Full Steam Ahead

Full Steam Ahead

by Mike Roselle


The Man is turning sixty today. That is getting mighty old for a Lowbagger. As my old Paw Paw used to say, “If I knew I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself”. Yet I enter into my geezerdom surprisingly healthy, which I suppose I owe to not drinking and doing lots of drugs until I was 15 years old. By now most of my Lowbagger friends have either settled down to have children and mortgages or are hiding from the law. Some have been institutionalized, and are running large nonprofit corporations. Some have passed into the spirit world and are writing books about it. It’s hard to keep up with everybody.

Mike and his river guitar

I have spent these last forty years trying to keep humans from destroying the Earth. It seemed like a career path that offered job security and respectability. But I was in Wyoming and it offered neither. The mayor of Jackson told me once that there should be a hunting season on environmentalists, with no bag limit. In most small towns in America, once you’ve come out as an advocate for ecological sanity you cannot get a job as a dogcatcher. You have to go to San Francisco. Or, if you work hard and really know your stuff you can go to Washington DC. Once I worked in San Francisco for a large organization best known for saving whales and they transferred me to Washington. The first day I was in my office I picked up the phone and it was someone from the San Francisco office complaining that “You people in Washington just don’t understand!” Then I went to a meeting and was told, “Mike, you just don’t understand Washington.” When I moved to West Virginia eight years ago I was told that I did not understand West Virginia. Who the fuck does?

Early EarthFirst!

I decided that it’s not possible to understand anything and probably not necessary. You go with your gut. The conventional wisdom will almost always be a wet blanket smothering any creative impulse. In Washington DC there is a person in every office whose job it is to tell the rubes who arrive from the hinterlands that no matter what they want to do, it can’t be done. I had that job and I hated it.

Mike Roselle and Howie Woulk

In 1978 Howie Wolke and I were told by the experts we could not keep oil and gas development out of the Gros Ventre wilderness. In 1982 I was told you could not stop the Bald Mountain Road. The next year we were told we could not save the Sally Bell Grove, the last old growth Redwoods on the California Coast. Twenty years ago we were told that we could not stop the Cove Mallard timber sale in central Idaho. “Mike, this ain’t Oregon.” I could list many other examples. I decided long ago that the secret to success is betting that these people were wrong. Of course today none of these people will admit that they were wrong. Quite the opposite. They normally take credit for the victory.


If there is one thing I have learned in my forty years of campaigning, it is that any large institution will place it’s own interests ahead of any campaign. The larger and older the organization, the more this is true. Now I am as surprised as anyone of the fact that a few of the organizations I helped to start are now considered to be part of Big Green. And these organizations are now telling me that I just don’t understand, that it can’t be done, and all of the things that I have been hearing from the experts since I first met a real live big city professional environmentalist back in 1975. Only now they will occasionally bring up my advanced age, my white privilege or worst of all, my lack of social networking skills instead of my young age, inexperience, and lack of any social skills.

Young Mike Roselle

If I had any advice to give it would be this: The only purpose of an environmental organization is to launch and win campaigns. This can only be done through confrontation. These confrontations must shed light on the larger truth, and should never obscure the truth. While it is tempting to tell people what they want to hear, it is more important to tell them things they don’t want to hear. All of our struggles are asymmetrical so it doesn’t matter how small or large an organization is, their most potent weapon is still the truth. The problem of course is the truth just isn’t what it used to be. Back in 1983 when Randy Hayes and I were traveling the country in my VW bus organizing the Rainforest Action Groups we would say in our presentations that we had until the year 2000 to turn this ship around or humanity was doomed. This is one case where I wish we were wrong because we missed the deadline and the ship is still steaming ahead in the wrong direction.


The other advice I’d offer is to always remember the one and only reason we are here on this planet. To love and respect one another and to enjoy each other’s company. This includes your opponents. It is much easier to defeat the opposition if you try to understand and respect them. At some point they may be your allies. The thing that has kept me healthy and happy has been the camaraderie  of friends and the promise of another battle. We don’t win them all, but when we do we get to celebrate. Even sailors on a doomed ship can find reason to celebrate.



The Stories We Tell


 How the false claims of victory in the War on Coal are killing us all


by Mike Roselle

It has become fashionable of late to to describe every muttering of the masses and the pundits who wish to speak to them as a story. Wether this is a breakthrough in our ability to communicate or just another buzzword, like messaging, framing and narrative, and the other buzzwords that this now ubiquitous term has replaced is a question we might want to ask ourselves. We might also want to ask, while we are at it, just what is a story? And it is this question that, at least for me, poses the greatest problem.


Let me suggest that a story, since it could be true or false, or more often somewhere in between, is no more than a myth. A myth is a story with a purpose, and while it may contain truth, it is at its roots a means to and end. Accepting the myth as truth not only binds us to gather in a mission of unity of purpose, it separates us from those whose myths may reveal a different truth. Myths are the building blocks of nations and religion, but they can also lay the foundations of hatred and division. Neither good or bad, they can be used to promote harmony, used as a tool for mind control and groupthink, or to confuse and obfuscate.

