Rafters at this popular West Virginia spot, which was protected thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
New River Gorge Rafters at this popular West Virginia spot, which was protected thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. © Kent Mason

Stories in West Virginia

Nature-Friendly Economic Development

We are using a collaborative, multi-pronged approach to unlock a low-carbon future in West Virginia and across the Central Appalachians.

An Uncertain Future

As the heart of some of the most climate resilient and biologically diverse lands in North America, West Virginia’s forests and rivers provide drinking water, clean air and spectacular outdoor adventures to millions of people in the eastern United States. 

However, right now, West Virginia is at a critical junction. With shifting energy markets and a decrease in coal production, West Virginians are trying to determine their state’s economic future. A multi-generational legacy of coal mining has left over one million acres of former surface mine lands, and struggling communities in this region, known as the Coalfields, are experiencing some of the highest poverty rates in the U.S.

In this transition, nature — one of our strongest assets — has the potential for growth.

New Opportunities for Communities and Conservation

The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia has identified that nature-based economic development activities are promising opportunities for diversifying the economy, building new revenue streams and jobs and contributing to a low-carbon future.

Our strategies are focused on:

  • large-scale solar energy on former mine lands 
  • responsible forestry and forest restoration generating carbon credits and timber
  • agro-forestry with a focus on workforce development and local job creation
  • increased community access to high quality food
  • outdoor recreation and hunting

Video: Planting Seeds for West Virginia

Planting Seeds In West Virginia, TNC sees an opportunity to invest both capital and effort in nature-friendly economic development.

Investing in People: Beth Wheatley

Growing up in West Virginia, Beth Wheatley would often spend weekend days at her grandparents. During the hour-long drive to their homes, she would stare out the window at beautiful, forested mountains hiding black bears and migrating warblers, flowing streams stretching out of every hollow and struggling communities. This film played over and over in her mind. She wrestled with how her home state could be so rich in natural resources yet have so many people living in poverty.

Today, as the Director of External Affairs and Strategic Iniatives for TNC in West Virginia, Beth is leading our efforts to show how a diversified portfolio of nature-friendly economic activities could result in ecological, economical, and community resilience. 

“Nature-based economic development activities offer opportunities for us to create new jobs and revenue streams in concert with conserving our lands and waters.”

Beth Wheatley Director of External Affairs and Strategic Initiatives, West Virginia

Investing in People: Campbell Moore

Central Appalachians program director Campbell Moore has an extensive background in understanding nature’s role in tackling climate change. He spent years as an auditor of forest conservation projects that generate revenue by protecting forests from deforestation, through reforestation or improving the management of forests in ways that sequester additional carbon from the atmosphere. 

The Nature Conservancy’s science shows that Natural Climate Solutions can provide 37% of the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere needed in the next few decades, all while protecting the places we care about at low cost.

And, the Central Appalachians can play a critical role in this work. West Virginia is the third most forested state in the United States, and it has massive potential to contribute to Natural Climate Solutions.

We have a unique opportunity to demonstrate the economic diversification potential that can come from assisting forest owners in the Central Appalachians gain new revenue sources through programs that leverage natural solutions.

Central Appalachians program director

Nature and Economy Summits

Since 2016, The Nature Conservancy has convened two first-of-their-kind Nature and the Economy Summits to explore how protecting and restoring the region’s resilient forests and waters can drive change for West Virginia’s economic future.

The summits  facilitated a collaborative dialogue to analyze the challenges and opportunities at hand. Prominent topics included the roles of forest products and carbon credits, outdoor recreation-based tourism and solar energy in growing and diversifying the economy, providing new jobs and creating new revenue streams for land and mineral owners. For instance, participants discussed the possibilities for promoting new jobs through solar development on the thousands of acres of post-mined lands in West Virginia.

“We are facing some real challenges in determining how we may restore and reuse mine lands,” says Ed Maguire, environmental advocate with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. “The Nature Conservancy brought together the right mix of leaders to begin to dig into these challenges and identify some potential actions.”

Demonstration Site

One of the first projects to come out of our Nature and Economy Summits is the development of a business plan to demonstrate how improved forest management and carbon credits, solar energy and agricultural activities on formerly mined lands can contribute to the economy.

Solar panels
Solar Energy We plan to demonstrate how nature-based activities like solar energy could contribute to WV's economy. © Dave Lauridsen

TNC has created a business plan for this demonstration project on a hypothetical 20,000-acre parcel in the Coalfields region of West Virginia, representing a typical industrial owned parcel. We will use this demonstration project as a focal point to engage local and state leaders, economic development authorities and landowners to share how nature-friendly economic activities can be profitable, as well as beneficial, to the local community and the environment. Then, in collaboration with others, we will leverage this project to develop a road map to support others replicating this blended model of profitable nature-friendly economic activities across former mine lands and forests.

Get Involved

If you are interested in supporting our Nature and Economy work, or would like to participate in an upcoming Nature and Economy summit, please contact Martha Kuepper at martha.kuepper@tnc.org or (304) 621-6140.

If you're interested in becoming a corporate partner, learn more about our Corporate Council.