Chesapeake Bay is rich in history, resources and natural beauty. All of these are evident on Smith Island, located off the eastern shore half way up the bay. During our stay on the island, we gained a sense of place by talking with residents of town, scraped for crabs (and other marine life) in the grass beds, and discussed policy with educators from the Chesapeake bay foundation.
Should pacific oysters, non-native, but resistant to invasive disease that has decimated native oyster populations be introduced? Does scraping grass beds for crabs really encourage more growth? How will the island be affected by rising sea levels? What would it be like to live a life with time dictated by season and tide? These and other questions kept us thoroughly engaged.
Other Trip Details
On the trip, we also explored other issues and visited other relevant places. At the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Labs, we visited the environmental section, where experiments ranging from ways to lessen fish kills from hydroelectric turbines to studies of the potential effects of elevated global CO2 on forest growth were explained.
On another day we visited the TVA headquarters and the nearby Norris Dam, first of many hydroelectric projects which forever altered both the economy and the riparian ecology of the region.
We ended the trip with a quick visit to Berea College's Eco-village. This complex of apartments uses 75% less water and energy than conventional housing. The progressive environmental and social innovations shown by a sister College provided inspirational and up end to our trip.
Alternate Land Uses
There were several themes in the rest of the trip. Much of the time was spent in issues relating to forest management. We were able to see four different approaches. Appalachian Sustainable Development, an N.G.O., strives to facilitate economic and sustainable uses of the land. It provides landowners an opportunity to sustain ably harvest forest products by operating a sawmill and solar powered kiln and by developing markets for their products.
We also visited private land under a sustainable harvest rotation, and the Boone National Forest where different ways to protect the forest from an anticipated gypsy moth infestation were being tested. Finally, we visited Great Smokey Mountain National Park, to see forest largely unaffected by humans. In contrast to the first part of the trip, this was quite hopeful, as we met interesting people with interesting ideas.
The trip began with a look at one of the most efficient...and environmentally disruptive...ways of mining. By literally peeling away the mountains of West Virginia layer by layer, coal companies can extract all the layers of coal within the mountain, including layers too thin to be mined by other techniques. Unfortunately, this process requires the bulk of the mountain to be piled elsewhere, always in an adjacent stream valley.
Coal washing operations create a heavy-metal-rich sludge, which is also impounded in the stream valleys. Some impoundments have failed, releasing sludge into streams and communities. The continuous blasting required to literally move mountains shakes nearby homes. If concern for global warming does not make you want to turn from coal, a visit to a mountaintop removal site just might.
On our trip, we were taken on flights over mountaintop mines by volunteer pilots with Southwings an organization dedicated to raising awareness of environmental problems by flying people over areas affected.
The aerial view is really the only way to comprehend the magnitude of this problem. We also visited West Virginia native Larry Gibson at his historic family home on Kayford Mountain. Larry has resisted lucrative offers to sell his land to coal interests, and instead accepted the role of environmental activist that fate has forced on him. We count him among the true heroes of the environmental movement.