Appalachian coal economy have been plotting a course beyond coal for decades, relying on local culture, outdoor recreation, tech jobs and a skilled labor force to expand their economies.
In Wyoming, where coal’s downturn has been more recent and abrupt, initial responses to expand and diversify have played to “readily acceptable” jobs and businesses that match the state’s culture and labor force, including coal technology research and gun manufacturers.
In a move driven by state-level policies, gun manufacturer Weatherby moved from California to Sheridan, a community at the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains expanding its reputation as a gateway to Yellowstone and the West. Other firearms manufacturers have also found a warm reception in Wyoming: Magpul and Stag Arms both relocated operations to Cheyenne — citing a like-minded gun culture and policies.
Tourism and outdoor recreation play a prominent role in Wyoming’s economy — No. 2 to mineral extraction in terms of revenue to the state while dwarfing minerals in terms of jobs. More than half of the state is public land, including two national parks, eight national forests and 13 state parks. Its population density is six people per square mile, second lowest behind Alaska. The COVID-19 pandemic has made these factors a draw to Wyoming beyond tourism and outdoor recreation, according to economic development officials.
“I really do believe the work that people do remotely [during the pandemic] will accelerate plans for people to do more remote work,” said Wyoming Business Council executive director Josh Dorrell, adding that the council is actively working to recruit more tech and information-based businesses to work remotely in the state.
But the Powder River Basin’s wind-swept grasslands are a long way from Yellowstone and the Tetons, both figuratively and literally. And despite these efforts, there’s no interchangeable roadmap to the essential challenge of rebuilding rural economies once dominated by coal.
The damage done by decades of reliance on the coal industry — unreclaimed mineland, depressed local revenues, depopulation and environmental degradation — make it difficult to attract new economic development in Appalachian regions, especially to places that aren’t located along major transportation corridors. Yet for many, moving isn’t a viable option.
“People care about their place,” said Tom Hansell, a documentary filmmaker, author and artist who teaches at Appalachian State University and made the film and book “After Coal.” “In some cases, people don’t have a lot of options to move — their educational background or financial freedom didn’t allow them to move and find employment. But there’s also an intense connection to place and culture that’s tied into identity. That’s what kept people in those places and provided a foundation—not a financial but a community foundation — to survive.”
Keith Kinsinger spied through the observation glass of a whirring Deckel Maho DMU 200 FD — a five-axis automated machining “robot” and one of the most sophisticated pieces of equipment at L&H Industrial’s expansive welding, machining and manufacturing campus in Gillette. He was using the Deckel Maho to cut metal teeth on a large industrial gear.
“I’ve had my eye on this machine ever since I started here,” Kinsinger, 21, said. “If you can dream it, this machine can do it.”
Kinsinger worked a stint in the oilfields after high school but worried about job security. A friend recommended machining courses.
“I thought that was a good career choice and I started going to college,” he said. He enrolled at Gillette Community College, then finished up at Northern Wyoming Community College in nearby Sheridan. L&H regularly recruits students from local trades programs to find talent like Kinsinger.
The Gillette native said he feels secure in his job, even considering the energy downturn.
“We’re still keeping a steady 40 hours a week,” Kinsinger said. “I think it’s a good career. Hasn’t let me down yet.”
The declining Powder River Basin coal industry — once a lifeline for L&H — no longer threatens the company’s viability or ability to keep growing in the heart of Wyoming coal country.
“Even if there wasn’t anything to do here in Wyoming, I believe that the 200 [L&H employees] that are here would stay here working and getting paid the same, and everything would just be shipped to somewhere else in the world,” L&H Industrial president Mike Wandler said.
If the key to diversifying against the cyclical boom-and-bust nature of an extraction economy — or even the loss of a major economic driver — is to play to one’s strengths, then L&H is a prime example in Wyoming.
Seven years ago, coal mining clients made up 30% of L&H’s revenue. Now it’s 10%. Yet the company’s financial position is stronger than ever, mostly because 60% of its customers are outside Wyoming and across the world. L&H started out in 1964 as a small, family-owned welding shop serving the oil and gas industry in northeast Wyoming. It expanded to serve the region’s coal mines as a way to sustain itself during oil and gas downturns. But even that level of diversification doesn’t ensure sustained success, Wandler said.
It became obvious that L&H’s innovations to save money for coal mines in Wyoming could be exported to mines across the world, Wandler said. The next step was to build on its expertise in advanced manufacturing.
“In Gillette, Wyoming, you can create a heavy industrial business that sells mostly out of Wyoming and out of the country, and that’s where you get your diversity,” Wandler said. “They don’t need to completely reinvent themselves, but you have to be selling into the world economy and you have to be figuring out how you can be relevant in the world.”
Wandler sees untapped potential for manufacturing in Wyoming. He served on the Wyoming Business Council board of directors, and also played key roles in former Gov. Matt Mead’s ENDOW and ENGAGE efforts to drive economic diversification in Wyoming. Many coal, oil and gas service companies can branch into manufacturing, including aerospace and defense contracts, Wandler said.
Local leaders in Sheridan County, which also serves the Powder River Basin coal industry, redoubled efforts to diversify after the coal-bed methane gas industry went bust in 2010. Since then, Sheridan County has expanded jobs in tech and manufacturing, including Kennon Products, which manufactures sun shields and other products for government and private aviation. Other local service companies have expanded beyond oil, natural gas and coal to tailor to wind energy customers; wind developers are poised to invest some $10 billion in Wyoming.
In parts of Appalachia, coal has been joined, though not replaced, by a burgeoning industry that seeks funding for schemes to repurpose land on and around former mines into new economic endeavors. These ideas range wildly, but often involve outdoor recreation, heritage tourism, agriculture or renewable energy.
Often, these proposals seek non-profit grants or federal funding from the more than $300 million that Congress has appropriated for the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund that was established through the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Action of 1977. The non-profit advocacy group Appalachian Voices produced reports in 2016 and 2018 in collaboration with a number of other organizations that promoted redevelopment of dozens of sites throughout central Appalachia, including several that eventually won AML funding.
AML funding has also been used to support the development of federal and state prisons, which have become major employers in several coal communities. Not all of those prison projects have found success.
Other projects aiming to reinvent former mineland have fallen as well.
In 2016, a plan to farm lavender at a reclaimed strip mine in Boone County, West Virginia, won grants from the Benedum Foundation and the Appalachian Regional Commission, then abruptly collapsed when the grants ran out. Similarly, the nonprofit Mined Mines promised to train and place people in coding jobs, but failed to follow through on its promises, leading to accusations of fraud.
Appalachia has seen successes, often small and built over time. Fayetteville, West Virginia has the advantage of its location near the New River Gorge National River, a unit of the National Park Service, while other communities market attractions in national forests and state parks. Both Kentucky and Virginia have built networks of off-road trails modeled after West Virginia’s Hatfield-McCoy Trails, which wind more than 700 miles across 14 counties in the state’s southern coalfields.
Many communities are building hospitality industries around outdoor adventure in hopes of attracting not just visitors, but talented workers and companies that want to hire them. Making that happen requires infrastructure — and not just basics like good water and reliable electricity, but broadband internet, healthcare access and higher education to train an ever-evolving workforce. In places struggling to maintain basic government services, that’s a tall order.
Even the effort to find solutions has proven beneficial.
“One of the things that really gives me hope is that people are more willing than ever to come together right now — despite what their politics are, despite what they believe in — and think about how they rebuild a thriving community that considers all of the people who live there, all of the people who may visit there, and all of the aspects that are unique to that particular place,” said Ivy Brashear, Appalachian transition director for the Mountain Association. “Previous to the past decade or so, we hadn’t seen that in a way that’s been able to catch fire and spread across the region. It’s really powerful.”
Those conversations have created a new energy among groups like the Letcher County Culture Hub and What’s Next EKY?!, which seek to empower locals to advance their own ideas. Combined with the ability to connect on social media, people are finding mutual support that is slowly changing the internal narrative about coal country.
“What we’re seeing with these groups is that young people are understanding they can live the kind of life they want to live while staying in place,” Brashear said. “A lot of young people are staying in the region and investing in their own communities.”
Wyoming taxpayers have invested tens of millions of dollars over the past 15 years to help advance technologies to reduce coal’s greenhouse gas emissions — a significant driver of climate change.
