Beth Wheatley stands in the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia
EMPOWERING Beth Wheatley is helping West Virginia see how conservation can boost the state’s economy. © Lexey Swall

Magazine Articles

Across the Divide

The Conservancy is forging unexpected partnerships across the U.S. on climate change and renewable energy.

Fall 2018

Amy Crawford Freelance Writer


West Virginia’s communities have long been shaped by the state’s rugged, densely forested landscape, laced with clear mountain streams and picturesque valleys. Since European settlers first arrived in the 1700s to set up homesteads and make a living by logging, hunting and small-scale farming, the land has always been a provider. People’s roots run deep here—often all the way back to the Civil War, when many West Virginia families had relatives fighting on both sides. And nearly everyone’s family tree in this state of 1.8 million has a connection to coal.

Mining has left scars on the land, but for about 150 years it also meant a steady income for anyone willing to brave dangerous conditions to extract it. Even as production has dropped by about 40 percent over the past 10 years, the fossil fuel has remained important to the identity of many West Virginians.

That’s why when Beth Wheatley, director of external affairs and strategic initiatives for The Nature Conservancy’s West Virginia chapter, took on climate change in her home state, she knew it would be one of the greatest challenges of her career.

“[Some] people here perceive action against climate change as an attack on their livelihoods,” says Wheatley, who grew up in Charleston, the state capital, and has relatives who worked in coal. “It’s not just about what people think, but about how people feel.”

West Virginians are not alone. In many states with connections to fossil fuel industries, from Alabama to Wyoming, politics have effectively shut down any dialogue on climate change before it can begin. And the topic is especially fraught here, at a time when thousands of miners have lost their jobs.

But a surprising thing happened when Wheatley began reaching out to her fellow West Virginians—including business leaders, government officials and representatives from the coal industry—to talk about what a more sustainable future might look like: They took her calls. They wanted to talk. And by asking West Virginians about their hopes and fears, Wheatley was able to begin a conversation that has implications for every West Virginian—and far beyond the Mountain State’s borders.

In 2015, the Nature Conservancy announced an ambitious new project: The 50 State Climate Change Strategy, now known as Climate Action in the United States. Despite polls showing that most Americans care about climate change and want the United States to act, Washington, D.C., was gridlocked. But perhaps the states, each with its own opportunities and challenges to resolve, could work as a laboratory for testing new climate solutions.

“Ultimately, it’s such a big problem that we’re going to have to come together at the national level,” says Tim Sullivan, TNC’s North America climate director. “But the work in the states adds up and contributes, and it will put pressure on the federal government so that in the end it won’t be as heavy a lift.”

There was a catch: Fifty states meant 50 states. Talking about carbon credits and renewable energy might be relatively easy in California or Massachusetts. But it’s a harder conversation in states with histories of economic dependence on fossil fuel extraction.

“There was a little skepticism,” admits Sullivan, recalling the conversations he had with staffers from TNC’s state chapters. “But we said, let’s do this in a way that builds on TNC’s strengths—bringing people together, working with everyone, looking for solutions.”

Wheatley and TNC’s West Virginia staff, Sullivan says, are already demonstrating that this approach can work. It has taken tact, patience and a deep understanding of West Virginians, but Sullivan and other TNC leaders are excited about the potential for spurring progress on climate by illustrating its connection to economic opportunities.

“West Virginia is one of the most difficult states, in terms of the politics,” Sullivan says. Gov. Jim Justice, also the state’s richest man, owns a coal company, and in 2016 West Virginia sided overwhelmingly with President Donald Trump after he promised to “put miners back to work” by rolling back environmental regulations. “But this idea that West Virginians don’t care about the environment and want to destroy it is clearly not true,” Sullivan says. “And they also have a practical, real [economic] problem they have to address.”

Around the time TNC rolled out its nationwide Climate Initiative, West Virginia was facing a crisis. A massive drop in coal production caused by the rise of cheaper natural gas, increases in mechanization, competition from coal-producing Western states and a general move toward cleaner energy had put some 10,000 miners out of work. Coal severance tax revenue, a critical source of funding for local governments, fell from $421 million to $191 million between 2012 and 2016.

“The decline in coal production really impacted people across the state,” Wheatley says. “People were struggling to figure out what to do.”

