Zack Harold

writer/editor

High Hopes for a New Cash Crop

This story originally appeared in the August/September ’16 issue of Morgantown Magazine.

Susanna Wheeler prefers not to divulge the location of her summer garden. She’ll admit it is planted on WVU property, but that is as much information as she’s comfortable giving out. “We don’t want people to try to come up here and see what’s going on,” says the agronomy graduate student.

That’s because her crop, planted in neat rows on a quarter-acre plot, is instantly recognizable from certain dorm room posters, reggae albums, and Willie Nelson T-shirts. If you’ve ever stumbled into a shop that sells “for tobacco use only” items, you’ll instantly recognize its green, serrated leaves. Susanna Wheeler is growing Cannabis sativa.

Wheeler’s secrecy has nothing to do with getting in trouble with the law. She’s not worried about that. She just doesn’t want to attract any snooping onlookers who might interrupt her very important work—a research project that could potentially change West Virginia’s agriculture industry forever.

While her cannabis plants look identical to marijuana, they contain only trace levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical responsible for the plant’s popularity as a recreational drug. That’s why Wheeler and others who work with the crop usually refer to it as “hemp.” It’s the hard-working, buttoned-down member of the cannabis family, with a long history of industrial use. The ships that brought European settlers to the New World were all outfitted with strong hemp ropes, and hemp was one of the first crops grown in the English colonies. But it fell out of use over the last century as it was outlawed alongside its psychedelic cousins.

There is hope for a comeback, however. Laws are slowly changing, and farmers around the country are beginning to take an interest in hemp again. West Virginia is beginning its own experiment with hemp this year. If the plant is able to thrive in West Virginia’s soil and growers can find willing markets, proponents believe hemp could be the next big industry our state so desperately needs—to the tune of millions of dollars and dozens of market applications.

ROOM TO GROW

It wasn’t too long ago that growing hemp, for any reason, was downright illegal. Despite hemp’s lack of THC, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) still considers any varietal of cannabis a Schedule 1 drug. It’s on the same list as heroin, LSD, mescaline, and MDMA, also popularly known as Ecstasy. But when Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill, lawmakers included a provision allowing state agriculture departments and colleges and universities to grow hemp for research purposes, as long as state law allowed for hemp farming.

West Virginia’s neighboring state of Kentucky, which was the nation’s largest grower of hemp before it was outlawed, has made a large investment in hemp research. After beginning with just about 30 acres of hemp in 2014, this year the Kentucky Department of Agriculture approved more than 160 individual growers, not including university projects, to produce almost 4,500 acres of hemp.

Although Kentucky’s program is still focused entirely on research—that’s all federal law allows, after all—several processors have sprung up in the state to purchase growers’ crops. There are companies that process the fiber for textile production, clean the seeds for food use, and extract and refine oil from the seeds. There’s even a distillery in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, that makes hemp grain moonshine.

Hemp farming has technically been legal in West Virginia since the 1990s. The law as it was written allowed growers to raise hemp as long as they obtained permits from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the DEA. No hemp was ever legally grown since neither agency was issuing hemp permits back then, but the state wanted to be ready in case that day eventually arrived.

After Congress revised the Farm Bill, state lawmakers in 2015 removed the requirements for a DEA permit from West Virginia Code and created an application process for the hemp program. Eric Ewing, director of the agriculture department’s Plant Industries Division, says he got many phone calls when that application process began on June 1, 2015. But only a few growers actually decided to take the plunge.

Seven West Virginia growers, including Wheeler, now have full licenses to grow hemp. Morgan Leach, executive director of the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative, estimates those growers have a combined 10 acres of hemp in the ground. Each operation will receive regular visits by Ewing and his staff as they test THC levels in the plants, because state law requires levels to be below 0.3 percent. “Most of them are starting small, which makes sense,” Ewing says. “Anything new like this, you’ve got to start somewhere. We’re in our infancy.”

