Coal Tattoo

Remembering the ‘Keeper of the mountains’

Larry Gibson, an environmental activist against mountaintop removal, holds a photo in protest at a rally for coal Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011 at the Capitol in Charleston, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Word came in last night from various environmental groups that Larry Gibson had died.  This terribly sad news was confirmed on the Keeper of the Mountains blog:

Larry Gibson, long-time environmental activist, died of a heart attack Sunday, September 9, while working on Kayford Mountain, the family home in Raleigh County which he spent the last decades of his life protecting from the coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal.

Kayford was the site of Larry’s birth, the final resting place of 300 ancestors stretching back to the 18th century, and the site of Larry’s annual 4th of July festival celebrating life in the mountains. As part of his effort to preserve the mountains, Larry traveled across the country, to schools, churches and a wide range of public gatherings where he spread his simple gospel about the mountains: “Love em or leave em; just don’t destroy em.”

A private funeral is planned, and Larry’s family has requested that persons wishing to express condolences make donations to Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, which Larry founded in 2004 to support mountain communities.  A public memorial service will be announced at a later time.  Larry is survived by his wife, Carol, two sons Cameron and Larry, Jr. and his daughter, Victoria.  He was sixty-six years old.

It’s been 15 years now since I met Larry and first visited with him at his family’s cemetery at Kayford Mountain. I wrote at the time:

Earl Williams was 14 when he was killed in the mines in 1909. Today, a red ribbon tied around his grave marker tells Princess Beverly Coal how close it can bring heavy equipment and dynamite blasts to Williams’ family cemetery.

White wooden crosses dot the cemetery, which sits on top of Kayford Mountain at the head of Cabin Creek.

A few graves are decorated with plastic flower arrangements or tiny American flags. The dirt still seems fresh on one of the latest graves, that of Delbert Fraker, who died in 1994.

The headstone for the family patriarch, Jack Stanley, and his wife Ella, says the couple is “Resting till the resurrection.” Larry Gibson, Stanley’s great-grandson, is trying to save the cemetery and a nearby park that he created for community picnics and family outings. But it’s a tough job these days.

Strip mines have him surrounded.

Larry told me:

This is the last 54 acres the coal companies don’t own. They own all the rest. I don’t think the coal companies have the right to take everything.

Not long after that, Larry was among the West Virginians featured in Penny Loeb’s landmark exposure on mountaintop removal, published under the headline “Shear Madness” in the magazine U.S. News and World report. Penny wrote:

For Larry Gibson, even more irritating than the drying up of wells is mining close to family cemeteries. The Princess Beverly Mine is so close to his family graveyard atop Kayford Mountain that a mine worker regularly stops by to collect rocks thrown by the blasting. Looking northward at the mountaintop removal, Gibson says, “You used to look up at the hill. Now you look down on it.”

In the years since then, I’m not sure there’s a major publication that Larry didn’t appear in at least once in the mainstream media’s efforts to tell the mountaintop removal story. And even when Larry wasn’t personally quoted, the imprint of his activism frequently appeared in stories — often through photographs taken during tours of his family’s property. The Kayford Mountain site, just a short drive up Cabin Creek from the gold-domed state Capitol here in Charleston, was for years one of the best spots to get photos or video of mountaintop removal without trespassing or otherwise getting on company property. I especially recall an above-the-fold color shot on the front page of the New York Times.

Michael Shnayerson wrote about Larry in his great book, Coal River:

For the industry, this is a boom. Prices have soared, and demand is keen. Coal trains traverse the valley day and night. Coal trucks race up and down Route 3. Barges piled high with coal go down the broad Kanawha River, to the northwest. Yet little of this wealth has trickled down the hillsides into the Coal River valley, as it did in earlier booms. Whitesville resembles a wartime town pillaged by an advancing army. In a way, that’s what it is.

You have to get up to a ridgetop to see that army’s path. The view from Larry Gibson’s place will do just fine. Gibson lives on the top of Kayford Mountain, just east of Whitesville. His ancestors moved to the valley in the late 1700s and acquired five hundred acres of the mountaintop by wedding dowry in 1886. Twenty years later, a land-company agent from out of state gulled an illiterate forebear into marking his X on a contract that transferred most of the land for “one dollar and considerations.” Almost everyone in the Coal River valley has a story like that. The Gibsons, unlike most families, managed to keep fifty acres at the top of the mountain. Gibson lives there still. His mountaintop is a little green island surrounded, as far as the eye can see, by brown, raw, devastated earth.

This is what lies behind the picturesque backdrop of roadside hills in the Coal River valley: mountains reduced to rubble by the practice the industry calls mountaintop mining and its critics call mountaintop removal. The landscape from Gibson’s place is so much lower than his mountaintop compound that it’s hard to imagine the forested ridges that rose here before. It’s like a man-made Grand Canyon, except that the Grand Canyon teems with life, and this panorama has none — none except the men who work the distant dozers and huge-wheeled dump trucks, their motors a constant, hornetlike hum. An underground mine needs hundreds of miners, but a skeleton crew can handle a miles-wide mountaintop site, setting the blasts and operating the heavy machinery to push rubble into valley streams below. That’s one reason Whitesville looks as desperate as it does. The coal industry is making a killing. The Coal River valley is just getting killed.

The coal companies have tried hard to buy Gibson out because, he says, Kayford Mountain has more than a dozen seams of coal, worth millions of dollars, directly under his property. Gibson has turned them down. They want him gone, too, because he still bears witness to what they’re doing here. That’s rare. The coal companies own or lease nearly all the land outside the valley towns — the legacy of similar land grabs one hundred years ago by out-of-state speculators — and for the most part they can gate their operations, keeping people a ridge or two away from their mountaintop sites. Gibson looks out and reports on every new ridgetop and valley destroyed in the Kayford area. His mountaintop compound, with its half-dozen shacks and family cemetery, is a vantage point for anyone from out of the area who wants to see what mountaintop mining is about.

Miners hate that, and they find ways to let Gibson know it. They’ve shot up his place when he was there; his trailer has the bullet holes to show for it. They’ve torched one of his cottages. They’ve shot one of his dogs and tried to hang another. They’ve driven his pickup off the road, tipping it into a ditch, and paused long enough to laugh at him trying to get out. Gibson keeps a growing list of all the acts of violence and vandalism committed against him and his property. Currently, it totals 118. The stress of these threats — and of making his mountain a cause — led his wife to leave him not long ago. Gibson says she told him that if he stopped fighting for the land, the marriage might survive. But the mountain is his heritage, he says. How can he walk away from that?


Photo by Vivian Stockman

Oddly enough, just last week, I had a call from Larry. He just was wanting to talk about the Patriot Coal bankruptcy, and share with me how furious he was when he read the reports that Patriot may be looking to shed the liability for pensions and health-care benefits for retired United Mine Workers of America families.

Both Charleston papers had stories (see here and here) this morning, His daughter, Victoria, told the Daily Mail:

When my dad passed away you could still smell the mountain air on him. You could still see the dirt underneath his nails and the stains on his hands. He was working. He lived his life devoted to the mountain.

Here’s Larry telling things in his own words: