THE BLOG

West Virginia's Poisoned River National Park

05/29/2014 10:49 am ET | Updated Jul 29, 2014

Of course Poisoned River National Park doesn't exist in West Virginia. Oh, poisoned rivers exist, but there's no national park named after them. In fact, there's no national park in West Virginia at all.

Folks have tried. They're trying right now for a "Birthplace of Rivers National Monument" in the northern part of the state. They haven't heard the Poisoned River National Park idea yet, but it's doubtful they'll change the title just because it may be a more appropriate name by the time the federal government gets around to protecting or preserving West Virginia's environment.

Perhaps West Virginia shouldn't feel picked on by the National Park Service. In Maine -- which does boast one of the most popular parks in the system, Acadia National Park -- folks have been trying unsuccessfully, for decades, to build a new park. They even have a millionaire, Roxanne Quimby, with 70,000 acres she's wants to donate and the U.S. Congress won't even entertain the idea.

Some folks think that the impoverished economies of these two rural Appalachian Mountain states can't afford to reject the extraction proceeds that their natural bounty provides. Maine's hunting, fishing, timber and drinking water industries like West Virginia's coal and natural gas companies wield far more power on the state and federal level than the various environmental organizations pushing for protections.

Although there is a designation in the park service that might solve the problem. it's a National Preserve. According to the park website, National Preserves allow "activities like hunting and fishing or the extraction of minerals and fuels" so long as "they do not jeopardize the natural values."

That's where the rub lies. The companies doing business in these states don't want to worry about natural values. Sustaining resources used to be how extraction industries worked, but no more. Selectively harvested timber has given way to clear-cutting and underground mining has been replaced by mountaintop removal. Whether it's Nestle draining aquifers in Maine to fill little plastic bottles and sell them to West Virginians who've had their drinking water poisoned, or it's Halliburton further destabilizing the resource with hydro-fracturing, natural values are compromised.

But maybe it's not greed and expediency that keeps congress from protecting these states. Maybe that's just how things are in 21st century America.

The National Park Service was founded in 1916 -- nearly 100 years ago. And Teddy Roosevelt, whose leadership brought about widespread preservation of public lands, died in 1919. So maybe the notion of federally designated protected lands is just too 20th century, and early 20th century at that. Perhaps that's why the natural resource rich states of West Virginia and Maine can't catch a break when it comes to conservation and protection of their environmental treasures.

But it's more than that. Blair Mountain, West Virginia, is the site of the largest labor battle in U.S. history. It's also slated to be blown to smithereens to get the coal out in a cheaper easier way. West Virginians -- and others -- have been trying to get the federal and state governments to save Blair Mountain from destruction.

In 1921 thousands of miners and their families -- many living and freezing in tent villages around the mines -- struck for higher wages and better working conditions. Thousands of miners flooded into the area to support the strikers and to march in protest of the assassination of a sheriff who had defended their rights. The strikers were attacked by mine company private security thugs and national guardsmen sent into the area to quell the unrest. Eventually, President Harding sent in federal troops.

When the dust cleared about 100 Americans were dead. Artifacts from the battle are still being collected and catalogued by preservationist, Brandon Nida and others. If coal is extracted from Blair Mountain with surface mining techniques -- exploding the mountain and everything on it -- this American battlefield and all its historic treasures will be lost.

In the case of Blair Mountain, West Virginia's request for federal government resource protections are twofold: to protect the ecology of the mountain and to protect an integral part of the history of middle class gains against the brutal mining policies of the 19th and 20th centuries.

About 30 miles off Interstate 76 by Shanksville, Pennsylvania is the Flight 93 National Memorial. Designated in 2002 by Congress and enacted by President George Bush signature, the site is part of the National Register of Historic Places and commemorates the deaths of 40 Americans. So preservation of public, private and formerly private lands can still be done in the 21st century -- if Congress is of a mind to do so -- as long as it is of significance historically, culturally or environmentally.

Blair Mountain is like the Flight 93 debris field in these ways, but also in one more very ironic way. The flight 93 National Memorial used to be a coal mine.