ROOTS OF AN INDUSTRY

Marty Biafora, director of operations for Morgantown-based iHemp, says his company is growing about 5 acres of hemp this year and soon will begin growing plants indoors at a 1,000-square-foot hydroponic facility. When it comes time this fall to harvest those plants, Biafora says there isn’t much use for them. Hemp can’t be transported across state lines—more about that below— and there’s nowhere to process hemp in West Virginia right now.

But Biafora isn’t concerned. He fully expects it will be years before the hemp industry turns a profit. “Our goal is to just get seed in the ground, get it up, go through the process of harvesting whatever amount we have, so we can know what to expect next year,” he says. “This is just an exploratory process to get the industry up and rolling.”

So what might the hemp industry look like once it’s all grown up? Leach imagines a day when the abandoned warehouses dotting the

Ohio River Valley are filled with hemp or hemp products waiting to be loaded onto river barges, trains, and trucks and shipped to the rest of the world.

“There is not another crop on the planet that has the utility of hemp,” Leach says. Its fiber can be used to make paper, textiles, rope, insulation, plastics, concrete substitutes, and fiberboard that’s stronger and lighter than wood. Leach is president of Agri Carb Electric, a company that he hopes will make hyper-efficient batteries from hemp fiber.

But the uses don’t end there. Hemp seeds are packed with proteins, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that proponents claim boost immunity, prevent varicose veins, and lower cholesterol, among other purported health benefits. Hemp seeds also can be pressed to extract oils, which can be turned into biofuels, paint, detergent, and a legion of other products.

In 2015, the U.S. retail market sold more than $570 million in products made from hemp fiber, hemp seeds, and hemp oil, the Hemp Industries Association estimates. That includes $280 million in hemp food, food supplements, and body care products, up more than 10 percent over 2014 sales figures.

Leach believes sales will continue to grow as the industry develops—28 states now have laws allowing hemp research—and he’s confident hemp could be the big diversifier West Virginia’s fossil fuel-focused economy needs. He’s been in contact with a company that makes mats for mechanics, for which it imports 500 tons of hemp each year from Bangladesh. There’s also a food producer that uses 400 tons of hemp seed per year.

Capturing even a fraction of the international hemp market could be an unprecedented boon for the state’s agriculture sector. Most of West Virginia’s farmers do their work on evenings and weekends while relying on day jobs to pay the bills. According to 2007 Census statistics, four out of five West Virginia farms make less than $10,000 a year.

Leach says he doesn’t know how large the Department of Agriculture will allow the pilot program to get, but the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative already has about 40 people interested in growing hemp on their properties next year. “It’s a wide-open space, if you can navigate the legal hurdles to get it done,” he says. “As long as the sun shines, we’re in business.”

But, as Ewing at the agriculture department pointed out, the modern hemp industry is still only a seedling. It’s unclear what the fully grown business would look like—how deep its roots would go, how wide its leaves would reach. We don’t even know for sure how well the plant will grow in the state.

This is where Susanna Wheeler comes in.

FARMING IN THE DARK

If a West Virginia farmer needs advice for growing tomatoes, watermelons, wheat, asparagus, alfalfa, or any other common agricultural product, experts at the WVU Extension Service can provide most of the information she needs. Extension agents have access to data on the best times to plant crops, the best times to fertilize them, proper soil acidities, the optimal spacing of plants in fields, and many other variables. But, for the most part, hemp growers in West Virginia are flying blind.

Wheeler came back to WVU last fall. The Charleston native earned her undergraduate degree in agriculture in 2012, then moved to Nicholas County, where she spent some time growing vegetables for farmers’ markets, growing sorghum for molasses, and tapping maple trees for syrup. When she returned to Morgantown to work on her master’s degree, she planned to spend her first summer researching cover crops, varieties of plants grown during agricultural downtimes to protect and enrich the soil.

But then her roommate mentioned the agriculture department’s hemp program. “I started reading about the legislation that was passed and decided I’d like to do a small experiment on the side,” she says.

The more she learned about hemp, however, the more she realized a small experiment wouldn’t be enough. “We know almost nothing about how it will grow in the state. We don’t know what varieties to recommend, we don’t know what fertilizer to recommend,” says Louis McDonald, WVU professor of plant and soil sciences and Wheeler’s adviser. Most of the U.S.-based hemp research Wheeler has uncovered dates back to the 1940s. “It’s not really relevant to our modern agricultural practices,” she says.

