Voices of Change: Participatory Research in the United States and Canada

By Peter Park; Mary Brydon-Miller et al. | Go to book overview

6
The Appalachian Land Ownership Study: Research and Citizen Action in Appalachia

BILLY D. HORTON

To understand the Appalachian Land Ownership Study and the subsequent action and research that it generated, one must first understand that it did not arise in a vacuum. Rather, the study, undertaken in 1979 and completed in 1981, was built on decades of popular knowledge about and struggle against the impacts of absentee land ownership. It also followed several other, less comprehensive land ownership studies that had been undertaken in the preceding decade.

In the decades between 1870 and 1930, residents of the Appalachian region lost control of their political, social, and economic destiny. This came about as absentee corporations, often assisted by local speculators, gained what in some counties was to become almost total control of the land, mineral, and timber wealth. 1 With the subsequent disruption of the land ownership and use patterns that had given meaning to both individual and communal life came a loss of power to influence the future course of social and economic development. In a real sense, that transfer of control left area landowners as "foreigners on their own land" ( Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force 1983, ix).

During this century, the fact of absentee corporate control has manifested itself in numerous ways. Struggles to unionize the coalfields were made difficult because of the total control companies exercised over their work force, whom they had housed in company towns. Boom-and-bust cycles became a way of life in the central Appalachian coalfields. Political control by company-backed machines became a fact of life at the local level and often in state capitals as well. Forest lands were devastated, later to be bought up by the federal government, reforested, and turned into national forests and parks. In the middle part of the century, literally hundreds of

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