Mary Anne Hitt, director of Appalachian Voices, answers questions
What’s your job title?
I’m the executive director of Appalachian Voices.
What does your organization do?
We bring people together to solve the big environmental problems facing the central and southern Appalachian Mountains — mountaintop-removal coal mining, air pollution, and the loss of our native forests.
What are you working on at the moment?
We recently launched iLoveMountains.org, an online organizing campaign. Our goal is to build a national network of people who will work together to pass legislation that will end mountaintop removal, a form of coal mining that involves blowing up entire mountains and dumping the rock into valleys, burying streams. It’s devastating the land and communities in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and my home state of Tennessee.
The centerpiece of iLoveMountains is the National Memorial for the Mountains, which uses Google Earth to show the locations and tell the stories of the over 470 mountains that have been destroyed. With a click of a mouse, all 200 million people who have Google Earth can now see memorials of featured mountains, a mine site tour, and high-resolution images before and after the mining. Last week, Google included the Memorial as part of the newest featured content in Google Earth, and thousands of new people have already signed on to support the campaign.
How do you get to work?
I live three hours away from the main Appalachian Voices office in Boone, N.C., so I mainly work at home, which is a real luxury. But I do drive down to Boone at least twice a month to spend time with the rest of our staff.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I grew up in Gatlinburg, Tenn., which is the main tourist gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the home of Dollywood. The development there goes right up to the boundary of the national park, and throughout my life, I watched the go-kart tracks, outlet malls, and housing developments take over one farm after another. It was enough to turn anyone into an environmentalist — at least, that’s what it did for me.
At the University of Tennessee, I founded Students Promoting Environmental Action in Knoxville (SPEAK) and helped write a blueprint for greening the university. Some 10 years later, UT Knoxville has a campus environmental policy as well as a green energy fee that the students imposed on themselves by ballot referendum, making the campus one of the largest buyers of green power in the South. Considering that there wasn’t a student environmental group or any environmental majors on campus when I arrived, I carry my experience at UT with me as proof of the power of a group of dedicated people to shift even the largest, most entrenched institutions.
I’ve been the executive director of three grassroots environmental groups since then, the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project in Asheville, N.C.; the Ecology Center (now part of the WildWest Institute) in Missoula, Mont.; and now Appalachian Voices.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Philadelphia but only lived there for four months. I was raised in east Tennessee, and now I live in Blacksburg, Va.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
One of the most challenging moments of my career was the fight over salvage logging in the Bitterroot National Forest in western Montana after the fires of 2000. I was the executive director of the Ecology Center at the time, and we were one of the dozen or so groups who had filed lawsuits over various components of the plan. The judge sent all the groups into court-ordered negotiations, and we reached a compromise that spared most of the roadless lands and bull-trout habitat, but also allowed a great deal of logging. The settlement was controversial, and the experience taught me a great deal about the difficult choices and harsh realities of serious environmental work.
What’s been the best?
Last year, Ed Wiley, a grandfather and former coal miner from West Virginia, walked from Charleston, W.Va., to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the plight of Marsh Fork Elementary School, which is located next to a coal processing facility that releases coal dust onto the school and below a leaking earthen dam holding back 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge. Ed was promoting the Pennies of Promise campaign to build a new school in a safe location.
Ed’s arrival in D.C. coincided with a Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington that Appalachian Voices organized, which brought volunteers from 13 states to meet with members of Congress. I’ll never forget seeing Ed taking the last steps of his 450-mile pilgrimage. Hundreds of supporters walked the final blocks up Constitution Avenue. That moment stands out in my mind as one of the most powerful of my entire life.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
For those of us who see the impacts of mountaintop removal firsthand — massive explosions, toxic runoff, lakes of sludge behind earthen dams, families who have lost their homes and lives, and the obliteration of some of the oldest mountains on earth — the increasingly widespread use of the term “clean coal,” even by some environmental organizations, is a bitter pill to swallow. The people of Appalachia know all too well that coal is not delivered immaculately to the power plants, and there is nothing in the so-called “clean coal” technologies that addresses the impacts of mining.
Who is your environmental hero?
My mom and dad have been my biggest inspirations. My dad was the chief scientist of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 10 years, during the height of the air pollution and acid rain problems in the 1980s and 1990s. My mom has been a schoolteacher and is now a school principal, and I learned from her that when it comes to changing the world, there’s no shortcut for reaching one person at a time.
What’s your environmental vice?
My car, definitely. Isn’t that how everyone answers this question?
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
My absolute favorite thing in the world is backcountry canoe camping with my husband, my dog Huck, and some frosty beers in the cooler. I also play a little guitar and love to sing, mostly bluegrass and Americana.
I recently re-read William Faulkner’s Light in August, one of my favorites. I’m a sucker for that Southern gothic style. I think the new book Big Coal by Jeff Goodell should be required reading for every environmentalist.
What’s your favorite meal?
It’s 100 percent from my summer garden — fresh sweet corn, green beans, and a salad with homegrown tomatoes, basil, and fresh mozzarella. For dessert, black raspberry cobbler from the raspberry patch that’s taking over the pasture behind our house.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Mountains are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth — second only to the tropical rainforest — and new species are being discovered there all the time.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would take the billions of dollars of subsidies the federal government is currently handing out to fossil-fuel industries and invest them in clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency instead. America is an innovative, optimistic nation, and I firmly believe that if we shifted the focus of our resources and ingenuity to transforming our energy systems, we could produce the energy we need without destroying the climate, the land, communities, and human lives.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
TV: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Movie: Harold and Maude.
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
What 30-something woman and activist would not want to be played by Angelina Jolie?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Sign up to join the national network of people working together to end mountaintop removal. Watch this video featuring Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson, and help us spread the word. We need your help.
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