Student Series: Building Sustainability in Appalachia

Another story in our Student Series: Land, People and Development in Appalachia.

Building Sustainability in Appalachia

by Derek Miles

The region of Appalachia faces longstanding economic and ecological problems, including persistent poverty and devastating human interactions with the physical landscape. However, the Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) program aims to significantly alleviate many of these problems through a long-term and ambitious program.

The Abingdon, Virginia based-program is a non-for-profit organization founded in 1995, and is now headed by Denise Barrett. Barrett is a veteran of the development field, who has spearheaded projects across the globe in places such as the Middle East and South Asia. She describes the program’s mission has “advancing the economic transition of Appalachia through fostering the development of enterprises, organizations, and policies that promote and protect the health of the region’s local economies, communities, and environment.” In short, the program aims to allow Appalachia to be more self-sufficient and sustainable.

While “sustainable” is a term usually associated with the environment, this is not the only area in which it pertains in regards to the work being done by ASD.  Instead, the term also applies to the vision held for the economy of Appalachia, which ASD envisions as being “a well-developed system of locally based, regionally connected economies that create real opportunities and contribute to a high quality of life for all.” While the history of the region is rife with examples of exploitation, manipulation, and money flowing out of -as opposed to into- the area, ASD’s goal is to allow Appalachia and its people to prosper in such a way that is effective and viable in a manner that is both long-term, and homegrown.

However, the critical ecological aspect of sustainability and development is not ignored. The ASD also hopes that Appalachia can become “a place where strong, healthy communities support the people of the region while protecting our natural resources for the long term.” Barrett and other employees of ASD recognize that in order for the region to support itself financially and prosper in the future, it must also halt or mitigate many of the destructive tendencies that are underway in the region. To this affect ASD “consistently advocates for support and connections” in such areas as watershed restoration, environmental education, green business development and ecosystem services.

Recently much of the program’s efforts have been focused on two main areas: building an efficient local food system centered on sustainable farming practices and advancing forest conservation through “green building” and economical approaches to wood processing. The program currently works to advance the use of more local foods in Southeast Ohio, Southwestern Virginia, Eastern Tennessee, West Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky.

Overall, ASD employs such strategies as community-wide educational events, targeted grant-making to emerging anchor organizations, and the facilitation of sub-regional assessment, planning and visioning efforts to achieve their long-term goals.

While creating a sustainable Appalachia will not be easy, and will not come quick, with programs such as Appalachian Sustainable Development in place and growing in prominence; the idea of the region being sustainable -ecologically and economically- is indeed a reality.

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Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.