©Catherine Dees/Climate Ground Zero
©Catherine Dees/Climate Ground Zero


Perhaps the most beguiling myth of this sort is the one which is being repeated by both the coal companies and some of the countries most influential environmental groups: that the coal industry is on the ropes, mountain top removal is winding down, and that this is the fault of the War on Coal being waged by these same environmental groups. It is a comforting myth, designed, among other things, to alarm the good citizens of West Virginia and to comfort the supporters of these organizations and garner more financial support. For both parties, the myth serves a central purpose; it hides the truth. The truth is that any downturn in coal mining on the Cumberland Plateau is due to market conditions, not clever internet campaigns and logos. Both parties know this, but there is no political advantage to either in acknowledging it.


The myth I find the most disturbing is one I’ve seen on some Sierra Club press releases recently, that mountain top removal is “winding down”. This latest claim was in response to a recent ruling in Federal Court that coal companies must stop releasing water from surface mines containing high levels of conductivity, a well understood measure of aquatic health. The claim is that this ruling will make it much more difficult to get new MTR valley fill permits. This remains to be seen, and I remain very skeptical as I have been in many of these courtrooms over the last ten years and the court process as of this time has stopped no new permits, although a few have been delayed. And I have seen first hand how the overburden can be hauled back on the mine site for disposal while the stream was still obliterated all the same when the upper watershed that fed these streams were blasted and lowered by as much as a thousand feet.


Ahh, progress.


©Catherine Dees/Climate Ground Zero
©Catherine Dees/Climate Ground Zero

So now I want to offer up my own myth. Mountain top removal has not slowed down. Divestment campaigns will not slow MTR down. Revising the Clean Water Act will not end MTR. The only approach to ending MTR is passing a law that forbids blasting. It is the dust and debris from blasting that posses the greets threat to our communities, to our streams and to our wildlife, not the water running off the mines. Coal companies will find a way around any conductivity rules just as they have every other regulation on the books. We will then be back in court without injunctive relief.


Residents on the Coal River and other watersheds of Central Appalachia know this. And we have come up with another plan, endorsed by many of the organizations long involved in this struggle. This is the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, or the ACHE Act.http: (http://acheact.org/) Unlike any other piece of legislation proposed so far, this bill will end MTR. It calls for a moratorium on the issuing of any new blasting permits until a federal investigation can be conducted to study the health impacts of MTR on the people of Appalachia. And again, unlike other approaches that serve to unite our opposition and confuse our allies, this bill deals only with the Cumberland Plateau, which has some of the highest mortality rates in the nation and previous peer reviewed studies by many scientists and medical experts has shown conclusively that this is due to the dust produced by detonating two million pounds of high explosives each and every day except Sunday. We have broad bipartisan support and more sponsors in the House than the previous Clean Water Restoration Act, which has been languishing for over a decade due to broad opposition from many quarters. The CRWR Bill affects more than surface mines, so many other interests groups, including developers and even farmers are opposed to it. These same groups have no opposition to our bill, because does not affect them.



And the truth is that this bill can only pass if these big environmental groups get on board and support it. So far their support has been timid. This must change. The Coal River is the cradle of the climate crisis. Civil rights workers went to Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham not to achieve an easy victory, but rather because they understood that this was heart of the beast. They endured violence and hatred, but carried on in the belief that if Jim Crow could not be defeated here, he could not be defeated in New York, Indiana, Oregon or anywhere where he held power. A win here would of course not end the crisis. But it would be a symbolic victory that could lead the way, a rising tide to lift all boats. And this is neither a new or novel strategy. Indeed it was the one agreed to ten years ago by these same groups. Rather than roll up their tents and leave declaring victory, these groups should return to Appalachia and double down and win one for a change. It would not only bolster their  image, it would provide some real relief for the communities that are being destroyed, and the people who are being relocated, and the soil that is being poisoned.


Stories that hide the truth that coal is still King do a disservice to us all. At best they are self serving and at worst it actually makes our job here in West Virginia much harder.  It is time to admit that our efforts as of yet have not produced the results we claim, and get back to the hard dirty work of ending the most destructive mining industry in the US before its too late. I shouldn’t have to remind anyone that we are running out of time. And that is the rest of the story.


Fast For The Mountains


Climate Ground Zero is at the West Virginia State Capitol outside Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s office on day 2 of the Fast for the Mountains.  Roland Micklem, 85, Mike Roselle, 59, Shenna Fortner, 33, and Vincent Eirene are fasting to stop mountaintop removal.  How can you help?  Show your support and join the effort to pass a moratorium on blasting mountaintops.    http://acheact.org/the-legislation/

See you at the Capitol!