Wheeler discovered some basic information from a French textbook, along with a few journal articles and research papers. She got some advice from growers in Kentucky whose own hemp

experiments began a few years back. But there’s nowhere for West Virginia farmers to get state-specific information about hemp. “There’s so much research that needs to be done. I immediately became overwhelmed,” she says. She pitched the idea to McDonald, who agreed to give it a shot.

After completing the application process with the state agriculture department—which included state and federal background checks—Wheeler obtained an importer permit from the DEA before tracking down overseas companies to provide her hemp seeds. “They’re not plentiful. It’s not like, let’s go to Southern States and get some varieties or do a quick Google search.” She eventually found a broker based in Kentucky who had relationships with Italian and Polish hemp seed vendors. The seeds mostly arrived without incident, although U.S. Customs in New York held up one order for three weeks.

Wheeler finally planted the first of her seeds in late May, in that undisclosed half-acre plot on WVU property. She planted five varieties of hemp to see how well they would grow in West Virginia’s soil and climate conditions under different fertility levels, which she controls by adding compost to the plants.

She also began a second, smaller research project in late June to test hemp’s abilities as a “hyperaccumulator.” Other researchers’ findings suggest the plant might be able to extract harmful elements like cadmium, lead, and zinc from the ground. Wheeler has a few dozen plants growing in pots of contaminated soil at a WVU greenhouse. If the results prove promising, hemp eventually could be used to remediate former industrial sites.

GROWING PAINS

For all the excitement surrounding hemp, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear before the plant can become a full-fledged cash crop. Lawmakers earlier this year passed an amendment to the agriculture department’s rules to exclude private growers from the hemp program.

“That’s what our attorneys advised us,” says State Senator Bob Williams, a Democrat from Taylor County, who made the amendment. He says West Virginia Code only allows the Department of Agriculture and state colleges and universities to grow hemp, so issuing permits to private growers is beyond the department’s authority. “We were trying to make the rule conform with the code.”

The changes disquieted hemp growers, many of whom had already invested money into the project, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed the bill but Williams still believes the Department of Agriculture is operating the project outside the bounds of state law. “I’m not a lawyer, that’s just my opinion. But I think the law is clear as to what is allowed,” he says.

The agriculture department reads the law a little differently.

Chris Ferro, the department’s chief of staff, says the Farm Bill clearly allows for cultivation and marketing of hemp. “While there’s no definition of marketing (in the law), a dictionary definition of marketing means to sell,” he says. “Our interpretation was, if Congress wanted us to research and market, that’s what we intended to do.”

Federal laws and regulations provide their own challenges to hemp growers and officials. When Eric Ewing had to take hemp seeds from his office in Charleston to a grower in the Eastern Panhandle, he couldn’t drive his normal route through Virginia and Maryland. “I had to go all back roads, staying in-state, because if I’d crossed state lines I would have been transporting controlled substances across state lines.” That’s a felony.

Ewing also made sure to bring lots of identification and paperwork on the off chance he’d be stopped by a curious police officer along the way. “We were very careful not to speed. Not that we aren’t always, but we were extra careful,” he says.

And even once the hemp is fully grown, growers cannot transport their crop across state lines—it must first be processed into textiles, paper, seed oil, or other products. But as of right now, there aren’t any producers in West Virginia ready to turn raw hemp into end-use products. One grower does have plans to buy a seed oil press, but his operation is not up and running yet. “It’s going to lose its novelty unless you can sell it,” Louis McDonald says.

Morgan Leach at the hemp farmers’ co-op says these issues likely will not go away until Congress completely legalizes hemp. And until that happens, the hemp industry likely will not get the one thing it needs most to thrive: money.

