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Strip Mine Holiday

A mountaintop-removal coal mine threatens Fayetteville's new outdoor-adventure economy

Text by Jesse Wood | Photography by Harrison Shull

A dense morning fog swarms the New River Gorge in Fayetteville, West Virginia. Rafters and kayakers, already soaked and indifferent to the drizzle, navigate turbulent rapids, while hundreds of feet above them climbers take refuge beneath rock overhangs within earshot of cascading waterfalls. In the forested gorge between river runners and climbers, a coal train weaves its way south, its rumble echoing through the valley.

Perched on the rim of the New River Gorge and a short drive from the Gauley River, the town of Fayetteville has become one of the country's top outdoor destinations. In addition to the world-class whitewater and impeccable sandstone, there are some of the best hiking, mountain-biking, and running trails in the state. Before its reincarnation as an outdoor-adventure mecca, Fayetteville suffered the boom and bust of resource extraction. Through the early 20th century, the timber and coal industries ripped through the heart of the gorge, leaving ghost towns in their wake. Though the forest has since grown back, remnants of coal camps that were abandoned mid-century still dot the gorge's upper banks, and train tracks line both sides of the river.

It wasn't until the late 1960s that serious boaters discovered the region's classic whitewater. Then climbers began scouting the surrounding cliffs. Together they transformed the local economy and revitalized the area.

"Without recreation, we'd be hurting. We'd be dead," says Ray St. Clair, a 59-year-old West Virginia native, former coal miner, and co-owner of Ray's Campground, which lies between the Gauley River and the New River Gorge. In the mines, St. Clair was a fire boss, checking gas and oxygen levels and throwing rock dust over combustible coal dust between shifts. But in 1985 the New River Company mine in Stanaford shut down, and St. Clair leased a campground that catered to rafters, climbers, and vacationing families. As the region became more popular, he and his wife built their own campground. "We've been able to make a living at it," he says.

Now, however, the coal industry is threatening a comeback: Frasure Creek Mining is proposing a major expansion of its mountaintop-removal coal operation right in the center of Fayette County. "It basically surrounds Fayetteville and the New River," says Stephanie Tyree, a community organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, "and is creeping closer."

Those who make their living in sustainable tourism fear the worst. "From my perspective as a business owner," says Kenny Parker, co-owner of an outdoor-gear shop, "just the perception out there in mainstream America that West Virginia is this land of devastation and destruction might deter people from traveling here."

In the early days, locals didn't know how to react to visitors who came to raft the roaring rivers or climb steep cliffs for the hell of it. Even 40 years after out-of-state adventurers started infiltrating the area, cultures still clash. "A lot of people just think that raft people, in general, are trash—hippie, smoke weed, drink, party, don't want to work," St. Clair says. "But the vast majority are not like that at all. They're honest, good people. They just [run the river] because they like it."

Clif Bobinski arrived in Fayetteville in the late 1970s and started guiding raft trips on the Gauley and New Rivers in 1979. At the time, he says, "Fayetteville was trying to decide whether boaters were total fr eak shows or what. Anybody from out of state was considered strange, especially people who wanted to run the river." Though he left for a 10-year stint with the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona, he returned because these are his "home rivers." Today, Bobinski is a planner for the New River Gorge National River, the 70,000-acre National Park Service unit northeast of town. Local acceptance of the whitewater industry has increased, he claims, now that multiple generations have profited from it. Once the coal mines shut down, he says, "tourism seemed like the new way to try to make it and stay. Now a lot of restaurants are dependent on that business. We have places celebrating Cinco de Mayo and having burrito-eating contests."

The influx of outdoor enthusiasts has influenced Fayetteville's culture in other ways as well. Before the tourism boom, many downtown storefronts stood vacant; now they house a yoga studio, a bead shop, art galleries, multiethnic cafes, and numerous biking, climbing, and whitewater shops.

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