West Virginia communities got money to help tear down abandoned buildings. It wasn’t nearly enough

West Virginia communities got money to help tear down abandoned buildings. It wasn’t nearly enough

PARKERSBURG — Right behind the bus stop on 10th and Market streets in Parkersburg is a beautiful apartment building. The Virginia Apartments has balconies that residents adorn with colorful flowers and plants. But next door, wild vines grow up the brick walls of an abandoned office building that’s been vacant since at least 2003.

Waiting for the bus with his son, John Parsons said he wished the city did more about vacant, abandoned and dilapidated buildings.

“I wish they would do more with these vacant buildings other than just tear them down,”  Parsons said, the contrast of the two buildings looming behind him as he waited for the bus.

With the help of money from a state grant program, Parkersburg has made progress, tearing down dozens of abandoned properties over the last 18 months.

But its need is far greater. And statewide, officials estimate another $150 million or more is needed to help communities like Parkersburg deal with dilapidated properties.

Dust collects on booths at the Travelers Restaurant on 7th Street in Parkersburg, WV. Photo by La Shawn Pagán

Parkersburg officials say their hope is that the vacant spaces are appealing to new local businesses. 

“Like most downtown communities, we do have empty spaces, lots and buildings,” said Amanda Stevens, the executive director of Downtown PKB, an organization that works to “enhance, revitalize and aesthetically improve downtown Parkersburg.”

 “The good news is that several downtown businesses are working on expansion and many of these empty spaces will hopefully soon have new life breathed into them,” she added.

Indeed, signs promoting a new development in a vacant lot where the Wood County Senior Citizens Center once stood can be seen clearly.

A sign announces what’s coming to replace the old Wood County Senior Citizens center on Market Street in Parkersburg. Photo by La Shawn Pagán

Like many communities across West Virginia, Parkersburg has been facing a problem with vacant, abandoned and dilapidated properties, and has been tearing down buildings for the past few years to address the blight issue. 

Last year, the city tore down an old locksmith building and two residential structures on 19th and Dudley streets as well as a former hotel on 7th Street, before the structures became bigger nuisances — of vagrancy, fires and drugs — to the community, according to news reports. The 7th Street site is now being considered as a potential location for a new fire station.

Ryan Barber, the development director for the city, said that state funding gave them the opportunity to address the safety and blight concerns the city had for years. The city used $650,000 in West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection money to tear down an estimated 50 to 75 structures in 18 months, according to Barber. 

But Barber said there’s a lot more work to be done. “It’s hard to say how many more will be needing demolition,” he said.

A tattoo shop is boarded up on Market Street in Parkersburg WV. Photo by La Shawn Pagán

Statewide, phase one of the project cost almost $10 million for 26 communities to tear down an estimated 780 structures, according to a report to the Legislature. In phase two, another $20 million will go to 68 participants, which include cities and municipalities,to tear down over 1,000 structures, the report said.   

The report also said that once both phases of the program are completed, more than 80 communities and counties in West Virginia would have participated in demolishing over 2,000 structures.

But it warned, “much remains to be done” to fully address the issue: More than 8,000 residential and commercial structures need to be demolished, at a cost estimated by communities at nearly $150 million.

The City of Parkersburg once kept a registry, in which, for $100 a month, owners could list their properties. In return, the city would use the funds to demolish buildings.  

Andy Nestor, Parkersburg code chief, said that it took too much manpower to ensure the buildings were not only up to code, but vacant. 

Currently, there is a list kept by the city’s Urban Renewal Authority, where parcels of vacant land can be sought for purchase and potential redevelopment, but there is no list of vacant structures waiting to be torn down.

With a few hours walking around downtown Parkersburg, you can see what Nestor is talking about. 

A man walks in front of the vacant Travelers Restaurant on 7th Street in Parkersburg, WV. Photo by La Shawn Pagán

Starting off on 7th Street you can spot businesses like an old diner, whose old dining stools sit covered in dust. Next, one door down from the diner, what seemed to be an antique store, has left behind their bric-a-brac collecting dust and cobwebs. 

Over on Market Street a dozen or more empty businesses, such as art galleries, tattoo shops and financial planning agencies also sit vacant. 

In contrast, a block west from the Virginia Apartments at 10th and Market Street sits the historic Julia-Ann Square District. Here, over 100 homes are well-maintained, despite being built between 1850 and 1910.  

But as the city continues to tear down structures, increasingly empty lots and paved parking replace residential homes and commercial spaces, leaving residents wishing that more be done to restore Parkersburg to its old glory. 

Condemned stickers on the window of a building on Market Street in Parkersburg, WV. Photo by La Shawn Pagán

“We don’t need any more parking lots out here,” said Katrina Keller, who works at Atkinson Bonding on Avery Street. 

Keller is surrounded by vacant properties while she works. In a three block radius there are numerous vacant homes, business and empty grassy lots, and within a stone throw, there are at least four large parking lots. 

“I wish that they would actually revamp this area down here and bring it back to how it used to be,” she said. “People would come down here and stroll, with little shops and stuff.”

West Virginia communities got money to help tear down abandoned buildings. It wasn’t nearly enough appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

The Number of White Nationalist Groups in Appalachia Is Rising — and the Surge Could Have Implications for Democracy

The number of white nationalist groups operating in Appalachia has increased, according to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The rise coincides with a national surge of far-right, anti-government and anti-LGBTQ+ groups, which the SPLC warns could undermine democracy heading into the 2024 presidential election.

“With a historic election just months away, these groups are multiplying, mobilizing and making, and in some cases already implementing, plans to undo democracy,” Margaret Huang, SPLC’s president and CEO, said on a call with reporters following the release of the organization’s 2023 Year in Hate and Extremism Report.

In Appalachia, these groups include Active Clubs, the Patriot Front, White Lives Matter and the Ku Klux Klan. Here, most limit their activity to propaganda efforts, like dispersing fliers or displaying banners on highway overpasses, according to Kieran Doyle, the North American research manager for the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project.

As of June, ACLED, a non-governmental organization that collects global data on violent conflict and protest, has recorded five events in West Virginia involving white nationalist groups since November 2022, according to data compiled by Doyle.

The most recent event recorded was an April protest in downtown Charleston, the state capital, organized by the Patriot Front, which Doyle said is the most active white nationalist group in the state. The march was held on the same day as the YWCA hosted its “Race to End Racism” event; West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported that masked Patriot Front members wore matching khaki pants, hats and dark polo shirts and carried a sign that read “America is not for sale.”

Two of the other reported events were also in Kanawha County, where Charleston is located. Another event occurred in Cabell County in 2022. And in Brooke County, the leader of a neo-Nazi group was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison for threatening the jury and witnesses in the hate crimes trial of the man responsible for the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Recent events tied to white nationalist and other hate groups have been reported in nearly every other state across Appalachia.

ACLED recorded nearly 60 events in Pennsylvania since January 2020, with Allegheny County — which includes Pittsburgh — ranked as one of the state’s most frequent sites of white nationalist group activity.

In Tennessee, ACLED data shows 70 white nationalist events. Knox County, in East Tennessee, has experienced the second-highest number of events in the state, Doyle said.

