Land trusts springing up in Appalachians Communities, individuals strive to control development

September 04, 1997|By AMERICAN NEWS SERVICE

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - People from the mountains of Appalachia have many a tale to tell about coal and timber companies that bought up their land, ripped out the minerals or cut down the trees and shipped most of the profits out of state.

But some residents are writing a new ending to those stories as their communities find a way to protect their small corners of the world. While few individuals have the money or resources to take on giant, multinational companies, nonprofit community groups are buying parcels of land to form land trusts. Such trusts hold ownership of the land while determining what use it is put to.

Take the small community of Rose's Creek, tucked into the green hills around the eastern Tennessee coalfields.

Like much of Appalachia, most land was owned by coal companies, timber concerns and huge railroad interests. Many residents couldn't afford to buy land or build houses and followed companies out of state to find new jobs.

But in 1977, a group of Rose's Creek residents decided they wanted to stay in their birthplace, and with community money and start-up grants, they bought 17 acres of land. Today, the Woodland Community Land Trust owns nearly 400 acres and holds 22 houses and four trailers where more than 60 people live.

'The only entryway'

"This was the only entryway we had to acquire land," said Carol Judy, who helps run Woodland.

"We needed to own the land to make the housing affordable. This means that we take care of our environment, the water quality and timber."

While no one knows exactly how many land trusts there are in Appalachia, the numbers appear to be growing, perhaps because of the many ways land trusts can be designed. Some are used for preservation.

Some trusts use the trees from their land to build houses. In Rose's Creek, the community bought its own sawmill, which processes the wood for low-cost construction.

"There are different strategies to land trusts," said Jerry Hardt, who works for the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in Salyersville, Ky. The group has set aside some trust land to protect it from clear-cutting or strip mining. "The primary one is to preserve the land for local use and the benefits of any of the uses of that land are to stay with the local community."

While Woodland strives for community development, the Narrow Ridge Center, about an hour northeast of Knoxville, stresses land conservation.

Narrow Ridge director Bill Nickle said the members take a three-pronged approach to their land trust. They set aside some of their land for housing, some for conservation and some for agriculture so rising farmland prices don't put farmers out of business.

People who choose to acquire land at below-market values from the trust are encouraged to build environmentally friendly houses, with solar or passive solar power and compost toilets.

Narrow Ridge recently bought about 160 acres for house plots and another 100 acres for protected wilderness.

'We have a goal'

"We have a goal to protect and preserve the integrity of lands surrounding us," Nickle said. "We all come at it in a little different way."

In Berea, Ky., Don Harker of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development is studying the role of land trusts in Appalachia.

Harker says: "My question is whether this can be a vehicle in counties where 70 percent of the land is owned by outside corporations, whether some of that land could be brought back into community use. There's a lot of possibility to use land trusts with mined-out land that the coal companies bought. Land trusts can be used to bring that back for a community."

The Mountain Association recently sent out a limited sampling survey to 285 Appalachian land trusts from Georgia to Pennsylvania to find out how land trusts are organized and what use, if any, they make of their land.

The group made national headlines last year with the purchase of the 2,000-acre Blanton Forest in Harlan County, the biggest old growth forest in Kentucky, and the 13th largest on the East Coast. It will be made part of a 6,000-acre state nature preserve.

"It was a wonderful discovery," Harker said.

As Woodland's acres have grown, so has its mission. The trust put aside about 112 acres, co-owned with the University of Tennessee for forest management, which Carol Judy runs. That project started when Woodland residents realized that to build their houses they bought Tennessee lumber that had been processed out of state and sold at a much higher cost.

So the trust bought a sawmill. The operator gives discounted rates for Woodland construction, as "his contribution to affordable housing," Judy said. Now, Woodland residents can cut down their own trees and use the same wood to build their houses on their own land.

Judy also developed selective harvesting of the forest, which encourages the production of wild herbs like ginseng. Woodland residents sell the ginseng to out-of-state buyers, a process known as "wild crafting."

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