Governing Post-Coal Lands: Appalachia’s Contemporary Land Politics

Authors: Gabriel Schwartzman*, University of Minnesota
Topics: Rural Geography
Keywords: coal, land, climate change, economic transition
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Virtual 31
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


For more than a century, the coal industry controlled extensive land area in the Appalachian region. Shuttered mines and dwindling resource-revenues produce rent-gaps (Smith 1979) between existing and potential land rents, turning the mountains into spaces of experimentation for technologies of land governance. In this paper I examine shifting land use in former mining landscapes, now some of the cheapest lands in the eastern United States. I trace the emergence of two technologies of land governance that produce conservation and tourist landscapes in the mountains: sustainable forestry financing (through carbon offsets and ‘working forest’ investment portfolios) and a public-private recreation development corporation. In two case studies I find new forms of land governance operating through discourses of entrepreneurship and climate change mitigation. Yet, while the particular land uses studied are novel, they reiterate dynamics of past land control regimes. Since the 17th century corporate entities have owned the majority of land in settler Appalachia, from colonial land charters (Dunaway 1996), to coal, timber and land companies (Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force 1983). Appalachian land politics in the current post-coal conjuncture rearticulate these colonial land relations, emergent technologies of land governance providing opportunities for new entities, such as philanthropy and development agencies, to reconfigure colonial land regimes. More than simply an economic transition, Appalachia’s land politics in the current conjuncture evidence realignment in the relations of force. Drawing on Clyde Woods’s (2017) study of regions, I find that a regional hegemonic bloc is being reconstituted through these emergent land governance techniques.

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