ACLED has also documented multiple instances of white nationalist group activity taking place in Southwestern Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Western North Carolina, North Georgia and elsewhere across the region.

According to the SPLC’s report, this activity, coupled with “holy war” and “race war” rhetoric and the fear and disruption these groups sow, “foreshadow an attempt to exploit American democratic and electoral processes in 2024 to finally accomplish the goals of the insurrection — the suppression of multiracial, pluralistic democracy.”

Anti-LGBTQ+ groups are also on the rise, according to the SPLC report, with groups frequently targeting libraries, schools and drag shows. Last year, in Floyd County, Kentucky, a drag performance moved online after organizers received threats. A few months later, online threats were made against another Kentucky drag performance, this time in Montgomery County.

Jacob Glick, senior policy counsel at Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said this type of anti-LGBTQ+ activity is closely related to anti-democratic extremism.

“I’m worried where that leads when you consider that some of these localities could then become flashpoints for national conflict as you enter the election,” Glick said. “You can see very easily how the local issues then balloon into national issues with the right call to action, as we approach sort of the ultimate moment of national conversation.”

Filling a void

While the number of active white nationalist groups reached a nationwide high last year, these groups haven’t coalesced under a central leadership or organized institutional structure like far-right extremist and anti-government militia movements the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers, according to the report.

Those large national networks, which strengthened following the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, have largely shattered amid public scrutiny and prosecutions following the violent uprising and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Glick said. A void emerged as a result, with more empowered, localized groups with the same extremist ideologies stepping in to fill it.

“Splinter groups that are sometimes even more explicitly fascistic, neo-Nazi and white nationalist or white supremacist have popped up to take the place of some of these established militia networks or established Proud Boy networks, and in some cases, they’ve supplanted them,” Glick said. “In other cases, they’ve just sort of popped up in the absence of any other extended network.”

A lot of these groups are organizing under the banner of Active Clubs, decentralized white nationalist fight-club-style groups of young white men with chapters in most states in the region. Active Clubs have been described as “white supremacy 3.0” and a “standby militia.” In the last year, the group has grown to nearly 40 chapters nationwide, which are increasingly employing more violent tactics at the local level and specifically targeting LGBTQ+ events, according to the SPLC report.

The localized nature of these groups could magnify their impact and pose concerns for election security.

Last year, members of the Tennessee Active Club showed up to a forum to provide protection to a mayoral candidate who focused her campaign on targeting LGBTQ+ events. The mayoral candidate lost her bid, but Glick believes that dynamic could shift, with extremists, for example, taking it upon themselves to prevent voter fraud.

He added that it’s a danger that’s especially potent with county-level militias and groups like the constitutional sheriffs movement, an anti-government group that held a training in Appalachia last year, given there’s already a script for election fraud these groups are able to work from.

Today, Glick sees the same patterns that emboldened the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers in the lead up to January 6, being set in motion with this “open flirtation” between far-right groups and public officials exploiting community fears at local levels.

“We’re seeing that play out now in more localized contexts across the country, but the election is going to be the overarching narrative that immediately unites all of those fears into one package,” Glick said. “And that’s how many folks on the far right are talking about this election — in terms of an apocalyptic battle.”

Jacob Biba is a reporter covering democracy and election security for 100 Days in Appalachia. Support his work here.

The post The Number of White Nationalist Groups in Appalachia Is Rising — and the Surge Could Have Implications for Democracy appeared first on 100 Days in Appalachia.

In Lincoln County, some young folks have decided to stay. They want better jobs, roads and cell service

Cody Lambert stands in front of the West Hamlin Gino's/Tudor's combo.

HAMLIN — Cody Lambert edges off the gas on Route 3, east of Hamlin to point out where the Board of Education is building the new Duval Middle School. 

The old Duval Middle School had been shut down for a few years, after structural engineers deemed it unsafe. As Lambert recollects it, the school was literally cracking apart. 

Since then, kids have been going to the county school board building for instruction — and now they’re building a new $40 million school to serve pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. 

Not much changes in Lincoln. Take Duval’s mascot, the Yellow Jackets, for instance. Back in 1914, the school colors were yellow and black — but when the jerseys came, Lambert said they were orange black. 

“They just couldn’t call customer service,” Lambert said. “So they were like, ‘well, all right guys, the school colors are orange and black.’” 

And that’s the way it’s been for over 100 years. 

Back when he was a kid, Lambert, 33, said he recalls seeing a few more machine shops and auto body garages around the county, but for the most part, not much has changed.

Unlike its neighboring counties to the south, Lincoln has never experienced the population boom and subsequent bust seen during the coal rush of the 20th century. At its peak in the 1980s, Lincoln had about 24,000 people living there — today, it’s hovering around 20,000

Lambert was born and bred in Lincoln County. When popping into various stores and shops, he’s often called “Greg’s son.” His father, a football coach, is known countywide. And Lambert is making a name for himself, coaching a team in Logan County. 

But despite the strong family roots, even Lambert has had to move for greener pastures. 

“A lot of people from my generation have moved away and not necessarily to other states,” he said. “They’re just not living in Lincoln County. They’re moving to places like Charleston, Barboursville or Huntington. Myself included — I lived most of my post grad life in Huntington.” 

How to get people — particularly young people — to stay is one of the questions facing two candidates gunning for the 30th Delegate District in West Virginia, which covers almost the entirety of Lincoln County. 

Britney Brogan, a school nurse who is running to represent Lincoln County in the House of Delegates. Courtesy photo

For those who stay in the county, the job prospects are scant, unless they’re willing to drive — usually to a neighboring county. U.S. Census statistics show more than 60% of working people in Lincoln work outside the county. About 20% of them have to drive up to an hour for work. 

While the county did experience timber and gas booms through the years, the two largest employers in Lincoln County as of last year are the school board and an in-home care organization for seniors. 

Democratic candidate Britney Brogan, a school nurse, said she knows the struggle to stay all too well. 

“I went to Marshall for school, and I stayed in Huntington for a very long time,” she said. “But I missed it. It’s where I grew up. I was born and raised here.”

To Brogan, focusing on infrastructure and helping along small establishments is the key to recruiting businesses to Lincoln County. 

Over on the Republican side, Jeff Eldridge — who served as a Democrat in the house in the 2000s and the 2010s — said he wants to leverage the county’s natural resources to grow tourism and to beef up infrastructure. 

Jeff Eldridge in a 2018 legislative photograph. He is running to represent Lincoln County in the House of Delegates. Photo courtesy the West Virginia Legislature.

“In 20 years, hopefully with getting infrastructure and tourism up, we’ll get some companies to want to move to Lincoln County,” he said. 

When he was previously in the House, he also introduced legislation to create a tax incentive for people who wanted to retire to the county, but it didn’t gain traction. He said he’d look into something similar for young people if he were to come back.

Lydia Roberts, who graduated from Marshall University in 2021, is one of those people who came back home to Lincoln County. She said “roots are strong and important” in the county and a trek last summer on the Appalachian Trail only made her believe that more. 

