Where there had once been verdant mountain ridges, Mr. Gibson now saw desolate stretches of land where mining companies had dynamited the mountaintops to expose seams of coal within. Trees and rocks had been bulldozed into valleys and streams below.
“Growing up here was an adventure every day,” he said in an online video made for Earthjustice, a nonprofit legal organization formerly known as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. “I played with my pet bobcat, my fox, my hawk.”
By the 1990s, his family’s 54 acres were the only patch of green remaining near Kayford Mountain.
“Just a stone’s throw away, on that mountaintop removal mining site,” he said, “you couldn’t find anything alive if you wanted to. It’s bare rock, uninhabitable.”
Mr. Gibson’s father and grandfather had been coal miners, and he often said that he had no objections to mining that left the mountains intact. What made him angry was to see the wholesale defacement of the landscape, wildlife and the mountain culture for which West Virginia is known.
“God created these mountains,” he told The Washington Post in 1998. “Only God should be able to take them away.”
Mr. Gibson stood only 5-feet-2, but he often stood up against his state’s most powerful private interests in his effort to stop mountaintop removal or, as the mining companies sometimes call it, peak reduction.
It was not a popular stance to take in West Virginia.
He was often arrested — including once at the governor’s office — and was continually under surveillance by private security teams in pickup trucks. He was forced off mountain roads and sometimes found bullet holes in his property.
“I’d like to get along with the coal companies,” Mr. Gibson told the Charleston Gazette in 1997. “But I don’t have to just sit back and let them do whatever they want.”
He established the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, testified before the United Nations and spoke about mountaintop removal at colleges throughout the country, including Virginia Tech and Yale.
He showed up at shareholders’ meetings of large banks, protesting their investment in companies that practiced mountaintop removal. In 1999, he walked 500 miles across West Virginia to promote his cause. Six years later, Mr. Gibson led a march to the front door of the Richmond headquarters of Massey Energy — the same company that owned the Upper Big Branch Mine, in which 29 miners were killed in 2010.