In much of the United States, owning a home is considered the ultimate achievement. But in eastern Kentucky, owning land is.
Lee Warren, 62, owns and operates a gas station in Bell County, Kentucky. He also owns land on Pine Mountain, a 125-mile area that forms the first ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. As a child, Warren was a Boy Scout, and Pine Mountain, as he said, was his “big playground.” Owning that land makes Warren, a lifetime resident of the county, a rarity. In Bell and neighboring counties, land is owned by some individuals, but state and federal government, mine and timber companies, and nonprofits also own land, according to the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT), a group that seeks to preserve wild lands in the state. In some areas, vast stretches of land are absentee-controlled.
Surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains, eastern Kentucky’s economy was built on coal. Coal mining once paid significantly more than any other job in the area. In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that average annual income for a coal miner was $72,809, double the region’s average. In contrast, the average annual income for other occupations was $35,982. High coal incomes encouraged many laborers to invest in property. Land became tied to not only identity, but also to a family’s legacy as property was passed down generation after generation.
But with the decline of the coal business that powered the region’s economies and the nation’s energy needs, it has become hard to buy or keep land in Kentucky. In 2016, the median household income was $22,603 in Bell County, compared with the national average of $55,322. Without a thriving local economy, financially struggling families in eastern Kentucky can feel pressure to sell their land.
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In the early 2000s, a mineral resource company approached Warren, interested in buying a portion of his land on the mountain for the limestone it contained. Pine Mountain is one of the few mountains in the area without merchantable coal. But it does have limestone depositories, which, upon the coal industry’s decline, have been sought after by other industrial resource companies. After 10 years of conversation, however, KNLT won Warren over. He sold land to them instead.
KNLT is a nonprofit organization committed to preserving land in the state, including Pine Mountain. According to Greg Abernathy, assistant director at KNLT, preserving the mountain is “essential to the health of eastern Kentucky communities from a human health, economic health, and overall ecological health perspective. Pine Mountain is one of the most biologically diverse, temperate zone forests on the planet.”
It is home to the ice cave beetle, which doesn’t live anywhere else in the world. Pine Mountain is also one of the largest tracts of intact continuous forest remaining in Kentucky. It represents a critical migratory corridor for many animals, including bears, salamanders, flying squirrels, and rattlesnakes, through a region otherwise disturbed by intense resource extraction of coal, timber, and natural gas.
“I could have sold my land for a lot more money, you know,” Warren said. “They wanted to make a rock quarry with the land for the limestone or put up houses to make a subdivision. [But] This Appalachian place is a unique place; it stretches a long way, and money is always leaving, never staying. Money makes for a healthy economy, a healthy community. I know that. My dad owned a store and I took it over, added a gas station with the boom of the coal industry. But in the last two years, I see people pull in and they have U-Hauls on the back and I know they are leaving. You have to follow jobs.”
Warren is using some of the money he earned from the sale of his land to get one of his two sons, who is 30 years old, out of Bell County. His other son is disabled and lives with him. “We’re opening a convenience store in Somerset .… He will be doing the same thing as me, just somewhere else. And I believe that if he tries hard and works hard enough, he will get what he needs.”
A 90-minute drive from Bell County and Pine Mountain, Somerset is a small Kentucky city thriving due its close proximity to Lake Cumberland, which generates about $150 million in tourism revenue each year. Somerset has a mall and a slew of restaurants and hotels along U.S. Route 27, making it one of Kentucky’s longest stretches of businesses outside of Louisville and Lexington.
For Appalachians like Warren, who continue to live in eastern Kentucky, protecting the land is an essential step toward caring for an area that was until recently, deemed America’s “coal capital.”
“Mountains are getting tore up, they are getting gone,” said Warren, describing the years of strip-mining that fueled the coal economy in eastern Kentucky but damaged the land. “With mountains like Pine Mountain, it has not been strip mined. I want that land taken care of.”
Taking care of the land also helps take care of the people. Health outcomes in eastern Kentucky have traditionally been poor, but the area’s higher rates of disability and lower life expectancy can be partially ascribed to physically difficult manufacturing or mining jobs. With the opportunity to conserve the land rather than extract it, eastern Kentucky also has the opportunity to address health disparities in the area, which can greatly influence the economy.
Even though Lee no longer owns some of the land on Pine Mountain, the fact it is protected and preserved is important to him. In a place where the land is so closely tied to the identity of being Appalachian, KNLT is helping families maintain a different kind of legacy.
“The older you get,” Lee says “the more you learn that you just need enough to live on. The mountain is going to live longer so that mountain needs to be preserved.”