“I never found a city, or a town or a state that I thought we couldn’t hold a candle to,” she said. “They had things that make their community better and we can have that. We have the people and the energy.” 

But it’s not without its problems, she said. For instance, when she got bit by a dog a few months ago, she had to drive to Teays Valley to get it checked out because the doctor’s office in Lincoln wasn’t fully staffed. Anywhere — work, grocery store, entertainment — is a drive. 

She’s not too optimistic about getting a large company to relocate to the county either. 

“We don’t have service and our roads suck,” she said. “Why would they come here when everyone is also leaving?” 

Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier, has a statue in his hometown of Hamlin commemorating his career.
Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier, has a statue in his hometown of Hamlin commemorating his career. Credit: Henry Culvyhouse / Mountain State Spotlight

Lucas Ashworth, 34, sits in a booth at the M&R Restaurant, a diner between Hamlin and West Hamlin with his brother Jake and Cody Lambert. According to Ashworth, this booth is the same one where Lincoln County legend Chuck Yeager used to sit whenever he’d visit home. 

When Ashworth graduated high school, he signed the dotted line with Uncle Sam and went off to see the country. Now, he’s come back to Lincoln County and works as a funeral attendant.

“I decided this is the best place in the world for me,” he said. “There’s no better place. I can walk in here and I have to wave at everybody because I know everybody.” 

There’s not a stranger at this diner — in fact, the old owner used to change his and his brother’s diapers way back in the day. He knows the waitress by name, as well as the people eating behind him, beside him and the old timer sitting at the counter. 

Ashworth coaches football for one of the local schools and his brother Jake coaches basketball. They sit at the booth along with Lambert and trade gridiron gossip and revel in the glory days when they played on the field. 

To Ashworth, the county needs people to stay who are willing to put in the work to “make it what it can be and what it used to be.” 

“The best thing the state can do is update the road system,” he said. 

That’s something both candidates in the race have hit upon. Brogan said she wants to see the community come out and support startups and small businesses. Eldridge, who said he had a somewhat nasty primary race, said he wants to see the county come together and “quit bad mouthing each other.” 

If there’s one thing uniting the country, it’s sports. As Lambee recalls it, things were a bit rocky when four high schools were consolidated into one. Some traditions were lost, like Hamlin High’s practice of guarding the Chuck Yeager statue to prevent a rival from putting their jersey on it. 

But it’s the type of county where the towns close down and the cars line the road for Friday night lights — the type of town Ashworth said one can live a good life in. 

Ashworth stands up and pays his bill — he’s got to take his kids swimming. The brothers say they plan to stay in Lincoln County. 

Lambert isn’t going to be staying for long. He’s got about another year, then he’ll be following his fiancée out of state. But he hopes to come back, maybe to retire.

In Lincoln County, some young folks have decided to stay. They want better jobs, roads and cell service appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

What you need to know about West Virginia’s child welfare crisis

In a rare move last week, top aides to Gov. Jim Justice faced the press to respond to growing concerns over the death of a 14-year-old Boone County girl.

But while the press conference to talk about Kyneddi Miller’s death was unusual for the governor’s office, the tragic event is only the latest in a long string of red flags around West Virginia’s child welfare system. 

It was only last October when two Black teens were found locked in a Sissonville barn and another child – five years old – with visible signs of neglect – was found in the loft in that same home. The three children and another who wasn’t home at the time were removed, and their adoptive parents were charged with felony child neglect, human trafficking and civil rights violations based on race. And a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of West Virginia foster kids that alleges severe problems in the state system is nearing its five-year anniversary in large part because state officials continue to drag their feet

These reports of mistreatment of West Virginia’s most vulnerable kids have stretched through the last eight years of Justice’s tenure and under multiple iterations of a Legislature run by both Democrats and Republicans, but little has moved the needle.

How are foster care and Child Protective Services (CPS) connected?

Several of the most shocking recent cases don’t involve foster kids: Kyneddi was being cared for by her mother and two grandparents, and the children removed from the Sissonville home after alleged abuse were adopted, but not from West Virginia’s foster care system.

These two systems are intertwined and share many of the same challenges and staff members, which is why they’re often mentioned in the same breath.

Under the current Bureau for Social Services — part of the West Virginia Department of Human Services (DOHS) — there are a number of workers who could potentially both work to investigate allegations of child abuse and, if a child is removed from their home as a result, become the child’s foster care case manager. 

West Virginia Department of Human Services Secretary Dr. Cynthia Persily speaks at a press conference last week. Photo courtesy Gov. Jim Justice’s office.

But for decades, West Virginia has had a shortage of these key social workers. At the end of 2022, a third of these positions were empty. In early 2023, the Justice administration announced pay raises for CPS workers, as well as the department’s youth services workers and adult protective services workers — with additional incentives for workers in the Eastern Panhandle to compete with neighboring states. 

While the state has made progress in filling some vacancies, Berkeley County Circuit Judge R. Steven Redding told lawmakers in October that the problems persist, and have led to a backlog of 400 referrals that CPS workers haven’t been able to investigate. And in a recent deposition as part of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of West Virginia foster kids, a former state official testified about known deficiencies in the system, including the large number of child abuse referrals that fall through the cracks.

“Cases where referrals were screened out at the point of centralized intake with questions around whether or not that was or was not appropriate,” said Jeremiah Samples, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources who now advises top lawmakers. “Situations where workers had a responsibility to — maybe it was an active case — a worker would have a responsibility to go out and check on a child, failed to do so, a tragedy occurs.”

What happened to Kyneddi Miller? 

In April, deputies found the body of 14-year-old Kyneddi Miller in a skeletal state in her Boone County home. The teenager lived with her mother and two grandparents and was homeschooled; investigators said she hadn’t eaten in months.

Since her tragic death, Kyneddi’s mother and grandparents have been criminally charged with child neglect resulting in death, a felony. In the weeks following the discovery of Kyneddi’s body, there have been competing narratives about whether the teen’s situation had previously been formally reported to CPS.

“The CPS folks, from what I understand, had no idea about this child,” Justice told reporters in a briefing on April 23. “No idea whatsoever.”

But two weeks later, Justice walked that back

“Will I stand behind what was said two weeks ago now that I know the information that I know today?” he asked on May 8. “No way.”

The month following Kyneddi’s death, there were competing accounts of who may have known about her situation. TV station WSAZ has reported anonymous tips alleging CPS had been contacted twice about the family — in 2009 and 2017. WSAZ also reported that Kyneddi’s plight was known to state troopers; a call log documented a trooper saying he was planning to make the referral to CPS in person. But while the TV station says the West Virginia State Police stands by that call log, DoHS released a statement saying “a comprehensive search of DoHS records suggest no referral was ever made.”

Chief of Staff Brian Abraham speaks at a press conference last week about a child fatality in Boone County. Photo courtesy Gov. Jim Justice’s office.

In last week’s press conference, Justice’s Chief of Staff Brian Abraham said the administration’s investigation into the incident concluded that the two previous referrals didn’t have anything to do with Kyneddi, and were unfounded. He said it seemed that state troopers had gone to the CPS office in person in 2023, but it was “informal contact” and they didn’t make an official referral: the troopers hadn’t found any signs of abuse or neglect, but found it odd that Kyneddi was so scared about COVID-19 that she wouldn’t leave the house.

