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Your Forest, Your Voice, Your Victory: How an Unlikely Coalition Kept Strip Mining out of Perry State Forest

Ohio Environmental Council, April 15, 2020

In 2017, the Oxford Mining Company applied for a permit to use 545 acres of Perry State Forest, about 20 miles southwest of Zanesville, for a strip mining operation. Soon after, an unlikely coalition of nature enthusiasts, sustainable farmers, local residents, business owners, and ATV riders united around their goal of preserving the forest. Friends of Perry State Forest was born. 

The Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) joined forces with Friends of Perry State Forest to protect a treasured Ohio forest from the devastating impacts of strip mining. Together, from the courthouse to the front page, we painted a picture of how much value the forest offers the community—from the tourist dollars supporting the local economy to the deeper dividends of families bonding in the splendor of nature, right in their backyards. 

Conservation isn’t easy work. Citizens concerned about environmental preservation often face disappointment. That’s why it’s so important to celebrate our successes. 

We are inspired by our community partners who take time out of their lives to speak at public hearings, share their stories with local reporters, and jump into the vital and vulnerable work of standing up for one’s values. As the OEC teamed up with Friends of Perry State Forest, we were constantly grateful for their hope, hard work, and dedication. Because of their persistence, the company eventually withdrew a key permit and halted their plans for the mine. 

“This is a huge victory for our community and our forest. This project cast a dark shadow over our farm and the businesses and homes of our neighbors for more than two years. The state heard from more than 1,000 citizens who spoke loud and clear that they didn’t want to see our public forest handed over to a private company to be destroyed,” said Lauren Ketcham, a local farmer and member of Friends of Perry State Forest. “This is a great example of how local community organizing can make a positive impact. We came together with a common love for the forest, put aside differences, shared our unique strengths, and stood up for something important, even when the deck seemed so stacked against us.” 

Just Transition & Recreation Revenues: the New Economic Reality

Ironically, the remnants of a former strip mining operation laid the groundwork for today’s forest. Decades ago in an era before modern reclamation regulations, a previous mine altered the natural landscape significantly enough to leave a uniquely rough terrain ideal for horseback riders and ATV and motorcycle enthusiasts, who travel from all over the state and the world to ride the forest’s challenging trails. These outdoor recreationists, along with tourists, hunters, hikers, and campers, visit Perry State Forest and the surrounding communities enough to provide a substantial boost to the region’s economy. Local farmers and neighboring homeowners are attracted to the area for the quality of life the forest provides, creating jobs and growing the local tax base.

The impacts on these local residents were a prominent piece of the opposition to the proposed mine. community members rallied in force, recognizing the need to protect a beloved public forest from the ravages of mining. Those living near the forest voiced concerns about lower property values, damage to water wells and foundations caused by blasting tremors, water contamination, noise pollution, vehicle traffic, and worsened farming conditions. 

Decreased tourism revenue was also a concern. “This area, this forest, creates a lot of revenue for this town,” Jeff Ivers said to WFYI Public Media in March. Ivers owns 43 acres of land next to Perry State Forest. “They just don’t see that. And they think mining is going to create more revenue? I don’t see how.”

Friends of Perry State Forest are not alone in recognizing the importance of outdoor recreation as an economic driving force, especially in former coal towns. This strategy has helped address the blight and economic stagnation plaguing many Ohio communities. For example, the City of Marietta, about 60 miles southeast of the forest, focused its economic development strategy on tourism and outdoor recreation, rather than trying to maintain dependence on the fossil fuel industry. And Marietta’s plan is backed up by statewide trends: From 2012 to 2017, Ohio’s outdoor recreation revenues grew by 10 percent, for a total exceeding $10 billion.

This victory reminds us of the importance of investing in a just transition for former coal communities and putting aside differences to work where we have common ground.

What’s Next?

For now, we’re celebrating this win while looking ahead. Our Public Lands team is focused on expanding protections for the Wayne National Forest. Meanwhile, our Energy team is building on the local momentum we’re seeing in cities and towns across Ohio, where local leaders are excited to invest in renewable energy sources and generation. As the coal industry wanes and Ohio’s former coal towns grapple with their economic conditions, the OEC and our sister organization, the OEC Action Fund, will continue advocating for policies which offer career opportunities in renewable energy while meaningfully addressing the impacts of climate change. 

Perry State Forest’s story continues, and the outlook is green and sunny. At the end of January 2020, CCU requested termination of the water permit, sending a clear signal that they intended not to mine the forest. At the beginning of April, Ohio EPA officially terminated the permit, and the OEC withdrew its appeal. For now, the Forest is safe, but we’ll be standing ready in case it comes under attack again.