If they keep taxing us this way," said the owner of 600 acres of land a few miles outside this small mountain community, "we'll be driven off."
It is a statement--from an Appalachian woman who asked for anonymity --uttered as much in fear as in anger. Her most recent tax bill totaled $12,000,
10 times the taxes of 10 years ago. Coal is under the surface of her land, and strip miners want it. Because she couldn't get a company to promise proper reclamation of the land it would gouge, she declined to sell. Now, through this "legal persuasion" from tax assessors, she is being pressured to reconsider.
The economic stress felt by this woman is one of the silent horrors of the coal fields. During the 1970s, the public outside the region came to know that strip mining meant thousands of miles of unreclaimed land, erosion, polluted streams, flooding and the destruction of a rare natural beauty. Among the nation's corporate polluters, strip miners-- with some exceptions--are unique as environmental slobs.
But more than what the destruction of an individual strip miner can do to a hillside--or a plain in a western state --the damage done to citizens through unfair land taxes is the quintessential story of Appalachian powerlessness.
Part of this story is told by such individuals as the Elkins landowner. But a fuller and more incriminating exploration of corporate might and governmental complicity is found in the recent Appalachian Regional Commission-sponsored study, "Land Ownership Patterns and Their Impacts on Appalachian Communities."
In research on 80 counties in six coal-producing states, no doubt is left about who controls the land or who keeps it dirt cheap. Seventy-five percent is owned by outside corporations. More than three-fourths of these absentee landlords are asked to pay less then 25 cents an acre in taxes. Hypothetically, this means that if the 600 acres owned by the Elkins citizen belonged instead to an outside firm the latter would pay not $12,000 but $150.
The study found that in CampbellCounty, Tenn., more than a third of the land is owned by one company. But it pays less than 10 percent of the property taxes. In Virginia, individuals pay $1 per acre, absentee corporations 42 cents. In Martin County, Ky., the largest 10 mineral owners--whose land is valued at more than $9 million-- paid together less than $100 in taxes in 1978.
The poverty of mountain communities is directly related to these losses in revenues. The wealth of the hills is dug for strangers--from the strip mines and deep mines--by local people whose schools, hospitals, roads, water and sewer departments are impoverished. Not only do outside owners pay little, but the effects of their power plays mean that the difference must be made up by local citizens.
The difference is never made up, which explains Appalachia's permanent underclass that is caught between survival at any cost and corporations that pay little of the cost. The companies control the local politicians and they, in turn, have learned how to deliver votes to the national politicians. It is no accident that Appalachia rarely sends a congressman or senator to Washington who challenges the region's tax gap. In the past 20 years only former congressman Ken Hechler of West Virginia spoke out.
The land study may help to create a climate of reform. Until now, the inequality was never documented in one region-wide survey. One of the coordinators for the project, John Gaventa of the Highlander Research Center in eastern Tennessee, wrote in his 1981 book, "Power and Powerlessness," about a British-owned company that controlled 90 percent of one Appalachian county's coal wealth, but paid as little as 4 percent of the local taxes:
"Not only could the Clear Fork Valley citizens not gain access to the decision-making agenda of the multinational, but they could not even discover for certain who financially controlled it or how the control was maintained. . . . The consequent powerlessness of the would-be protesters is like that of the farmer in Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' who, as the absentee-owned bulldozer mows down his crops, pleads but 'who can we shoot?'"
If information is power, a small share is finally in the hands of Appalachia's long-suffering citizens. With it, the struggle to regain the land and a fair share of its wealth can begin.