“When the West Virginia State Police made contact with this girl at her residence … she was in good health, she was unharmed,” Abraham said.

West Virginia State Police Chief of Staff Maj. James Mitchell speaks at a press conference last week. Photo courtesy Gov. Jim Justice’s office.

Abraham further noted that although GPS data showed state troopers were physically present at a Boone County-area DoHS office, CPS agents did not remember speaking to them. Thus, moving forward, to avoid any confusion, law enforcement has been instructed to call the toll-free Centralized Intake for Abuse and Neglect number. 

This isn’t the only really awful child abuse case to come to light in West Virginia over the past year.

No, it’s not. Back in October 2023, social workers removed several children from a home in Sissonville, after neighbors reported they were doing manual labor and being forced to sleep in the barn. Prosecutors initially charged the kids’ adoptive parents with felony child neglect, but in May, a grand jury indictment included additional charges of human trafficking, using a minor child in forced labor and civil rights violations based on race.

One of the similarities between the Boone County case involving Kyneddi and these children in Sissonville is a lack of clarity around when CPS was alerted to the situation, and whether or not they acted. 

While in Kyneddi’s case DoHS officials maintain they did not have any formal child abuse referrals, records in the Sissonville case indicate that neighbors called CPS at least once about the children in August. But DoHS hasn’t provided any documentation showing whether they followed up on the referral, before Kanawha County Sheriff’s deputies removed the children more than a month later. 

Has the state agency in charge of foster care and CPS  been transparent?

No. 

Journalists and the public have struggled for years to get more information about the treatment of kids in state custody and the outcome of child abuse complaints. State agency lawyers argue that most of the information isn’t subject to the state’s open records law because West Virginia code has a provision for records involving juveniles to remain confidential except in a few narrow exceptions. State agency lawyers typically argue that law applies to any child welfare records, even when the identities of kids are redacted. 

Besides the specific examples in the Kyneddi Miller and Sissonville cases where state officials haven’t provided records detailing child abuse referrals or the agency’s response, there have been multiple filings in a massive class action lawsuit against the state that show other ways in which the agency has kept crucial information from the public and lawmakers.

The lawsuit was filed in 2019 on behalf of current and former West Virginia foster kids. It argues the state has repeatedly failed to care for the kids its charged with protecting — including failing to make sure they end up in the most appropriate placement settings with the services they need. But after years of litigation, the lawyers representing these kids have struggled to get all of the information they’ve requested from state officials.  

In April, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Eifert sanctioned state lawyers and child welfare officials for withholding key documents from the plaintiffs’ attorneys and then destroying them, though she said there was no evidence the destruction was intentional. 

And just two weeks ago, former DHHR official Samples said in a sworn deposition that agency leaders had repeatedly pushed empty talking points rather than prioritizing concrete actions and transparency. He also said that he was aware that then-Secretary Bill Crouch had applied pressure on the foster care ombudsman to withhold some information and documents from lawmakers about problems in the system.

“The tone of the conversation was that it was a threat, to be very careful about conversations that she had with the Legislature and documents that she would release,” Samples said in the deposition. 

That ombudsman, Pamela Woodman-Kaehler, resigned shortly after the deposition became public.

Chief of Staff Brian Abraham speaks at a press conference last week. Photo courtesy Gov. Jim Justice’s office.

At last week’s press conference, the Governor’s office asked state police and top officials with the Department of Human Services to gather information that could be shared publicly. Abraham repeatedly insisted that information was limited due to federal and state rules restricting what can be shared from a criminal investigation.

What kinds of action to improve child welfare are leaders promising at this point? 

This past legislative session came and went without meaningful action to address the very specific deficiencies brought to light by the foster care class action lawsuit. 

Lawmakers considered and advanced a handful of child welfare bills, including one to bar anyone with a pending child abuse or neglect investigation from homeschooling their kids — a measure known as Raylee’s Law — but of those, only a bill creating a foster parent information dashboard was signed into law. Lawmakers also indicated they want to add more transparency and oversight to the system; two measures that ultimately didn’t make it into law would have allowed the foster care ombudsman to view confidential CPS records and have let a legislative oversight commission hear reports of child injuries, deaths or other problems. But both bills also would have created additional secrecy, doing nothing to give the public more information about how the agency works.

After the press conference discussing the Kyneddi Miller case, some legislative leaders again promised actions to improve the state’s child welfare system.

West Virginia MetroNews described the comments from House Health Committee Chairwoman Amy Summers, R-Taylor, this way: “It is awful and I know we all want to blame someone and try to figure out what could have been done to save her, so I understand all of that” before finding herself at a loss for words and trailing off.

If you suspect you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or neglect, report your concerns to the Centralized Intake for Abuse and Neglect at 1-800-352-6513.

What you need to know about West Virginia’s child welfare crisis appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

In North Carolina, A Sanctuary for Local Songwriters Emerges: The East Boone Listening Room

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Friday night in Boone, North Carolina, and a hush falls over the East Boone Listening Room.

“We spent many years trying to find a space like this in town,” says artist and songwriter Sarah DeShields. 

Boone, which is home to Appalachian State University, has plenty of small to mid-sized venues, but they tend to cater to the college crowd or tourists. Because these hot spots are designed more for drinking and socializing, the performers often end up getting drowned out by the noise. 

What DeShields says Boone was missing was a space for singer-songwriters to showcase their songs to an audience intent to listen. 

“So, we decided to just make it ourselves!” DeShields laughs.

All the chairs in the East Boone Listening Room are taken, and I’m not surprised. Every time I come to these listening events, the place is packed wall to wall. So, I find a little spot on the floor and settle in to listen to the other songwriters before it’s time to play my own set of three songs.

The listening room hosts concerts on the second Friday of each month and is housed in the Boone Studio Collective – a space typically used by photographers and other artistic professionals. On listening nights, the studio is transformed into a small, cozy venue. The events are free, but attendees are encouraged to donate directly to the artists via Venmo or PayPal.

“I think it’s actually a need. People need connection,” says Meris Gantt, another songwriter and creative consultant who helps curate the evenings along with DeShields and fellow artists Will Willis and Simon and Sydney Everett. 

After the pandemic, Gantt felt people were hungry for that human connection they couldn’t get online. In a way, the Listening Room has become a place where people can heal from both the vitriol and the isolation of the pandemic. It’s a space for an artist to share their deepest emotions free of judgment and free of noise.

When I think about the greatest challenge to my own artistic work, it is indeed noise, and I don’t just mean singing over the racket of a crowded bar – though I’ve done that more times than I care to count. Artists are increasingly competing with the noise of a global music marketplace. 

Online streaming platforms, while they have their advantages, have saturated the market with endless content. It’s hard for a songwriter to cut through the noise, much less get paid a fair wage for their creative labor.

But that’s another beautiful thing about the Listening Room. Songwriters from all over have played here, but for the most part, “we try to make it hyper-local,” Gantt says, thereby instilling the value of not only an in-person, embodied musical experience but also a local one.

Becoming “hyperlocal” is a concept that’s increasingly appealing to me, especially in a world that every day becomes more and more oriented towards the compelling but somewhat artificial connections and consumption that the internet provides. These days, I – and I believe many others – are less interested in what’s cutting edge globally and more interested in what my own community has to offer me.

The East Boone Listening Room. Photo: Sydney Everett/sydneygailphotography.com
The East Boone Listening Room. Photo: Sydney Everett/sydneygailphotography.com

This is what I’ve found at the East Boone Listening Room. I’ve found Appalachian folks singing songs about what it means to live and love and work and grow here in Boone, in Appalachia. 

I’ve heard songs about what it means for your religious beliefs to change when you live in a highly religious context. 

I’ve heard songs that wrestle with being a descendant of settlers on a land that once belonged to the Cherokee. 

I’ve heard songs about watching people die of addiction and about the experience of incarceration. 

I’ve heard songs about local floods and mountaineer ghosts who haunt the hills.

These are deeply Appalachian songs about deeply Appalachian struggles. But the genre is not limited to what people typically think of when they imagine Appalachian music. Certainly, some artists incorporate traditional Old Time musical instruments like a banjo or mandolin. But the diversity of sound is something the curators of the East Boone Listening Room take great pride in. If a tourist from “off the mountain” were to wander into the East Boone Listening Room in hopes of simply experiencing a stereotypical “down home” sound, they’d have to go elsewhere to get their hillbilly trope fix.

DeShields, who sometimes plays ambient electric guitar and sometimes plays a folksier acoustic guitar, writes music that is indeed genre-bending. She was born in Scotland and her songs are often inspired by her connection to the land, both in Scotland and her new home in North Carolina. These songs of Scottish migration evoke the rich and decidedly Appalachian tradition of mourning and celebrating the exchange of one unique topography for other. 

About her performance at the East Boone Listening Room, DeShields says, “People are still talking to me about what happened in them when they were listening to me sing. It felt very sacred to me. I felt known and seen in my community in a new way.”

When my time to play arrives, I approach the microphone feeling a bit intimidated. The room is absolutely quiet. All heads are up, no one is looking down at their phones. While you may see a few folks take quick photos of the performers, for the most part, devices are put away and people are fully present.

But as much as I feel unnerved, I feel emboldened, buoyed by the earnest attentiveness and eager reception of the listeners. Like DeShields, I too feel seen. There are my people. This is my community. It is a place where I can express my most complex thoughts and feelings and be understood. I can present myself rather than a perfect performance without having to shout over the noise or cut through the excesses of our modern-day world.

“We just want people to be humans here,” says Gantt. 

And be human is exactly what I am able to do at the East Boone Listening Room.

Amanda Held Opelt is a singer-songwriter and the author of A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing and the forthcoming Holy Unhappiness: God, Goodness, and the Myth of the Blessed Life. She writes about faith, grief, rituals and life in Southern Appalachia. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Boone, North Carolina.

The post In North Carolina, A Sanctuary for Local Songwriters Emerges: The East Boone Listening Room appeared first on 100 Days in Appalachia.

Thousands of West Virginia voters lack choices on their ballots. Here are the consequences of uncontested elections

On May 14, West Virginia voters will go to the polls for the state’s primary election. Nearly 1,800 people are running for elected office here, and while positions like U.S. Senator and West Virginia Governor have been sucking up a lot of the air over the past few months, there are a lot of lower-profile races that are just as important. Those include races for the state’s 30 judicial circuits and county positions like prosecuting attorney and board of education members.

But a shocking number of these races aren’t really races at all. For many elected offices, West Virginia votes will simply have no choices.

Maybe we already knew this. But over the last few months it’s become even more clear, as I once again spent days going through ballots and websites and Facebook pages to create Mountain State Spotlight’s 2024 primary election voter guide.

Two years ago, I lobbied hard to create the first iteration of this comprehensive guide to answer one simple question for West Virginian voters: Who’s on my ballot? While this information is publicly available, it’s not always user-friendly. Our gamble in 2022 was that there were a lot of West Virginians who wanted a preview of who was running for office, as well as a few basic ways to research them like campaign websites and social media pages. 

We were right, and about 20% of the people who cast a ballot in that election consulted one or more pages of that voter guide.

So, we did it again this year. I went through every statewide, district, county and many municipal elections and tried to track down information about the candidates. We wanted voters to know their choices, to help them make informed decisions.

But West Virginians have few options in so many of these races. 

Many state and county races will be decided in the primaries (if there’s a decision to be made at all)

There are 117 statehouse races on the ballot this year; in 50 of them, there are only candidates from one political party running. In almost all these cases, it’s only Republicans running for the seat. This means that only registered Republicans (and independent voters who ask for a Republican ballot) will get to make any kind of choice about who will ultimately represent them in the state House or Senate.

In many of these statehouse races, even people voting a Republican ballot don’t have much of a choice. In 32 of the races for legislative seats, there’s only one candidate running, period. That means for 32 of your elected representatives, the only hurdles to office are the bureaucratic tasks of paying a small filing fee ($100 for the House of Delegates and $200 for the State Senate) and filling out the required paperwork.

In counties, there are even fewer options. Take county prosecuting attorneys: Every county has one, and the seat is on the ballot in every county but Lincoln. But in 43 of those 54 prosecutor races —79%! — there is only one person running for the job. 

This isn’t a new problem, and it’s not unique to West Virginia.

During the 2016 election, 75% of West Virginia’s prosecuting attorney elections were uncontested, according to research by Carissa Byrne Hessick, a law professor at the University of North Carolina and the director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project. Across the country, she said the biggest factor in determining whether there’s more than one candidate running for the seat is population.

It makes sense: In order to run for prosecuting attorney, you have to be a lawyer. And not all lawyers even want to practice criminal law, like prosecutors do. So Hessick says in counties with smaller populations, the pool is pretty small.

“These small jurisdictions tend to have fewer lawyers, which is going to affect the number of people who are eligible to run for this office,” she said. 

This ends up making people less motivated to make the effort to vote, according to West Virginia University political science professor Bill Franko. 

“Less competition is going to lead to lower levels of voter turnout,” he said. “People are going to think their vote matters less, like ‘what’s the point if I turn out or not, this person is going to end up winning.’”

In many ways, this is a self-perpetuating cycle. Specifically for prosecuting attorney races, Hessick has found that media outlets don’t cover uncontested elections as often as they do contested ones, so people tend to be less aware of the position’s responsibilities and less likely to challenge an incumbent for the job. 

(These media outlets, by the way, totally include Mountain State Spotlight. We’ve had tough conversations about election stories, including focusing resources on contested races. But we have broader coverage planned for the months leading up to the general election in November, including a push to try to change the way we cover elections with our Citizen’s Agenda approach.)

Fewer choices means less competition and lower turnout

This lack of choices affects voter turnout more broadly, too. When candidates aren’t forced to compete for votes, they do less campaigning and voter outreach — activities that tend to give people more information about candidates and make them feel more comfortable voting. It also means that increasingly, West Virginia’s elected officials haven’t had to make the case for their election, or had to tell voters where they stand on important issues in the state. 

