Environmental Justice and Sustainability in Appalachia; Beeka Quesnell Reports from Southwest VA

Beeka Q cropThis guest post is by RU undergraduate student and SUST major Beeka Quesnell, who is working as an intern at the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) in the coal-mining mountain region of southwest Virginia this summer. Back in Chicago, Beeka is an environmental sustainability associate with the Physical Resources Department at Roosevelt, an intern in the bird division of Field Museum of Natural History, and a student activist for environmental and social justice.

The past two weeks of interning in Virginia has brought on a lot! During the Fourth of July week the vice president of SAMS, a fellow intern, and I took a 3½ hour trip to West Virginia — more specifically, to White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. There, we participated in a civil protest during the Greenbrier Classic, which is a part of the PGA Tour — an event supported and attended by Jim Justice, the coal baron that I mentioned in my previous post. Many people in that area see Mr. Justice as a very nice man and great community member mainly because he hosts events such as the Greenbrier, coaches the high school girls’ basketball team, and so on. They don’t, however, see that he is tearing up land in the coalfields and leaving the area in shambles when he leaves.

Beeka Quesnell in White Sulfur Springs WVaFor the protest a group of around 20 of us marched up and down the sidewalks near the event (essentially, we did a picket), held a candle-light vigil for all those who have lost their lives to coal mining, and did some small group presentations in the local library to try and get community members involved. All in all, the event was extremely empowering, mostly because it was a form of direct action and it also helped to get a couple of community members involved. For more info on the picket, check out the Justice to Justice website at www.justicetojustice.com!

Then, this past Tuesday (July 8th) I worked a table at a local farmer’s market as a part of AppalCEED — Appalachian Communities Encouraging Economic Diversity — which is a part of SAMS. To put it in simple terms, AppalCEED works on the part of SAMS’ mission statement to “help rebuild sustainable communities,” which is a very crucial step in helping communities prosper in the coalfields.

Right now we are trying to get support for a community kitchen in our county. This kitchen would allow farmers, entrepreneurs, and other individuals an area where they can prepare foods for resell. At the farmer’s market we handed out samples of cooked Pokeweed — a weed-like green that grows in this area, and that has a similar texture and taste to cooked spinach – and encouraged community members to sign our petition asking for county support for this community kitchen. Our petition was successful and so far we have gotten about 50 signatures.

Dead Hemlock

Dead hemlock (photo: B. Quesnell, 2014)

I have also had the opportunity to help with some trail clearing on the Roaring Branch Trail right outside the town I am staying in. I hiked this particular trail about a month ago and although there was some brush and a couple of trees down on the trail, it was still walkable. However, within the past couple of weeks several hemlocks have fallen onto the trail and a section has become impassable.

I was extremely surprised that this happened in such a short amount of time, but after talking to a local SAMS member it turns out that there is an invasive species called the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid that has invaded this area. This invasive species essentially sucks the “blood” of these trees, like a tick or mosquito would suck the blood of its host. Even worse, these hemlocks are some of the only ones left in this part of Appalachia. The rings were counted on one dead hemlock and the tree was nearly 300 years old. It was a really sad sight, but interesting to learn about at the same time. Overall, it was great to see all the biodiversity that was around me on that trail and to learn how one species relates and interconnects to many more in the area. To learn about this trail a little more, visit www.dgif.virginia.gov and search for “Roaring Branch Trail.”

Moth on the Trail

A moth found along the trail (photo: B. Quesnell, 2014)

The last part of my week involved the SAMS Strategic Planning Meeting. It was a six-hour meeting this past Saturday and we got a lot done as an organization. We had an outside facilitator conduct the meeting and we did it in a neutral space. Just under 15 of us attended the meeting and that included three interns, community members involved with SAMS, and also those who are a part of SAMS but not initially from this area. The purpose of this meeting (which has its second part on July 19th) is to plan for the next year. This includes going over SAMS’ funds, campaigns, and meetings. We got a lot accomplished and I expect that this next year is going to be busy and exciting all at once.

Overall, I had a couple of great opportunities to get out and about these past two weeks, and I am hoping to have that same luxury in these coming weeks, which will be my last few in Appalachia. I know that next week will consist of a few meetings and possibly a public hearing as well as possible trail clearing again. I will also be working on researching some grants that AppalCEED can apply for so that we can make this community kitchen a reality!

Beeka Quesnell, submitted 14 July 2014

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