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Digging Deep: A Plan to Revitalize Tennessee's Appalachia

A new push for homesteading may be the cure for coal country's lagging economy, says retired journalist Jim Branscome. (Pat Henson/Flickr)
A new push for homesteading may be the cure for coal country's lagging economy, says retired journalist Jim Branscome. (Pat Henson/Flickr)
June 7, 2016

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - As the coal industry declines, parts of Tennessee are left to deal with the economic impact of a lost industry.

Reviving the Appalachian economy is the goal of a plan by Jim Branscome, a longtime journalist who has studied the region.

He detailed the Appalachian Homestead Act in recent op-ed articles in some of the region's largest newspapers.

Branscome proposes using land the federal government would purchase from bankrupted coal companies to help people in Appalachia revive the economy and, in turn, restore hope.

"I look at all of the available land around the Appalachian region from the Shenandoah Valleys of Virginia to the incredibly beautiful valleys in the state of Tennessee," he says. "And I say to myself, 'Why aren't these fields growing the produce that we ship on trains and planes across the United States and California?'"

Branscome compares his idea to when the West was settled, envisioning the Appalachian Homestead Act providing people land to farm and garden, graze livestock and create business opportunities.

According to the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises (FAHE), the Appalachian region has a poverty rate of 16 percent, almost two percent higher than the national average.

A native of Virginia's coalfields, Branscome says for decades, the national media has portrayed the region as a place where people are too lazy to work and many are on welfare, obscuring what is really going on.

He says people in this region are "good Americans with some of the best ideas going."

"And the truth is, can you imaging anybody that is harder working than a coal miner," he says. "Can you imagine anybody who's harder working than a farmer who's scratching out a living in the hills of Appalachia? We're talking about some of the most enterprising people on the face of the earth."

In his op-ed article, Branscome writes, "...the lack of money and hope is what combines to produce poverty."

He says the critical element in his proposal is getting people in the mood to restore a sense of pride and progress. But he admits, his optimism is tempered having reported over the decades on a region that remains, in his words, "at the bottom of the poorest."

"Despite all of this advocacy, and despite all of the political power and newspaper power that was brought, we still haven't managed to change the fundamental economic basis of those areas," he says. "And homesteading is one way to do that."

Branscome says he has received an overwhelming response to his call for an Appalachian Homestead Act.

Stephanie Carson/Judy Steffes, Public News Service - TN