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Editorial: Should we just let Appalachia go?

Editorial: Should we just let Appalachia go?

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First of a two-part series.

Here’s an uncomfortable question: Instead of trying to build a new economy in Appalachia, should we simply depopulate the place?

Mind you, that’s not a position we’re advocating. It does, however, make for a sobering thought experiment — one that has some important policy implications.

Here’s who got us thinking about this: A friendly fellow named Lyman Stone who issues some dire warnings. By day, he’s a cotton economist in Washington, concerned with the ups and downs of the global cotton trade. On the side, he runs a website called In A State of Migration, which tracks migration trends around the world. A native of Kentucky, he writes a lot about Appalachia. One of his posts — laden with charts and graphs and maps — shows population trends in Appalachia.

The basic point: Westward settlement mostly bypassed Appalachia, likely for the obvious topographic reasons. From 1800 to 1870, what he calls “the classic core of Appalachia — West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia — was mostly empty.

Then something happened. Coal happened. Railroads happened. People — many of them immigrants — poured into Appalachia. Roanoke was not the only boom town to spring up then. So did lots of other communities deeper in coal country.

Between 1870 and 1890, the population of many counties in Southwest Virginia (we’ll just focus on our part of Appalachia) nearly doubled. Over the 20 years after that — between 1890 and 1910 — many nearly doubled again. Wise County’s population more than tripled. From 4,785 in 1870 and 9,345 in 1890, Wise County’s population surged to 34,162 in 1910. The coal boom wasn’t over yet. By 1950 — the year most coal counties in Virginia peaked — Wise County topped out at 56,336. West of the Blue Ridge, only Roanoke was bigger.

Put another way, Appalachia was where the jobs were. Now it’s not.

First, coal-mining became more mechanized. People started moving out decades ago, long before the demand for coal dropped. The collapse of the coal economy has only accelerated that population exodus.

All but one of Virginia’s coal counties is smaller than it was in 1950, sometimes dramatically so. Wise County’s population is down to 39,501 — about 30 percent lower than it was at its height. Buchanan and Dickenson Counties are down by 36 percent. And their populations will surely continue to decrease for two reasons, one economic, one demographic.

The economic reason: Last year marked the first time that coal was not the nation’s biggest energy source; natural gas surpassed it. Coal will not come back in any appreciable way. The demand of metallurgical coal — used in steel-making — may rebound some, depending on the economy. However, when utilities make decisions on new power plants, they’re looking decades ahead. They are putting their money into natural gas — hence, Dominion Energy’s interest in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — and, to a lesser extent, renewables such as wind and solar. You can’t simply flick a switch and turn coal back on.

The demographic reason why coal counties will continue to lose population: It’s young adults who are leaving. Rural areas in general are getting older, but Appalachian counties even more so. The median age in Buchanan County is now 45.7. For comparison purposes, in Montgomery County, it’s 28.5. There is not going to be a baby boom in the coalfields — so all these counties will simply get older and older, which means another way they lose population: Deaths outnumber births. All that’s old news, of course, just a backdrop for getting to this question: How much lower will Appalachia’s population drop? And should we really try to stop that?

“The histories do suggest that attempts to maintain Appalachian population levels face serious headwinds,” Stone says. “It was a seriously underpopulated area relative to its neighbors for a century or more, until coal mining began. Coal mining is the sole, exclusive reason why Appalachia’s population boomed.”

Without coal (or with only small amounts of coal mining), what size population can Appalachia really support? That’s how an economist like Stone looks at it.

“It’s hard to see what industries exist in which Appalachia has a comparative advantage as vast as it had in coal,” he writes. “I’m not saying none do or could ever exist; I’m just saying that if they can or do, they don’t seem extremely clear right now.”

So what is Appalachia’s economic future? There are certainly efforts to change the equation. Wise County is now rich with broadband Internet — thanks in part to investments by the state’s tobacco commission — and is now making a play for data centers. It’s already landed one. The University of Virginia’s College at Wise and the community college there are training students for drones and cybersecurity. There are similar efforts in eastern Kentucky to create what some are calling “Silicon Hollow.”

On the other hand, Appalachia is a lot bigger than just one forward-thinking county. And President Trump’s proposed budget zeroes out funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, the federal agency that makes a lot of that training possible. It also zeroes out funding for the program that converts abandoned mine sites into marketable industrial sites.

Trump has lifted environmental regulations on coal. This helps the coal economy in the short term, but does nothing to change its long-term trajectory in the marketplace. Meanwhile, he is trying to take away the few tools that Appalachia does have to remake its economy. Even with those tools, though, the challenge to create an economy to match its existing population is daunting.

Stone puts it in clinical terms: “The market equilibrium for Appalachian population may be even lower than the levels we see today. I know this will cause deep sadness for locals who long for recovery; and as someone who genuinely loves Appalachia, it does for me too. But we can’t let hopes blind us to realities. On some level, population must be associated with economic activity to support it. Coal mining is still declining, and when it’s completely gone, it’s not clear how much economic activity will remain, and therefore how much population can be sustained.”

Would either of our candidates for governor like to talk about this?

Coming Monday: What would it take to halt Appalachia’s population decline?

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