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A New Hope for Ohio's Coal Country?

In 2014, Ohio produced less than half the amount of coal than was produced in 1970. (Pixabay)
In 2014, Ohio produced less than half the amount of coal than was produced in 1970. (Pixabay)
June 7, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio - With the decline of the coal industry in Appalachia, there are plenty of ideas being floated on how to revive the region's economy.

Former journalist Jim Branscome calls his the Appalachian Homestead Act, an idea he detailed in recent op-ed articles in some of the region's largest newspapers.

He 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.

"People not having access to those kinds of things is what keeps an economy in a backwards state," says Branscome. "And limits the opportunity for people to think there's a chance for advancement for themselves and their children."

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.

He says it may be "today's single best solution to the enduring problem of mountain poverty."

A native of Virginia's coalfields, Branscome graduated from Berea College, became a journalist and covered the War on Poverty. He 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.

Branscome says the region's people are "good Americans with some of the best ideas going."

"And the truth is, can you imagine anybody that is harder working than a coal miner? 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," he says.

In his op-ed article Branscome writes, "...the lack of money and hope is what combines to produce poverty." He says the critical element of his proposal is getting people in the mood to restore a "sense of pride and progress."

But he admits his optimism is tempered by reporting for 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 and homesteading is one way to do that," says Branscome.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 22 million tons of coal was produced in 2014, less than half of the amount during coal production's peak in Ohio in 1970.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH