NINE GOVERNORS from the 13 Appalachian states met recently in Charleston, W,Va., for a three-day conference on the prospects for the region's growth and economic development. Nothing startling came out of the meeting, but that it was even held is encouraging. One reason that Appalachia's history runs deep with stories of exploited natural resources and victimized citizens is that the region's past political leadership either saw no need to take a united stand or else naivley beleived that economic forces alone should be allowed to shape the region's future.
The issue before the governors as well as the Appalachian Regional Commission that sponsored the conference, is, simply put, how will Appalachia grow? Assuming that 1977 can be a starting point, and that past abuses of the citizens and their land are losses from which a recovery can be made, some of the questions are staggering. On just the matter of Appalachia's roads and bridges, for example, one estimate is that about $5 billion is needed to repair some 1,000 deteriorating bridges and 7,000 miles of inadequate coal-haul roads. That involves only the issue of transporting the coal out of the valleys and hollows, and says nothing about the impact of increased coal production on the environment and housing. Nor does it address the still larger question of the region's fragile land: In one recent 10-year period (1964-1974), Appalachia had more than a fourth of all the nation's major declared disasters, even though its land area is less than seven per cent of the national total .
If an economic resurgence - caused by the push to get at coal and timber reserves - is going to be the tide that lifts Appalachia, more than a few cautions need to be taken before this growth is celebrated. Appalachian citizens went through the early 1960s seeing their needs suddenly brought to the nation's attention. Laws were passed, hopes raised and people were led to believe that the persistent wounds - poor housing, dirty water, lack of health care - would finally be treated and perhaps healed. But then the nation's attention turned elsewhere, and more than a few mountain communities saw that little had changed.
If Appalachia is about to be rediscovered, the land itself ought to be the last treasure to be sacrificed to the new growth. William K. Riley, president of the Conservation Foundation, told the conference that Appalachia has lagged far behind the rest of the nation in land-use control. "Nationally, 13 states require that all local governments prepare comprehensive plans - only one of these, Virginia, is in Appalachia. Ten states require all local governments to have sub-division controls - again Virginia is the only Appalachia state. Six states provide a statewide process to review applications for large-scale development projects - one of these states is in Appalachia."
Appalachian governors must realize that if land-use controls don't come from within the region, they are not going to come from without. If other states can realize that growth is a mixed blessing, and formulate controls to ease the side effects, the effort can be made by the Appalachian states as well. The governors need do no selling job. In countless communities throughout the mountains, the citizens remember only too well the last boom - and the bust that followed. No one needs to be convinced that a repetition could lead to still more disasters.