For the time being, Wheeler is doing all her research alone, for no pay. McDonald says the agronomic study of hemp is so new it’s difficult to get funding for research. “Because it’s such a rigmarole to get seed, nobody’s willing to give you money until you can show you’re able to get seed. My hope is we can do this little project now, get the seed, collect data, secure our plots, do the research … (and) next year it will give us leverage,” he says. “Lots of university people are interested, but they don’t have money to do additional research. It’s always the problem: Where’s the money going to come from?”

McDonald says if the industry ever takes off in West Virginia, we’ll have Wheeler to thank. “She has done an enormous amount of work,” he says. “She’s the one who’s worked with these seed companies, worked with the Department of Agriculture, tried to get these additional growers to participate. It would not be here without her.”

Despite worries about money and legality, Wheeler is plowing ahead. Her projects will likely run through October, when she will harvest seed from the hemp plants. If she’s able to get enough funding, she’d like to test soil samples to see how hemp changes soil’s chemical makeup.

She knows these experiments will only answer a handful of the questions that remain about hemp. But it’s a start. “There’s a lot of speculation,” Wheeler says. “There are prolific pro- and anti-hemp beliefs. But right now, they’re just that. Beliefs.”

A Creek Runs Through It

This story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

The fish weren’t biting when Rick Burgess and his twin brothers Denny and Danny arrived at Spruce Knob Lake for a weekend camping trip in 1976. Denny suggested they try their luck in a nearby stream he’d heard about, so he and Rick threw their gear into the Mustang II they’d driven on the trip while Danny stayed behind.

The brothers drove the winding roads about 15 minutes away to a property separated from the road by a gate. They parked the Mustang, hopped the gate, and began walking a path they hoped would lead them to Denny’s trout stream.

The brothers rounded a bend. They found the stream. And then they saw the ground open up and swallow the creek whole.

Rick and Denny had found Gandy Creek. But they had also stumbled across one of West Virginia’s geologic treasures. “I had no idea what I was looking at. We were on this beautiful little trout stream and all of a sudden it goes into this cave,” he says.  It wasn’t until later, a good while after they returned from the camping trip, that Danny saw a feature in the Sunday newspaper and finally learned the name of the cave his brothers had found: the Sinks of Gandy.

This popular cave is located in eastern Randolph County just a few miles from the highest point in West Virginia, Spruce Knob. Gandy Creek runs through the Sinks for a mile and a half beneath Yokum Knob before emerging near Dry Fork Road. It has become a regular stop for cavers of all experience levels. Thomas Komir, a course director at the nearby Mountain Institute, has led hundreds of summer campers through the cave. Because the cave requires little technical skill, he says it’s a perfect introduction to spelunking. “There’s very minimal climbing,” Komir says. “You’re basically walking in the streambed, and it’s mostly flat.”

Although his campers are often intimidated at first, Komir says it doesn’t take long for them to overcome hteir hestitations. “They usually love it,” he says. “We walk through the water in the cave and when we reach the other side, they’re ready to do anything. Oddly enough it’s the adults who have a harder time with it.”

The Sinks are named for a family of early settlers in the area. According to family legend, the cave served as a hideout after Samuel Gandy deserted from the Revolutionary Army at Valley Forge. He was captured, jailed, and sentenced to hang but his brother Uriah broke him out. They escaped to Virginia and sheltered in what would become known as the Sinks of Gandy until spring.

The general public first learned of the Sinks through “The Mountains,” a fictionalized account by David Hunter Strother published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1872. In the story, a band of Virginia gentlemen organize an expedition to find the “tunnel of Gandy.” Although the story captured the imagination of readers nationwide, Strother, writing under the nom de plume “Porte Crayon,” did not paint locals in a flattering light. His narrator imagines West Virginians as “mountain nymphs” and “rude swains” with “loutish movements” and “bobbing steps.”

This, of course, is only recent history. The real story of the Sinks of Gandy goes much further back—more than a half-billion years.

A LIVING CAVE

Our tale begins in a time of great geological turmoil. At the beginning of the Paleozoic Period, more than 540 million years ago, all the dry land on Earth was joined in a supercontinent geologists call Pannotia. But the tectonic plates below the planet’s crust began to shift, and the land slowly began to break into several smaller continents.

These changes were accompanied by a dramatic change in the Earth’s climate. The oceans rose and created warm, shallow inland seas that covered parts of what is now North America. Over the next 290 million years, the bottom of those seas became littered with shell material, coral, algae, fish waste, and the remains of all manner of marine life. As that material piled up and was covered over by sand, dirt, and rock, the pressure compressed this sediment and formed limestone. “All throughout the Paleozoic, you have layer after layer after layer of different rock types forming. It’s like a big layer cake of different rock,” says Ken Ashton, a geologist with the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.

By this time the continents began to slowly drift back together, forming another supercontinent known as Pangaea. The immense pressure created by these colliding landmasses caused the sedimentary rock to fold and crack. “That nice bed of limestone, now it’s being pushed up,” Ashton says. Eventually this created a long line of towering crags we now call the Appalachian Mountains.

At the time, the range was as tall as the Himalayas. Over the next few million years glaciers and prehistoric rivers whittled down the peaks to the gentle rolling hills of today. The limestone remained, however, buried deep beneath the mountains. And the water that eroded the tops of the mountains also started to cut caves beneath them.

The Sinks were formed in the same way as most of Earth’s caves—the slow, gradual dissolution of limestone. “Limestone is the cave-forming rock. Anywhere you’ve got limestone, you have a potential for caves,” Ashton says.

The process is familiar to anyone who suffers heartburn. Limestone is made from calcium carbonate, the same stuff as antacids like Tums. “You might as well chew on a piece of limestone. It neutralizes acid. Consequently, acid will dissolve calcium carbonate,” Ashton says. Because natural water can be slightly acidic, over time rivers and streams began to cut paths through the limestone. “Everything you see in a cave, everything about any cave was formed by acidic water dissolving limestone,” Ashton says.

Over years and years, Gandy Creek pounded against the limestone under Yokum’s Knob and slowly began to work its way underground. Cracks formed, allowing more water to flow through, which increased the process of dissolution. “The cracks just kept getting bigger and bigger, and that’s how the Sinks of Gandy were formed,” Ashton says.

Of course, Gandy Creek still flows through the cave today. And since water still dissolves limestone, the Sinks continue to grow and change before our eyes. It’s just taking so much time we don’t notice. “Geologic time is very slow,” Ashton says.

A LASTING IMPRESSION

Time has moved faster for Rick Burgess. He left West Virginia for Texas a few years after that fishing trip with his brothers. He returned to the Mountain State in the mid-1990s and still thought about the Sinks from time to time, but never made the trip back. At some point, he realized it had been nearly three decades since he first laid eyes on the Sinks of Gandy.

“I always wanted to go back. I knew it was a place not many people knew about,” Burgess says. “I wanted to see it again, because it had made such an impression to me the first time.” In 2013, he decided to try and find his way back. There was just one problem. “I had no idea how to get there,” he says.

Burgess drove around, trying in vain to find the gate he and Denny hopped all those years ago. He eventually flagged down a pickup and the driver pointed him to right spot. He climbed the fence, walked down a gravel road, and found the familiar depression in the earth.

Although he did not explore the cave’s gaping mouth on his initial visit—he was pretty claustrophobic at the time—Burgess was braver this time. He waded into the cave’s entrance with his Nikon camera.

As he entered, a thunderous noise erupted around him—he had disturbed a family of swallows nesting in the crevices of the rock. “They just start darting out everywhere. You’re in a natural sound chamber, so the sound is incredible,” he says.

Eventually the noise settled down, and Burgess was able to tune into the other sights and sounds of the cave—the logs stuck in the ceiling from long-ago floods, the bird nests in the rock, the trickling of the water, the light reflecting off the surface.

After going nearly 30 years without seeing the Sinks of Gandy, Burgess is now a regular visitor. He has been back several times since his 2013 excursion. He’s taken photos of the cave in the spring, summer, and fall. He hopes to go back soon for some wintertime shots. “A lot of times that area, there’s always a lot of snow. I’d like to get a shot where there’s a few inches, being on the inside looking out.”

