The price for powering our society shouldn’t be our special places

When I was seven, my dad took me on my first backpacking trip. My older brother had gone the year before, but this summer it was my turn. It was just me, my dad and our purple bandanas. We filled our backpacks with instant mashed potatoes and hot chocolate mix, then set out into the wilderness of the Cumberland Plateau in East Tennessee.

Though we were only about twenty minutes from home, when the woods closed around us, our boots crunching on dead pine needles, the sun staining the path green-gold, I felt impossibly far from the rest of the world. We passed views of the distant blue Smokies, rested our feet in mossy creeks and spent the night boiling water over the campfire for the instant mashed potatoes and hot chocolate. Nothing had ever tasted so good.

The memory of mossy creeks and pine needles came back to me last week, when I read this headline: “Trump May Approve Strip Mining on Tennessee’s Protected Cumberland Plateau.

My dad and I before we set off into the wild of the Cumberland Plateau. Family dog Abby wandering in the background.

Four years ago, the Obama administration designated these 75,000 acres unsuitable for coal strip mining, placing this unique, biologically diverse region under protection -- one of the only American ridgelines to be officially protected from coal mining. This type of surface coal extraction gouges long, narrow strips from the earth, ripping up plants, rock and soil to reach the coal beneath. Some forms of surface mining dump the torn-up earth into streams, clogging waterways, or require explosives to turn the ground into soup. Explosive strip mining along mountain ridges is often referred to as “mountaintop removal,” a name that explains itself.

The permit that the Trump administration is considering would allow strip mining along the ridges of these 75,000 protected acres in the Cumberland Plateau, about twenty miles from the house where I grew up in East Tennessee. We moved to Tennessee when I was five, but I was actually born in the Cumberland Plateau, in a small coal town in Eastern Kentucky. Our home in the wooded hills of Kentucky was close enough to a strip mining site that we could see the mounds of torn earth from our house.

If this proposal goes through, I may be able to see this strip mining site from my parent’s home in Tennessee as well.

Strip mining has taken place in Appalachia for decades. During that time, the practice has transformed the landscape. In 2018, satellite-imaging research showed that 1.5 million acres of forest had been affected by strip mining, mountaintop removal and other surface coal mining practices since the 1970s. To put that in perspective, that’s about 2.8 times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When we talk about the need to move away from fossil fuels and use safer, cleaner energy sources like solar and wind, the conversation often revolves around the destructive nature of using these energy sources. Burning coal and oil to produce energy pours carbon into our atmosphere and pollutants into our air, threatening public health and our planet’s future.

But strip mining is an example of another nefarious step in the fossil fuel process: extraction. From fracking and oil wells to strip mining and mountaintop removal, extracting fossil fuels from the earth has always left a traumatic mark on the surrounding region. Wildlife are driven away from their natural homes or migration routes. Waterways are contaminated by spills and debris, which threatens drinking water and local habitats. The blue mountain landscapes I saw on hikes as a child are chiseled away.

Every stage in the use of fossil fuels has consequences for our environment. Carbon is extracted from the ground, transported through our communities -- risking spills along the way -- and ultimately released into our atmosphere, contributing to an increasingly unstable climate.

New strip mining projects in protected places like the Cumberland Plateau make no sense -- not when we have safe, clean and sustainable alternatives that are growing every day. Solar panels have become common sights on the roofs of schools, businesses and houses, and wind turbines are generating renewable energy in plains across the country. In fact, from 2009 to 2019, solar power capacity grew 40-fold in the United States and wind power tripled.

This is the type of energy growth we should be encouraging, rather than sources destroy our special places at the beginning of their lifecycle and that warm our planet and make us sick at the end.

My brother and I intrepidly exploring the Cumberland Plateau in 2006.

Everyone feels a special connection to the wild places of their home. It could be the cool shores of the Great Lakes, the rolling desert of the Southwest or the majestic crags of the Rockies. For me, it’s the blue hills and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. These mountains are the backdrop of all my childhood memories. They’re the muse of the “mountain music” my parents and grandparents sang to me as a child. They’re where my dad and I went backpacking to share something special on the summer of my seventh birthday. And they’re a big part of the reason I became an advocate for clean energy, so I can have the chance to do the same with my children.

The cost of powering our society shouldn’t be our mountains -- or any of our special places. Renewable energy is a chance for us to keep our mountain peaks tall, our shorelines clean and our plains filled with wildlife for the next generation of hikers in purple bandannas.