Report Back from Blair Mountain
Crede Calhoun: Blair marchers raise more than one issue
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The March on Blair Mountain is perhaps one of the most multi-faceted public protests in U.S. history. It mirrors a historical struggle that took place in this area in 1921. This was the struggle of coal miners to unionize mines and save their families from forced evictions and cruel treatment if they organized.
In 1921, more than 10,000 miners took up arms and marched to free imprisoned miners and confront the corrupt Sheriff Chafin who had ordered the indiscriminate killing of union sympathizers and had his own coal company financed army of 2,000.
This battle was joined by federal forces that sided with coal companies and used military planes for surveillance on miners. Hired planes dropped bombs, some possibly left over from World War I. One of the unexploded bombs found by the miners was used as a defense in the famous trial of union organizer Bill Blizzard. The bomb was used to illustrate the brutality of the coal companies and government actions and ultimately led to his acquittal.
Blair Mountain is a battlefield where about 150 men died. It is sacred ground for the families of these men, as well as the history of West Virginia and labor struggles in world history. It deserves protection to honor the dead and the symbol of the great struggles for people's right to organize the workplace, have reasonable working conditions, and provide for their families.
The battle of labor rights in Southern West Virginia is long. This march stands for all of this history and it's preservation and also to protect one of the last unbroken mountain ridges in an area devastated and surrounded by huge mountaintop removal mines.
Much of the coal blown up from the West Virginia hills is sent overseas. Coal companies will try to distort this and claim a national energy security argument for their mining. If the United States became more electrically efficient by 50 percent, we could end coal mining and coal burning completely. Many countries are 50 percent more efficient than the United States. All it takes is the will to find the way.
Blair Mountain is a healthy island in the middle of a destroyed landscape. It is a refuge in the local region for one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. The unbroken forest on Blair Mountain supports native species, and its topsoil is precious for plants and animals and as a purification process for rainfall. Slightly acidic rainfall, when it hits a reclaimed MTR site is not purified. Instead it adds to an array of pollutants, compounds and heavy metals released during the overturning of the earths crust.
Blair Mountain is a much-needed safe zone to keep this region from destroying its watershed completely. West Virginia is a birthplace of rivers. Many rivers find their source high in the Appalachian hills. When the source point and headwaters are toxic, water quality only can gets worse as it heads downstream.
The negative long-term and cumulative impacts to a region are intensified when the last untouched areas are destroyed. There must be a buffer between mines to give nature and water a chance. Adjacent mining activities (although it saves mine companies money because equipment is easier to move) are creating ever growing and vast wastelands that cannot recover because the natural healing processes helped by healthy forests nearby cease to exist. No one deserves to be collateral damage, and everyone deserves the right to have their history and water kept sacred and safe.
The vast fractured forest left behind if Blair Mountain is destroyed will be a wasteland of little life and almost zero diversity of species. For example: fractured forest environments invite the invasion of predatory birds like catbirds which decimate local songbird populations, and the red squirrel that hoards its nuts as opposed to grey squirrels that plant them all over the place individually and help to regenerate local hard woods naturally.
The watersheds around Blair Mountain are already under enormous stress from mining activities. Something needs to be saved, and it certainly won't be saved if the infamous Spruce Number One Mine is approved.
The voices in opposition tell the Marchers to Blair to "Go home. These are our mountains." In fact, the march was joined by miners, state residents, and also supported by Blair resident Jimmy Weekly, who has not only turned down millions for his small parcel of family land but actually lives on the side of this mountain.
The organizers of this event have shown time and again how dedicated they are to non-violence, sensible mediation and decision making when confronted by local authorities that seem to be throwing roadblocks in their way. If young and old people with vision weren't involved, who would take a stand for the environment, health and culture of West Virginia? They need and deserve our support. Try walking 50 miles in the heat to see what will power and commitment is all about.
Calhoun, who lived in West Virginia, is a photographer and outdoor guide near Friendsville, Md., and lives four miles from the state line.