Many West Virginians held out hope that coal would rebound. But Wheatley also sensed that some were beginning to consider what the future might look like without it. She decided to launch a listening tour, setting up meetings with people who had worked in congressional offices and state agencies, as well as workforce development nonprofits and tech companies, and even people from the coal and natural gas industries, to ask the question, “What do you see as the future of West Virginia’s economy?” There would be certain ground rules. What was said would never find its way to the front pages of the local paper. Wheatley would be there to listen, not to judge. “The last thing we wanted to do was step into this and cause more stress in an already-stressful situation,” she says.

The first person to take her up on the offer was a commercial and banking lawyer in Wheeling, West Virginia. As Wheatley and a colleague drove the 2 1⁄2 hours north from Charleston, they weren’t sure what to expect. They had promised to keep the conversation to 45 minutes—would they be able to get honest answers in so short a time?

“He was guarded at first,” Wheatley says. “But within 10 minutes, he softened, opened up and went to the heart of it.” The environment and the economy needn’t be pitted against one another, the lawyer told her. Sure, he believed coal might come back—but that didn’t mean he wasn’t open to developing renewable energy.

That listening session wound up lasting two hours. It became a pattern. Others talked about educating workers for new tech jobs and were open to ideas that might help West Virginia thrive as coal becomes less of an economic driver.

“People were really hungry to have these conversations, and there hadn’t been an outlet for it,” Wheatley says. “The outpouring of emotion and creative ideas showed that what we all have in common is we really care about the future of this state. People realized that the natural beauty is what really holds them to West Virginia—and The Nature Conservancy can help by putting the focus on how nature can help grow the economy.”

Out of the listening sessions came an idea for a summit, which would bring everyone together to talk about the future. Wheatley set it for November 2016, just after the election. It would prove to be a tense time, but once the group of some 40 invited participants had gathered at Chief Logan State Park, in the mountains just south of Charleston, the mood was different. Everyone wanted to talk—and from their conversations, tangible ideas began to emerge. It was followed by another summit in 2017, where the groups discussed whether the land disturbed by coal mining—scarred mountains surrounded by forest, totaling millions of acres across Central Appalachia—could be repurposed to drive a new, clean energy economy.

Quote: Beth Wheatley

People were really hungry to have these conversations, and there hadn’t been an outlet for it.

Director of External Affairs and Strategic Initiatives for WV chapter

In satellite images, West Virginia is a deep green—but look closely, and there’s something strange about many of the mountaintops. Sandy brown and stony gray, hewn, pitted and crisscrossed with switchback roads: These are the mine lands. While earlier generations of miners ventured underground to extract the deepest seams with pickaxes, in recent decades most mining has taken place at the surface, where dynamite is used to expose the coal, leaving mountaintops bare and flat.

It’s a spring day, and Nathan Hall has driven his truck up to meet Wheatley at a decommissioned mine site in Holden, not far from the Kentucky border. He works with a nonprofit called Coalfield Development, which focuses on job training and economic development in West Virginia coal country.

“This mountain we’re standing on has been having its coal extracted for 100 years,” Hall says, gazing into the distance where dust rises from a still-active surface mine. Nearby, a small herd of goats forages on autumn olive, an invasive shrub that mining companies used to plant on decommissioned land. The goats, along with some spotted pigs and a flock of chickens, represent the beginnings of a sustainable agriculture program that Coalfield is developing to prepare residents for new job opportunities. Hall, an eighth-generation Appalachian, sees the farm as getting back to the region’s roots. “Before this was a coal-mining region, it was a sustainable farmstead region,” Hall says. “I think we can transition to a 21st-century version of that—a robust, nature-based economy.”

It may turn out that nature, not coal, is West Virginia’s most valuable asset. Despite the impact of mining, the state remains one of the most wild places in the eastern United States. The Monongahela National Forest, just a few hours from cities like Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, attracts 3 million visitors per year, and the areas near the forest could host even more people if they had adequate infrastructure like hotels, restaurants and outfitters. These uses, says Wheatley, are consistent with land conservation and forest restoration—strategies in the fight against climate change, because forests act as a carbon sink.

 “The opportunity for economic and environmental restoration,” she says, “could contribute to healthy communities and to the climate resilience of the region.”

Meanwhile, former surface mines could continue to generate energy (and jobs) if landowners installed solar panel arrays. “Such development may be more viable for a number of flat, former mine sites, and may serve as an important, additional, new and needed revenue stream for mine land owners,” Wheatley says. And, as at the Holden project, former mine lands can be used for sustainable agriculture, which has the added benefit of restoring organic matter to the rocky, infertile soil that surface mining leaves behind.

