JULIAN, W.Va. — A long-term investment is paying off on bumpy, muddy West Virginia back roads.
Since 1977 coal companies have paid a fee for every ton of coal mined. The money has accumulated in the Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Fund in Washington, D.C.
Originally started to ensure lands in the Appalachian region are reclaimed after the coal has been mined out, two Congressmen from the region have noticed there may be another effective use for excess money in the fund.
“There’s actually about a billion dollars in this program over and above what is estimated to be needed to do the cleanup this program was originally created for,” said Congressman Evan Jenkins (WV-3)
Jenkins partnered up with Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Together the pair retooled the language of the bill three years ago to allow the excess funding to also fund economic development on those post mine lands in the coalfields of the Appalachian region.
“It’s going beyond just cleaning up property,” Jenkins explained. “It’s turning property into job creation possibilities.”
Now into a third year, Jenkins said, West Virginia has received nearly $80 million from the fund under what is called the AML Pilot program. The most recent demonstration of the program was last week when Jenkins and a handful of reporters took a ride on the soon-to-be reopened Ivy Branch Trail System of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails in Lincoln County.
“A little under $3 million has gone to Hatfield-McCoy to buy back literally hundreds and hundreds of acres to open back up,” Jenkins said.
The property closed to public riding several years ago when it was sold. It was a critical section for the trail system since at the time it was the only trail system which could accommodate full-sized off road vehicles. The sale also caused the closure of the Little Coal River Trail System in Boone County. Those two trail systems were the closest to the population center of West Virginia in Charleston.
“This project would not have happened without the AML funding,” said Jeff Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield McCoy Trails. “I know of no other source of money we could have gotten to do this project.”
The funding will help purchase the land and rehab the trails. Lusk hoped the trail would be back open to the permitted riders by Easter 2019.
“We’re going to use part of this money to finish all the reclamation on the Ivy Branch project and then we’re going to use the rest to acquire this property,” Lusk said.
It’s a change in procedure for the Hatfield-McCoy System.
Typically the system creates and operates trails through property leases. This will be the first expanse of land they have owned. The plan is to put the land to work generating investments.
Both Lusk and Jenkins are confident it’s a worthwhile use of the AML funding, to not only create a secondary use after mining is over, but also to create the opportunity for entrepreneurs in lodging, food service, or other business to cater to trail riders from all over the United States.
Added benefits of reopening Ivy Branch will be the creation of a rare put-in point for kayaks and canoes on the Little Coal River . There are also discussions ongoing about using the Ivy Branch area as a potential training ground for specialized National Guard units to learning to use ATV’s.
“This is about Appalachia and coal country,” Jenkins said. “Coal companies paid into this fund and we need to reinvest that money into communities in Appalachia.”