How an ex-coalmining town is turning to ecotourism to rebuild its economy |

Eighty-five years ago, Bobbie Gullett was born in the heart of coal country. She grew up in Dante, Virginia, a bustling municipality of 6,000 with a hospital, a hotel, schools, a movie theater, a taxicab stand, a train line. She remembers living in a worker house owned by the Clinchfield Coal Company: Back then, Gullett recalls, while the supervisors lived up on the ridges, coalminers and their families lived in the hollows of the nearby mountain range.

Their squat houses spread along the winding streets of town, which sat in a bowl created by the bumpy, tree-crested hills. In spring and summer, mountain laurel bloomed in the forest and kudzu spread in patches, and in the winter, snow blanketed the town.

“You wouldn’t believe how pretty Dante used to be,” said Gullett, reminiscing at the Dante Coal Miners museum on a late January day.

Dante’s economy was largely built around coal, and the gains from extraction allowed families in town to prosper. “We lived in a bubble where coal was king, life was good, everybody had money,” added her friend Lou Wallace, whose family worked in railroading.

Now all of that is gone. As coal jobs have disappeared from Dante, other industries have not yet taken root. But Gullett and Wallace want to change that – by harnessing new sources of funding to transform Dante into a hub of ecotourism as well as a place where information economy workers can live and work remotely.

“Coal is not renewable,” said Wallace. “It’s come to the end of its way. We’ve come to a new generation, and we need to start thinking. We have to be OK with a building becoming something else, with change and renewal.”

Gullett and Wallace are part of a group called the Dante Community Association, which is working with other regional and national groups to remediate the town’s abandoned coalmines. The work isn’t just about revitalizing their local economy; it’s also about nurturing the environment around them, and bringing some of the natural beauty Gullett remembers so fondly back to the community.

“We feel like we’re doing all this as a pilot program,” said Wallace. “This can encourage other communities to say, wow, we can be forward thinking.”

Coal’s retreat from Dante (rhymes with “paint”) started in 1972, when Clinchfield shuttered operations. Today, 600 people live in town, with 40% in poverty. Dante is far from exceptional in Appalachian coal country, which stretches from Ohio down through eastern Kentucky and West Virginia and into this strip of Virginia. While poverty rates have fallen in Appalachia, the average rate for the region is almost two percentage points higher than the rest of the nation.

Dante is a “good example” of a community “where there’s a long history and tradition of economies tied closely to a single industry”, said Brad Kreps, a director at the Nature Conservancy, which is helping the town with its plans.

Similarly, other towns across the region have experimented with jumpstarting their economies through solar panel fields, recycling centers, tubing, hiking, ATV trails, and more. In 2019, Kreps’ organization bought much of the forested land around Dante for preservation.

As Dante and other towns like it contend with the question of how to move on from coal, abandoned coalmines pose some immediate environmental problems: these sites can lead to unstable mountainsides and underground fires, and for years, their byproducts turned nearby rivers bright orange.

There are federal programs to help communities that have been blighted by coal clean up these sites – such as the Abandoned Mineland Reclamation Program, which appropriates funds from coal companies to lead remediation. And President Biden’s infrastructure bill will provide $11.3bn for mine remediation. But these programs don’t provide a roadmap for how communities should reorient themselves after the mineland is cleaned up. You can hire workers to clean up those mines – for example, in Clinchco, Virginia, farther north into the mountains from Dante, ex-miners found jobs shoveling out coal-mining waste. But what happens once the land is clear?

In Dante, community members want to see their mineland transformed into hiking, ATV, and mountain bike trails that they hope will attract nature-lovers and thrill-seekers to the area. In 2018, Dante received a grant that will allow the town to close two mineshafts in the hills and build a series of hiking and ATV trails that will connect with the Spearhead Trails system leading down into St Paul, a bigger town on the Clinch River. The town is now applying for an additional grant for mountain biking trails and an office space and work training center in town.

In Dante, community members want to see their mineland transformed into hiking, ATV, and mountain bike trails that will hopefully attract nature-lovers and thrill-seekers to the area.
In Dante, community members want to see their mineland transformed into hiking,…

Read More: How an ex-coalmining town is turning to ecotourism to rebuild its economy |

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