Building off Coalfield’s work in Holden, TNC has forged a partnership with the organization to scale up mine land restoration and develop pilot projects—like solar development, forestry and recreation on former mine lands—that will realize some of the goals that emerged from the summits. Meanwhile, TNC is following West Virginia’s lead in other coal states as they work on their own initiatives, and private landowners across Appalachia are already beginning to develop renewable energy on disused mine sites. 

“The opportunity that the mine lands pose for the economy and environment is really important,” says Wheatley, “yet they are part of a much broader forested landscape that also poses opportunities for forest carbon, other forest products [like sustainable timber] and tourism.”

To provide a model for this more sustainable future, TNC recently finalized the purchase of 1,143 acres adjacent to both former mine land and its popular Bear Rocks preserve and trail system, which will be managed for recreation. The Conservancy is also searching for a decommissioned mine site that includes forests of at least 20,000 acres, big enough to host a demonstration project involving agriculture, forest carbon sequestration, solar energy and infrastructure for tourism—“a vision for what could be,” Wheatley says. 

All of these efforts are supported by a particularly West Virginian strength: people’s deep connection to the land. It’s a connection Wheatley knows not only from her listening tour but from her own life. Her family’s roots lie deep in a mountain valley known as Six Mile Road, where her mother grew up in a white bungalow surrounded by gardens and beehives, near the small brick church where Wheatley’s grandfather occasionally preached. “My grandma would make us a packed lunch, and we’d tie it to the end of a stick and tramp through the woods looking for adventure,” she says. Wheatley’s uncle owns the house today, and the whole family still considers it their “homeplace.”

“That attachment to place is really helping to drive the grit and determination to do something for West Virginia,” Wheatley says. “People want to see not just new opportunities for themselves but life put back into their homeplaces. West Virginia powered the nation with our coal—now we can also power a more sustainable future.”

Starting the Conversation in Idaho

Portrait of Toby Wyatt standing on his boat on the Snake River
Fewer Fish Toby Wyatt, owner of Reel Time Fishing, has seen his fishing business affected by declining steelhead populations—an issue attributed to warming ocean waters. © Lexey Swall

A new survey reveals that while most Idaho residents don’t doubt the reality of climate change, they are reticent to discuss what is perceived as a highly political issue. But that began to fade in the local outdoor sporting community over the last few years, after the region experienced a sharp decline in steelhead and salmon populations. This drop was caused in part by abnormally high ocean and stream temperatures in the areas where juvenile fish feed and migrate. In northern Idaho along the Clearwater River, most fishing-related businesses are now “struggling big-time,” says Toby Wyatt, an Idaho-based fishing guide. “We need to do what we can to help them, and we need to come together and work together,” he says. In late 2017, TNC hosted a climate summit in Boise with local business leaders to address the economic angle of climate change. More than 500 people participated. This year, TNC is continuing its outreach to the general public, including a “We Need to Talk” pledge to help people start inclusive conversations about climate change. —KELSEY SIMPKINS

New Hampshire Energy Week

David Worthen stands among solar panels on the roof of Worthen Industries.
Renewable Energy David Worthen, owner of Worthen Industries in Nashua, New Hampshire, stands between more than 2,700 solar panels installed on the roof of his adhesive manufacturing plant. © Lexey Swall

In March 2017, The Nature Conservancy was one of several organizations in the state to host the first-ever New Hampshire Energy Week, the result of many listening sessions held with the local business community. Unlike other states, New Hampshire does not offer many incentives or resources for businesses to adopt renewable energy—yet. The Conservancy is one group working to change that. More than 300 participants attended the 2018 event, including Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, local Coca-Cola bottlers and representatives from adhesive manufacturer Worthen Industries. The weeklong event aimed to turn the conversation on clean energy from cost to opportunity. David Worthen, president of Worthen Industries, has already installed more than 80,000 square feet of solar panels on his facilities in Nashua. He sees renewable energy as a “fairly risk-free investment” and an insurance policy in a state where electricity can be costly. In the manufacturing industry, he says, “it’s not likely that we're going to stop using electricity in the future.” —KELSEY SIMPKINS

Amy Crawford is a freelance writer based in Michigan. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine, The Boston Globe and CityLab.