From an Extraction Economy to an Attraction Economy

Aug 21, 2019

Far Southwestern Virginia has long been what’s called, an ‘extraction economy,’ where coal and other resources are dug up and shipped out.  Now, local leaders are looking to a new attraction economy, based on Eco- and Agri-tourism, and all that comes with it.

High Knob Lake Dam at High Knob Recreation Area in the Jefferson National Forest.
Credit Walter Smith

A coalition of environmental and economic development groups is blazing new trails to the outdoors for visitors and locals in southwestern Virginia.  With 90-thousand acres of national forest, a new 300-foot rock climbing wall in the town of Appalachia, camping and kayaking the Clinch river, they say more people are taking advantage of those attractions than ever before. 

” It’s safe to say that the industry is really booming here locally,” says Wally Smith, an associate professor of biology at the University of Virginia' s College at Wise.

“It really started with a lot of local communities starting to recognize that as the coal industry declines and more traditional economies development sectors here decline as well, that we have a lot of natural assets in our communities.”  That's the 'attraction' part, plenty of opportunity for visitors and new businesses to support them. But Smith points out there’s still a long way to go.

Travis Anderson, Appalachia Town Councilman, would like to see forest trails improved to create connections throughout the vast forrested mountain lands. He says it's time for elected officials to focus on what he calls the forgotten part of the state. "This area that has provided us with energy for many years, let’s go in now and try to help this area to make the communities stronger.  I know a lot of the money goes up north, but now let’s focus on the mountains, the lakes, the wildlife," the people who want to open kayak and canoe rental and wilderness outfitters businesses.  He says the town is full of empty building and he's working on a plan to offer 6 months free rent to new businesses, or longer if that's what it takes.

Some of the buildings may need repairs, but the mountains and woodlands are in fine form. "Every day I see the wildlife, deer, turkey, we're getting an elk population.  There's a mama and bear cubs I see from my backyard.  So, if people are looking to come with a good camera to get some shots of wildlife, trees flowers, you couldn’t ask for a better place."

Michelle Davalos is Clinch District Ranger of the U.S. Forest Service, which is key to expansion of outdoor recreation. Much of what this area is, is National Forest. And it's located about as far away from urban areas as you can get. “It’s a hidden gem.”  She says. “There’s so many beautiful places to see."

But to attract eco tourists, who care about keeping things pristine and authentic, Davalos says it will take planning, patience and funding to support growth in Eco and Agri-tourism.  “We need to take a hard look and think about what could come as a result of highlighting certain areas. Whether we’re building a trail, that we do it properly, that it can sustain higher levels of use, or a scenic vista, making sure things have hardened surfaces and are accessible.”  Davalos says Forest Service budgets have been cut or remained stagnant in recent years and personnel have not been replaced. Wally Smith says some formerly little-known attractions, such as 'The Devils Bathtub' in Devil's Fork, in Fort Blackmore is often over run by crowds with hundreds of car parked nearby. And that illustrates the gap between what would make southwestern Virginia a mecca for Eco-tourists, and what might be just another unrealized dream for building a new economy in the region.

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A series of community discussions on ecotourism is coming up. The first one is August 27th in Pennington Gap.  The public is invited.

The New Economy Network of Southwest Virginia and Appalachian Voices are hosting a community discussion on ecotourism in Pennington Gap on Tuesday, August 27. The meeting is free and refreshments will be served. 

The community discussion will feature a panel of local residents who have been directly involved with ecotourism in Southwest Virginia. They will cover a variety of topics including the economic and environmental impact of this growing sector which leverages a region’s natural assets — mountains, rivers and lakes, farmlands, wildlife habitat — for local economic benefit while protecting those natural and human resources. 

WHEN: Tuesday, August 27, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
WHERE: Pennington Gap Community Center, 41670 W. Morgan Avenue, Pennington 

WHO: The speakers include:

  • Neil and Beth Walker of Stone Mountain Adventuress, an outdoor recreation outfitting business in Norton 

  • Michelle Davalos, Clinch District Ranger of the U.S. Forest Service

  • Wally Smith, Assistant Professor of Biology at UVA-Wise and ecotourism proponent.

  • Travis Anderson, Appalachia Town Councilman

The New Economy Network is a regional citizens’ group that focuses on sustainable economic development and transition in Southwest Virginia. Appalachian Voices is a nonprofit organization with an office in Norton that works on community and economic development and environmental protection in the region.

This is the first of several community discussions they will host in coming months on a variety of topics related to sustainable economic and community development across Southwest Virginia. The information gathered at these sessions will be used to further residents’ engagement as the region continues to shift to a more diversified economy.

The panel discussion will be followed by an audience led question and answer session. Refreshments will be served and the meeting is open to everyone. 

For more information or to RSVP, please contact Tyler Hughes at Appalachian Voices at 276-207-8686 or email at tyler@appvoices.org.