Ultimately, this lack of competition has consequences for West Virginians. 

Some research has shown that lawmakers who win their seats with no opposition were less likely to introduce bills and show up to vote than those who had to compete. And Franko’s research, which largely focuses on how economic inequality plays out in voting, has found that when voter turnout is down, the people who end up voting and influencing policies aren’t always representative of the population. 

“So what happens if you have fewer people from lower means backgrounds turning out in elections?” he asked. “What my work has found is that this ends up leading to less representation for those people when it comes to policy outcomes.” The overall result, in many cases, is that the laws that end up being passed aren’t beneficial for poorer West Virginians. 

As for prosecutors, Hessick says the result of this lack of competition isn’t quite as easy to see. But that in itself is part of the problem. 

Prosecutors generally have broad authority to decide what cases they want to prosecute, what types of crimes to charge people with, what kind of plea deals to offer. And unlike a lawmaker’s voting record, it’s much more difficult for a voter to get insight into how their elected prosecuting attorney is approaching law enforcement. 

“They have these incredibly consequential decisions that they have to make and we don’t even know what those decisions are,” Hessick said. “Even if you wanted to find out what decisions are being made, it’s incredibly hard to get your hands on this information.”

So, what’s the solution to getting more candidates for these positions, which could then increase campaigning, leading to more information and higher voter turnout? 

As far as prosecutors go, Hessick says one solution is creating larger prosecutorial districts, which could include grouping smaller counties together. That would create a larger potential pool of candidates vying for the position. 

Franko said the issues are hard to disentangle, but another solution is to make both voting and running for office easier — starting with asking people to do it. There are a lot of barriers to even casting a ballot, he said, and those are only magnified when you look at what’s needed to run for office.

“Are people asking you to vote? Is someone trying to get you to turn out to vote? Do you have the resources to try to understand the process and navigate? Apply that to running for office,” he said. “You need resources. You need to be able to navigate the process. Are people asking you to run for office? Same thing, but even harder.”

He noted that some countries have increased voter turnout by having fewer elections, like making sure that city and state elections appear on the same ballot as national races. West Virginia officials could also increase the number of voters who end up weighing in on nonpartisan races — for critical positions like judgeships and board of education members — by moving that election to the November ballot, where the general election turnout is typically nearly double the primary. 

None of these potential solutions will change West Virginia’s candidate pool overnight. But every West Virginia voter’s ballot does include a couple of races with choices.

There are three candidates vying for a single seat on the West Virginia Intermediate Court of Appeals, and this is voters’ first chance to pick a judge for this newly-formed court.

And, in many counties, Board of Education races are contested. These are the people who will decide what and how our kids learn — and they are nonpartisan contests that will be decided on Tuesday.

Polls are open on May 14 from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. And our voter guide is right here to help.

Thousands of West Virginia voters lack choices on their ballots. Here are the consequences of uncontested elections appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

Photo Essay: Exploring Trans and Queer Identity through Appalachian, Christian Iconography

As a queer and gender-nonconforming person navigating life in a region deeply entrenched in Christianity, I find myself straddling two worlds. While I don’t hold any religious beliefs, I cannot deny the profound impact that Appalachian and Deep Southern Christianity have on the queer experience. Not only is religion pitted against the queer community by the government through legislation, but by our neighbors. 

I’m from Huntington, West Virginia, in the “Bible Belt” where it is understandable to avoid Christianity or Catholicism completely as a member of the LBGTQ+ community. In the form of reclamation, I use the iconography and symbolism of these religions not in contrast but in tandem with queerness. While anti-trans laws are being introduced daily, fostering connections between our community and classically Appalachian roots is more pertinent than ever. We have to work to better our home for the future and ourselves.  

As a photographer, I am drawn to exploring the intersections of identity, spirituality, and bodies. My circle of friends, who are predominantly queer and trans individuals, provide solace and inspiration in a society that often fails us. 

In this photo series, I aim to capture the essence of our shared experiences as trans and queer individuals within the context of Appalachia. Along with these positives, it is also necessary to show the loneliness of this experience. Each subject in this series represents a unique expression of gender and/or sexuality. 

Using the symbolism of rebirth, community connection, and the search for answers outside oneself inherent in the Appalachian Christian tradition, I strive to create images that resonate with both our journeys and the broader narrative of this region. The river as a symbol of baptism and ceremony is the backbone of this series. From ceremonial washings to great floods, the power of water is undeniable. Through editing, these photos have grain and lens flares creating a look of being lost to time. 

(from left to right) Nakiya (Nyx) Bell (they/she), E Bowen, (she/they) and Em Marshall (they/them) stand ankle-deep in an inlet of the Ohio River at the tip of Virginia Point Park in Ceredo Kenova. Gazing out across the river that runs through Huntington, and much of Appalachia, solidifies our subjects’ place in the world. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

(From left to right) Nakiya (Nyx) Bell (they/she), E Bowen, (she/they) and Em Marshall (they/them) stand ankle-deep in an inlet of the Ohio River at the tip of Virginia Point Park in Ceredo Kenova. Gazing out across the river that runs through Huntington, and much of Appalachia, solidifies our subjects’ place in the world. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Em Marshall kneels in shallow waters, hands clasped together in a pose of prayer. With a bow in their hair, the image is reminiscent of a child saying their nightly prayers. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Em Marshall kneels in shallow waters, hands clasped together in a pose of prayer. With a bow in their hair, the image is reminiscent of a child saying their nightly prayers. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia
Nakiya (Nyx) Bell lays with her body partially in the water, hands planted in front and making eye contact with the viewer in defiant contrast to their relaxed posture. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Nakiya (Nyx) Bell lays with her body partially in the water, hands planted in front and making eye contact with the viewer in defiant contrast to their relaxed posture. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

In profile Nakiya (Nyx) Bell is surrounded by a mountainous, classically Appalachian, backdrop with a halo of light coming from their skin. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

In profile Nakiya (Nyx) Bell is surrounded by a mountainous, classically Appalachian, backdrop with a halo of light coming from their skin. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

E Bowen stands in the river with her arms raised to the sky and a look of pleading on her face, a posture of salvation. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

E Bowen stands in the river with her arms raised to the sky and a look of pleading on her face, a posture of salvation. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Standing surrounded by foliage with light coming from behind them making the slip she wears sheer creating vulnerability. With their arm up and shoulders back, her confidence shines through, just like the light. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Standing surrounded by foliage with light coming from behind them making the slip she wears sheer creating vulnerability. With their arm up and shoulders back, her confidence shines through, just like the light. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia
All three subjects are featured here in soft, hazy light. Em Marshall and Nakiya (Nyx) Bell kneel before E Bowen their hands on her torso as she reaches to the sky. This pose creates imagery reminiscent of the Holy Trinity. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