His photos have caused others to ask how to find the Sinks and see the cave for themselves. But, like an angler guarding a favorite fishing hole, Burgess is hesitant. “On one hand you want other people to know about it and experience it for themselves,” he says. “And on the other hand—it’s kind of selfish, I guess—you don’t want people to know about it.”

EXPLORING ON YOUR OWN

Spelunkers have been exploring the Sinks of Gandy for generations. But even a relatively easy cave like the Sinks is full of potential hazards for inexperienced explorers. Geologist Ken Ashton recommends cavers always have at least three sources of light. “Once you get in there, there is no light. Be prepared,” he says. “I’ve seen people go through there with nothing but a Coleman lantern, and that scares the crap out of me.”

He recommends wearing good, sturdy shoes—it’s all too easy to twist an ankle while walking across the slick rocks in Gandy Creek—and a helmet. “It’s dark and you can’t see the rocks in the ceiling.” Ashton also says it’s a good idea to take along some friends on your adventure. “It’s safer, and you’ll have a better time,” he says.

And because Gandy Creek is prone to flooding, cavers of all ability levels should keep the weather forecast in mind. In the event of heavy rain, water levels inside the Sinks can rise really high, really quickly. “Never go into that cave if there’s a chance of major rain,” Ashton says. “There are parts, you can look up into the ceiling and see sticks and branches that got stuck from previous flooding events.”

A 1941 Saturday Evening Post article tells the story of a band of Ohioans who became trapped in the Sinks of Gandy on Memorial Day 1940 when a cloudburst raised Gandy Creek by three inches, flooding the cave and cutting the party off from the outside world. Lucky for these spelunkers, they discovered the Sinks’ alternate exit and made their way out—wet, shaken, but otherwise unharmed.

With the proper precautions in mind, Ashton says the Sinks can provide a great introduction to the exciting sport of spelunking. “It’s a neat way to experience wild caving without getting the crap beat out of you,” he says. “As long as you can follow the flow of the water, you’ve got Gandy Creek to guide you.”

 

At River’s Bottom

This story originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

At first, no one knew exactly what was happening, or why. But one fact was clear—lots of things were dying in Dunkard Creek.

Division of Natural Resources fisheries biologists Frank Jernejcic and Dave Wellman were at the Monongalia County stream almost every day during the September 2009 fish kill, surveying the damage. Lifeless fish lay dead on the shores and sandbars. The fish that remained alive thronged into pools of unspoiled water created by the confluence of Dunkard’s tributaries with the main waterway. “They couldn’t move into the main flow of the stream. They were stuck in these little areas,” says Jernejcic, who retired in late 2014.

The fish couldn’t swim upstream into those tributaries because the water level was too low. “They were frantic, like if someone sets off a bomb in the middle of a fairground and people try to make it to the exit,” Wellman says. Jernejcic remembers the last two he saw alive, a carp and a muskie. By the next time he visited the pool, those fish were died, too.

And then there were the white soft clumps of matter Wellman noticed floating downstream. “The first couple times I saw them, I thought it was clumps of toilet paper,” he says. But he realized it was much more worrisome than litter. After checking with fellow DNR biologist Janet Clayton, Wellman confirmed his hypothesis: those white clumps were actually mussels, floating free of their shells after they were killed by whatever unseen force wiped out the rest of Dunkard Creek’s aquatic life.

More than a week later, biologists finally figured out what caused the Dunkard Creek kill. A mine drainage pipe was dumping high levels of chlorides into the stream, creating brackish conditions that, when combined with low water levels and hot weather, created a perfect environment for Prymnesium parvum—more commonly known as “golden algae”—to grow. When the algae bloomed, it released deadly toxins that damaged the gills of fish and mussels, causing them to choke to death.

In the end, around 21,000 fish and 25,000 mussels died in the kill—every single living thing that called Dunkard Creek home. “Normally you have some fish alive. In this case, there were no fish left,” says Jernejcic, who saw hundreds of events like this in his career, and even served on the national committee that wrote the handbook on investigating fish kills.

