The Clinch River Valley Initiative: Building Local Economies in the Appalachian Coalfields
Against the backdrop of a traditional mono-economy based on coal, with a high degree of conflict around mountaintop removal mining, coal-fired power plants and concerns around poverty and environmental justice, how are local economies built and sustained? Coal has been the region’s economic backbone—it is a dwindling resource but still a strong economic driver. However, the unemployment rate among the 200,000 who live in far southwestern Virginia is just over 8%, while the rest of Virginia is 6% (according to the Virginia Employment Commission). There is widespread poverty throughout Southwest Virginia, approaching 20%, while the poverty rate in Virginia is 9.4%, and the national poverty rate is 12.4% (in 2012).
The Clinch River Valley Initiative (CRVI) is an innovative, pioneering, and collaborative multi-year planning effort to build local economies in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia, focusing on the Clinch River Valley—one of the most biodiverse river systems in North America. Working at a watershed scale with several local partners, this grassroots effort has developed significant ownership and momentum with applicability for communities in Appalachia and beyond.
Alternately, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, the outdoor recreation industry contributed more to the US economy than oil and gas extraction or spectator sports did in 2010. Many have noted the opportunity and the strong need to diversify and build local economies based on the natural, cultural and historic assets of Southwest Virginia, as well as throughout central Appalachia. CRVI is working to build on the natural assets of the region—the Clinch River—to help foster a creative economy, building on the significant collaboration that has taken place throughout the region to build a creative economy.
Utilizing a consensus-based approach, several local, state and federal project partners have developed goals and strategies in a Clinch River Valley Initiative Action Plan for connecting downtown revitalization, outdoor recreation, water quality, entrepreneurship and environmental education along the Clinch River. Utilizing a regional planning approach, the project connects to cultural and natural heritage efforts including Heartwood: Southwest Virginia’s Artisan Gateway, ‘Round the Mountain, Crooked Road, and other artisan networks and local efforts. Finally, the effort builds upon the unique cultural and ecological assets of the Clinch River to distinguish and create new possibilities in the communities along the Clinch as distinctive cultural and ecological areas, particularly around environmental education, economic development, and entrepreneurship opportunities.
This grassroots effort has had high degree of enthusiasm, participation and ownership by stakeholders.This effort is unique in the Appalachian coalfields, and many have regarded the capacity for adapting the building local economies process positively in other communities as regional conflicts around coal increase and the reserves of coal decrease. Innovative tools have been utilized to engage youth, collect stories around the history and culture of the region, and foster collaboration and coordination among participants in the Clinch River Valley Initiative.
A Steering Committee guides the decision-making process for the group using a consensus-based process. Building on a vision for the Clinch River Valley, which may be found below, action groups are currently developing substantial actions around five goal areas as part of the Initiative.
Several meetings have been held as part of the Clinch River Valley Initiative, with numerous community events and meetings planned for 2012 and beyond. The Clinch River Valley Initiative originated at a forum in the fall of 2010 around Building Local Economies in Southwest Virginia, and is coordinated by the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia with numerous local, regional and state partners.
Next steps for the CRVI facilitation team at IEN include further development of a collaborative map, assisting with coordination and facilitation of CRVI (through initial project implementation and evaluation), and examining the direction and focus of our future work. Questions the IEN team is considering about CRVI include:
- How could practices or lessons learned from this effort be applied to other regions? What is the appropriateness, or opportunities or challenges of doing so?
- What other approaches to building local economies could be utilized? How do facilitators’ moderate the conversation around the challenges mining presents in the region?
- In this effort, the facilitators are also coordinators. What lessons learned from other collaborative efforts could be helpful to this initiative, especially as IEN is stewarding this Initiative through initial implementation and evaluation?
We welcome your ideas, questions or comments about the Clinch River Valley Initiative or the work of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia. Additional information about CRVI may be found on the website: www.clinchriverva.com or by contacting Frank Dukes at firstname.lastname@example.org or Christine Muehlman Gyovai at 434-982-6464 or email@example.com.
Christine Muehlman Gyovai is the Principal of Dialogue and Design Associates and an Associate at the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia. Ms. Gyovai is certified in mediation and permaculture design, and has over ten years of experience in facilitation and training with a focus on increasing community and environmental sustainability. She holds a M.P. in Urban and Environmental Planning from the University of Virginia and a B.S. in Environmental Studies from Burlington College. Prior to joining the Institute, Ms. Gyovai directed a nonprofit organization, Communities United for Sustainable Progress, and has done facilitation, mediation, and taught environmental education in San Luis Obispo, California. More information about Dialogue and Design Associates may be found at the website: www.dialogueanddesign.com.