All three subjects are featured here in soft, hazy light. Em Marshall and Nakiya (Nyx) Bell kneel before E Bowen their hands on her torso as she reaches to the sky. This pose creates imagery reminiscent of the Holy Trinity. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Once again Nakiya (Nyx) Bell is surrounded by a haze on the river which runs along a deep forest. They hold their braided hair up which follows the lines of her arms and shoulders. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Once again Nakiya (Nyx) Bell is surrounded by a haze on the river which runs along a deep forest. They hold their braided hair up which follows the lines of her arms and shoulders. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

The subjects stand together looking off over the river which also runs behind them. All wearing light-colored feminine clothing they drastically contrast the brown of the background. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

The subjects stand together looking off over the river which also runs behind them. All wearing light-colored feminine clothing they drastically contrast the brown of the background. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Nakiya (Nyx) Bell stands barefoot in the sand leaning against large rocks behind, very connected to the nature around them. Her skin glows and contrasts the white of her dress. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Nakiya (Nyx) Bell stands barefoot in the sand leaning against large rocks behind, very connected to the nature around them. Her skin glows and contrasts the white of her dress. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

In the water mist surrounds all three people who are intertwined in posture and eye contact, again reflecting the Holy Trinity and prayer. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

In the water, mist surrounds all three people who are intertwined in posture and eye contact, again reflecting the Holy Trinity and prayer. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

With a spotlight on Nakiya (Nyx) Bell’s face and their eyes staring directly at the camera the other subjects fade into the background. Their faces are emotionless and look off-camera, which further isolates the center of the frame. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

With a spotlight on Nakiya (Nyx) Bell’s face and their eyes staring directly at the camera the other subjects fade into the background. Their faces are emotionless and look off-camera, which further isolates the center of the frame. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Laying in a field of grass lit only by a single light source casting onto Em Marshall as they look over their shoulder into the camera, they are completely alone in this space. They find power in isolation. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Laying in a field of grass lit only by a single light source casting onto Em Marshall as they look over their shoulder into the camera, they are completely alone in this space. They find power in isolation. Photo: Isa McMullen/For 100 Days in Appalachia

The post Photo Essay: Exploring Trans and Queer Identity through Appalachian, Christian Iconography appeared first on 100 Days in Appalachia.

From Flooding to Fires: Appalachia’s Recreation Industry Faces Climate Change Challenges

The impacts of climate change are steadily and exponentially being felt here in Appalachia just as they have across the globe, and environmental activists, scientists and outdoor enthusiasts alike find themselves in a race to counter the climate curve in the region. 

The discussions in some communities, however, have shifted to predicting what long-term effects climate change will have on outdoor recreation that, in many places, has supported a changing economy and how our communities can cope. 

Appalachia’s varied topography provides opportunities for outdoor recreation year-round – more than 3 million people section-hike the Appalachian Trail each year. And according to the Outdoor Industry Association 2023 report, West Virginia’s recreation sector in particular is responsible for $660 million in tax revenue and 91,000 jobs. Tennessee’s numerous recreation options brought in nearly $12 billion in 2022 with over 38 million people visiting the state’s 57 parks. 

Protecting the outdoors is an environmental investment, but one that is likely to also secure Applachia’s economic health. 

Extreme Weather Is Already Impacting Recreation

Last year’s outdoor season provided a powerful and unnerving snapshot of the future, foreshadowing Appalachia’s outdoor challenges for the decades ahead. 

In early July, catastrophic flooding and landslides from extraordinary rainfall created a State of Emergency in our region’s northernmost New York counties, closing parts of the Appalachian Trail. Some thru-hikers were stranded and diverted, encouraged to prioritize safety by bypassing that section of the trail entirely. 

Across southern Appalachia, late August brought searing triple-digit temperatures. This record-breaking heat wave arrived much later than typically seen and health warnings kept would-be recreationists confined to their homes during the normal onset of peak outdoor season. 

Intense smoke from last summer’s Canadian wildfires spread deep into Central Appalachia, covering the region in a thick haze that significantly degraded air quality. These plumes of smoke send greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, smothering the skies with dangerous emissions that negatively affect our community’s health and recreation.

2023 also went down in history as one of Central Appalachia’s most widespread wildfire seasons due to abnormally warm and dry fall weather. In West Virginia, more than 32,000 acres of forest burned, including a major blaze in November at the New River Gorge National Park, permanently altering the landscape of one of America’s most popular rock climbing destinations. 

The Projected Risks for the Region

As we approach mid-century, some of Appalachia’s southern cities are predicted to be among the most drought-burdened in the country, while neighbors in the north will regularly see a greater frequency of unprecedented flooding. The health of our communities could be impacted by rising rates of tick and mosquito-borne diseases and an elongated allergy season. 

These compiling risks over the next few decades will require recreationists to maintain awareness and use extra precautions while navigating the outdoors. And it’s all attributed to rising temperatures.

“Minimum surface air temperatures are projected to continue increasing across the region,” said Dr. Karen King, assistant professor of Geography at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. “A less obvious, but just as impactful consequence of warmer minimum temperatures is the reduction in overwinter mortality of invasive pests, which cause substantial harm to us and our recreational spaces.”

Leisure spaces used for hiking, biking and climbing will also suffer from the onslaught of heavy rainfall. Trails and their associated infrastructure, like bridges and shelters, could be impaired by rockfall and damaged by erosion. This particularly affects those that border some of the region’s most picturesque waterways, like West Virginia’s New River, one of the oldest rivers in the world.  

“In some cases, the most scenic is not always the most sustainable,” said Hawk Metheny, vice president of trail management at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “If you have an area that’s susceptible to erosion, it’s magnified exponentially – instead of the natural rate of erosion that occurs, you can experience multi-years in just days.”

Other forecasted downsides of impending temperature increases include reduced snowfall in the north and irrigation concerns in the south. Lack of winter precipitation will constrain activities like skiing, snowboarding and cold-water fishing, and make local niche resorts economically nonviable. And we can expect difficulties watering manicured green spaces in our public gardens and golf courses. 

Thankfully, Appalachia is Naturally Resilient

While these extreme weather events easily paint a grim picture, compared to much of the nation, Appalachia is relatively well-positioned to adapt to the effects of climate change according to Invest Appalachia’s 2023 climate analysis report. It states, “the geostrategic importance of the region’s natural and ecological assets in the face of the climate crisis present significant and complex opportunities for future generations” 

The region’s ecosystems are hardy. This is particularly true within more mountainous landscapes where moderating temperatures and elevation variations create comfortable microclimates, called “climate strongholds.” 

These strongholds are areas especially resistant to the climate’s changing conditions and Appalachia happens to have an abundance of them. Experts say they will serve as a crucial refuge for a rich variety of plant and animal species seeking respite from the heat and droughts.

“Species that we’re used to seeing in certain areas are either evolving out or being overtaken by invasive species that are now thriving in the changing climate,” Metheny said. 

The Nature Conservancy compares Appalachia to the Amazon rainforest as “one of the most globally important landscapes for tackling climate change and conserving biodiversity.” The region’s forests store approximately 56 percent of the East Coast’s above-ground carbon, providing lasting havens of cooler weather. 

Temperature sanctuaries such as these will become more and more important to those who seek recreation in unspoiled wilderness, especially during summer months.

