For generations, people have forged deep connections to these lands and waters, whether seeking outdoor recreation and spiritual rejuvenation, or livelihoods from forestry and farming. But with the Central Appalachians in the shadows of so many major East Coast cities, development, demands for natural resources, and other mounting pressures are ushering in a new age of overwhelming change.
In addition, the region is equally rich in energy resources making it central to the nation’s energy debate. Increasing global demand for coal for both energy and steel production means more mining, even as many places still struggle with the legacy of historic mines. Alternatives to fossil fuels, including wind, could play a large role here. Many ridges offer abundant wind, but often in areas critical to forest conservation. With recent changes in technology, the Central Appalachians are becoming one of the nation’s hot spots in natural gas development. Many miles of new electric lines and pipelines will be required to move all this energy to its East Coast users, further impacting these important lands.
Perhaps looming largest on the horizon is global climate change. While the Central Appalachians’ health and diversity will make much of its habitat more resilient than that of many other regions, some of the rarest plants, animals and natural communities could suffer profound consequences. The brook trout—Virginia’s state fish—and red spruce forests are clinging to survival in the coldest streams and on the tips of mountains, respectively. If warming reaches certain levels, these habitats—and the species they harbor—may have nowhere to go.