The potential for advancements in capturing carbon from coal is frequently mischaracterized and misunderstood as a panacea for Wyoming’s coal industry. It is not. If the goal is to save or extend the life of the Powder River Basin coal mining industry, the window of opportunity is quickly slamming shut.
That’s because the future of Powder River Basin coal is tied to the U.S. coal-fired power plant fleet, and that fleet is quickly being retired, experts agree.
“We recognize that the clock is ticking,” said Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, which oversees the Wyoming Integrated Test Center — a coal technology incubator launched in 2014 to “scale up” coal technologies for commercial deployment. “If we don’t make some pretty giant leaps in scaling up and commercializing these technologies over the next five to 10 years, I think the [U.S. thermal coal] market is sort of going to pass us by.”
Not all coal technology and research accomplishes the same goal. Begger said some of ITC’s research is aimed at post-combustion strategies that might be applied at some U.S. coal-fired power plants — the most urgent need for Wyoming’s coal mining industry. Other research, however, aims at pre-combustion strategies for yet-to-be-built coal plants — most likely outside the U.S. — or for smaller boutique markets for coal-derived products such as building materials.
The latter has become a major focal point for the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources, which now has an annual budget of about $10 million.
Wyoming may benefit from the eventual commercial deployment of coal-conversion technologies for building materials at home, or even pre-combustion applications overseas, Begger said. But time is quickly running out for a post-combustion technology fix to help preserve today’s U.S. power market for Wyoming coal.
“At some point there will be a tipping point where [U.S.] utilities feel like reinvesting in their coal fleet probably isn’t a direction they’re going to head, and that’s just kind of the cold hard truth,” Begger said.
Central Appalachia also is looking for ways to prolong the fossil fuel industry. Virginia lawmakers approved legislation to kickstart energy research in the coalfields for ideas such as emissions control strategies and using mine pools to cool data centers.
Appalachia’s elected officials also are bullish on a plan to build out a new petrochemical industry in the Ohio Valley of western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. The idea is to extend the shale gas boom of the early 2000s through the manufacture of natural gas byproducts such as ethane, which is used to make plastics and chemicals. A federal report released in June trumpeted potential for growth “at a scale not seen since the Industrial Revolution” through “energy resource production, next generation manufacturing, and petrochemical industry development and expansion.”
Yet that window may be closing as well. The same month the report was released, energy analysts warned that natural gas fracking firms face an impending wave of bankruptcy reminiscent of that which has devastated coal in recent years. For Appalachians, it’s an all-too-familiar pattern.
Wind energy could potentially play a significant role in Wyoming’s transition away from coal. Since 2014, wind energy developers have proposed investing nearly $10 billion in the state, which ranks among the top 10 in the nation for onshore wind energy potential.
For context, cities across America clamored at the opportunity to host Amazon’s second headquarters, a $5 billion windfall. Power Company of Wyoming’s 3,000 megawatt Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in south-central Wyoming is a $5 billion project. PacifiCorp, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming, plans to spend nearly $4 billion in Wyoming on wind, transmission and battery storage in the state.
“There is no other sector now, anywhere, that is thinking about a $4 billion investment in Wyoming,” University of Wyoming energy economist Rob Godby said. “This is actually a great chance to diversify the economy and move to a fuel-secure outcome where we could be producing electricity for another several decades.”
Wind, however, is a complicated topic in Wyoming. Despite the fact that ongoing wind energy buildout and upgrade projects in Carbon County alone have boosted local sales and use taxes there 215% during the past year, many lawmakers see any gains for wind as a net loss for Wyoming coal. The Wyoming Legislature continually re-examines how the state will tax the industry, including measures that some wind developers say threaten Wyoming’s potential for wind development.
“We need certainty and stability in tax policy,” said Kara Choquette, communications director for Power Company of Wyoming. “Our project has been under development for 12 years in Wyoming, and only four of those years did wind tax policy not change.”
“Transition in Coal Country” is a collaboration of the Energy News Network and WyoFile, made possible by a grant from the Just Transition Fund. The series examines how the declining coal industry presents immediate and long-term challenges for coal communities in Wyoming and Appalachia, how those communities are coping with change and what they might learn from each other in charting a path to a sustainable future beyond coal.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.