On Appalachia Solidarity Day, remembering a mountain hero

Larry Gibson, a renowned leader in the campaign to end mountaintop removal coal mining, passed away Sunday while working at his home on West Virginia's Kayford Mountain, the ancestral Raleigh County home he fought so hard to protect. He was 66.

Gibson died of a heart attack -- not an altogether surprising fate for someone who lived with the constant stress he suffered.

This afternoon, activists from across Appalachia and beyond will assemble outside the White House for Appalachia Solidarity Day -- an event Gibson helped organize -- to call on President Obama and other political leaders to end the destructive mining practice. This evening they will gather at All Souls Church to hear from spiritual leaders from many faith traditions and from residents of Appalachia affected by mountaintop removal. Both events will also honor Gibson.

At the start of 1986, Gibson and his family were living in the woods on the lowest part of Kayford Mountain, looking up at the densely forested mountain peaks that surrounded them. But that year, the coal companies began blowing up the land to get at the coal below. Today, their home is the highest point around, surrounded by more than 7,500 acres of almost otherworldly ruin.

The coal companies say there are dozens of coal seams on his land, worth an estimated $650 million to the industry. But Gibson refused to sell the place where he was born, and where more than 300 of his relatives have been buried going back generations. In 1992, he turned his property into a land trust.

"There's not enough money that's been printed or made that can buy this place," Gibson said in the Earthjustice video below. "Some things money shouldn't be able to buy."

But just because the land was protected doesn't mean Gibson was. Angry coal industry supporters who wanted him gone ran him off the road, shot up his trailer, burned down his cottage, shot his dog.

Still, Gibson refused to give up. He hosted countless visitors to his property, which offered a rare view of the breathtaking destruction wrought by surface mining. He gave numerous media interviews and even testified before the United Nations. He once walked across West Virginia to raise awareness of mountaintop removal, and he was arrested many times while protesting the practice.

All the while, the violence against Gibson continued. This past April, vandals broke into his cabin, ransacked it, stole antiques and other personal items, and destroyed the solar panels that powered the place. Yet Gibson refused to take the attack personally.

"This attack is not directly on Larry Gibson, the attack is about the issue at hand," he wrote in the newsletter for his Keeper of the Mountains foundation, which he started in 2004 to support Appalachian mountain communities. "When they attack me, they attack you -- that's what they've done here. You might not even know it, but you'd been attacked because of what you believe in, because you're following the issue of mountaintop removal and coal."

Gibson's family members -- wife, Carol, sons Cameron and Larry Jr., and daughter, Victoria -- ask that anyone wishing to express condolences consider donating to the foundation; contributions can be made online here. A public memorial service is also being planned.

The short video below by Earthjustice gives a glimpse into Gibson's life, and the place he fought for so hard. To learn more about mountaintop removal and the effort to stop it, click here.

(Photo above of Gibson crying over the destruction surrounding Kayford Mountain is a still from the Earthjustice video.)