The Forecast is Not All Bad

In a swiftly changing environment, the total value of outdoor recreation is flourishing. In 2021, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy reported that “existing historical communities on and surrounding the Trail are becoming key partners in the development of a sustainable rural economy surrounding the Trail corridor, based on access to the outdoors.”

And excluding snow activities, outdoor recreation as a whole will see an extended season. Times when outdoor experiences didn’t previously appeal to most people will become year-round occasions for leisure and adventure, providing the opportunity for a boost to both physical and mental health outcomes. 

In Southern Appalachia, it’s foreseeable that by 2050 parks and trails will be accessible without much winter preparation from mid-February through November. The number of days per year with temperatures considered comfortable for outdoor activities will increase throughout Central Appalachia. Despite heavier rains in the north, the total number of overcast days is forecasted to be fewer. 

“With the hiking season prolonged, it will take pressure off the influx of long-distance hikers in the southern section and even out the Appalachian Trail’s use,” Metheny said. “Spreading this out over location and time decreases the ecological footprint and provides hikers who want certain outdoor experiences like solitude more availability.” 

Metheny says more than ever, people seek mental breaks by exploring natural spaces, engaging in physical activity with loved ones, and taking moments for self-reflection and creativity that contrast the often unhealthy conditions of our hectic daily lives.

“There’s the obvious negatives to climate change. But we’re aware of the work and diligently getting ahead of some of these severe impacts. We’re considering both sides of the story; preparation, but at the same time, incorporating resiliency,” Metheny said. 

“We have the advantage now of seeing conditions starting to change and are getting the sense that we’re at the front edge of something significant developing.” 

The post From Flooding to Fires: Appalachia’s Recreation Industry Faces Climate Change Challenges appeared first on 100 Days in Appalachia.

Hundreds of thousands of US infants every year pay the consequences of prenatal exposure to drugs, a growing crisis particularly in rural America

As schools consolidate in rural Harrison County, students and alumni worry kids will suffer

SALEM — Salem Elementary School always felt like home to Angel Smith and Joshua Griffin.

Smith remembers adventures looking for bugs on the trail behind the school. Classes were small, and her classmates were people she’d grown up with. There were teachers who’d spend their own money on pizza for the class and took extra time with her on more difficult subjects. 

Now a mother, she had hoped her nine-month-old son would get to have a similar experience.

“I want him to be able to go up to Salem, right where I went,” she said.

Griffin said he struggled in school, but his time at Salem was a bright spot where teachers gave him more personal attention — attention that was tougher to come by in high school.

“The larger the classes got, the harder it was to actually get that individual help,” he said.

Now, following a school board vote, Salem Elementary and other Harrison County schools are expected to consolidate, and bigger schools and classrooms will result. County officials say the main reason for the consolidation is staff vacancies — and the problem is compounded by fewer students due in part to new state laws encouraging students to transfer to private schools and homeschooling.

If Harrison County school board consolidation plans go through, Salem will lose its only school, Salem Elementary School. Photo by Erin Beck.

Under the plan approved by the county, six schools will be combined into three buildings. While the other consolidating schools are all in Clarksburg, Salem will be left without a school. If state educational officials approve the plan, it would be implemented in the 2025-2026 school year.

Harrison County Board of Education President Gary Hamrick said that fewer teachers are entering the workforce, adding that state lawmakers have devalued teaching degrees by making it easier to obtain alternative certifications. He also said teacher shortages have become worse over the years; some schools are reliant on long-term substitutes, and some days, no substitute is available at all.

“And then it puts the onus on the permanent teachers there to cover a couple classrooms, just to make it through the day,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Harrison County is struggling with people moving away and an aging population, even as other recent laws are making it easier for students to leave public school for virtual schools, charter schools and homeschooling. 

Liberty High School may be merged with another Clarksburg school, Robert C. Byrd. Photo courtesy Wayne Shuman.

Now, Hamrick said the school board has no choice but to try to prevent future funding deficits by increasing class sizes — some currently only have around ten students.

“Our primary concern is making sure that we educate the students and do it in a way that there’s not an extra burden on the taxpayers,” Hamrick said.

Harrison County Superintendent Dora Stutler and her office’s spokesperson didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, including requests for records supporting stated rationale for the plan.

But Ryan Deems, a teacher at Mountaineer Middle School and president of the Harrison County Education Association, confirmed teachers are leaving the profession. He said the reasons include stress from working with kids with behavior problems, burnout from covering multiple classrooms and low pay.

“Most of my personal friends are teachers,” he said. “And I’m not sure I could name a teacher who hasn’t looked at leaving.”

And some kids are leaving too. In 2021, lawmakers created the Hope Scholarship program to allow students to leave public schools and use the state funding allocated for them on other options, including private schools and homeschooling. 

James Watkins of Emmanuel Christian School leads students in singing during chapel. Photo courtesy Josiah Batten.

Josiah Batten, headmaster of Emmanuel Christian School in Clarksburg, said his school saw an increase in enrollment from about 60 students last year to 95 this year, in large part due to the Hope Scholarship. After the state pays nearly $5,000 a year per child, parents are responsible for about $500 more for the school’s tuition. 

Batten said parents tell him public schools don’t reflect their conservative values, and they thought discipline issues at these schools were going unaddressed. He said because Emmanuel administrators believe parents have a Biblical right to be the educators of their children, parents and teachers work together when discipline is needed.

“If a kid is engaging in what we typically call attention seeking behaviors, it’s because they need attention,” he said.

He said he knows many local families who’ve decided another alternative educational path, homeschooling, is best for their children.

Wayne Shuman and Emily Sendling, students at Liberty High School, speak about their worries about the planned merger of their school with another high school. They talked over lunch at T&L Hotdogs. Photo by Erin Beck.

But even though small private schools and homeschooling can provide individualized attention, Emily Sendling and Wayne Shuman found that in public school, too — and they worry the pending consolidation will change the feel of their close-knit community. 

Sendling and Shuman are 11th graders at Liberty High, which would be combined with another Clarksburg high school — Robert C. Byrd — if the state approves the consolidation plan. The new school would have more than 1,000 students, which they worry will be overwhelming. 

Over lunch at T&L Hot Dogs, Sendling, Shuman, and Liberty cross country coach Jerry Burgess recalled sporting events at the high school with stands filled with supporters.

Burgess, who has coached at multiple schools, said students surround him wanting photos with him at games.  

“That’s never happened anywhere else,” he said.

Jerry Burgess, Liberty High School cross country coach, opposes the merger of the school with Robert C. Byrd High School. Photo by Erin Beck.

While Shuman will have graduated by the time the proposed consolidations take place, he worries about his younger sister, who has a developmental disability. When consolidation plans were announced, one of the special education teachers who helped his sister left in fear for her job.

“I can tell you, if this was reversed, teachers would come back,” Burgess said.

Right now, Shuman’s sister is a sophomore at Liberty, and the small class sizes mean she gets support and one-on-one attention. But all three agreed that attention might be harder to come by when the size of the school more than doubles. 

“She’d get swallowed,” Burgess said.

As schools consolidate in rural Harrison County, students and alumni worry kids will suffer appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.