Then, over the following weeks and months, something amazing began to happen. The algae dissipated as weather and water conditions shifted. Fish moved up from the Monongahela River and lower sections of Dunkard Creek. Within a year, biologists found 90 percent of fish species had returned to the stream. Within two years, 100 percent of species had returned, although the populations took a few more years to reach pre-kill levels. “It recovered very quickly,” Jernejcic says. “Two or three years later, I fished it and had one of the best smallmouth trips of my life.”

But not everything bounced back so easily. Years passed and the mussel population in Dunkard Creek remained nonexistent. Clayton, DNR’s foremost expert on mussels, says it can take centuries for mussel populations to recover after a catastrophic event because of the slow and cumbersome way these mollusks reproduce. “In a case like Dunkard Creek, it probably never would,” she says.

Luckily, Mother Nature has people like Clayton to help her along.

* * *

DNR began its mussel restoration project in Dunkard Creek in 2011. Crews began collecting fully mature mussels during stream surveys and pulling others from streams where construction projects threatened the native mussel populations. They came from the Ohio River, Elk River, Tygart River, and several smaller streams including the unaffected north West Virginia fork of Dunkard Creek, and were planted directly in the substrate of Dunkard Creek.

Clayton and company also began growing their own mussels. In 2011, Clayton and her team moved their first brood stock into DNR’s facility in Belleville, Wood County. Mussels reproduce sexually—meaning both a male and female are required for the process—but since they can’t move to find a mate, male mussels release their sperm into the water, hoping a female somewhere downstream will catch it and use it to fertilize her eggs. This fertilization can take some time. For mussel species known as “long-term brooders,” this stage can last the entire winter.

Once the eggs have matured into larvae called “glochidia,” it’s time for another trip downstream. The mother mussel releases her glochidia into the water where, if they’re lucky, they will latch onto the gills of a passing fish. Or at least that’s how it works in the wild. At Belleville, Clayton’s crew placed the glochidia in a holding tank with small fish and then used a pump to aerate the water to keep the glochidia moving around, increasing their exposure to a potential host.

Mussels are picky about their hosts. While some species of mussels will work with entire groups of fish, other mussels require an exact subspecies before they’ll grab hold. Some, for example, only use skipjack herring. “There’s others that use catfish, there’s others that use darters,” Clayton says. “There are mussels that we still don’t know what their host is.”

For mussel species that require larger fish as hosts, Clayton had to take a more hands-on approach to inoculation. She collected the glochidia in a syringe, and then squirted it onto the gills of an appropriate host fish. She only used one side of the fish, however, to ensure the fish were not over-inoculated and had difficulty breathing.

Larvae develop into juvenile mussels during their time as parasites. When the mollusks have developed enough to survive on their own, juvenile mussels simply drop off their fish hosts and find a home on the bottom of the stream. In 2012, Clayton and her team released inoculated bluegill and drum fish at four different sites on Dunkard Creek, hoping the juveniles would settle into the streambed and begin to replenish the population. They also released fish in 2013 and 2014.

Things have not gone as Clayton hoped. “So far we’ve not seen any response,” she says. This difficulty did not come as a surprise, however—she knew from the beginning the odds were stacked against her project. The mussel reproductive process is long and finicky, and in the wild is largely a product of luck. Despite biologists’ efforts to circumvent luck, sometimes the natural order still prevails.

But that doesn’t mean Clayton has stopped trying. Mussels are far too important for that.

* * *

Clayton first became interested in mussels back in 1989. She worked for DNR’s Office of Water Resources at the time, and was in her office one day when she overhead a new employee complaining just outside her door. Their boss was going to make him attend a class on mussels, and he did not want to go. Clayton jumped at the chance and volunteered to take his place. “Once I took the class, I was fascinated. They’re just amazing,” she says.

It wasn’t long before she moved to DNR’s office in Elkins where she got involved with a research tracking acid rain’s effects on fish. She still was working on mussel projects on the side, and over time her work became less about acid rain and more about mussels. When the research program wrapped up, her bosses asked Clayton developing a new mussel program for the agency.

Mussels are found all over the state—West Virginia is home to about 63 species, nine of which are on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list. And despite their humble appearance, mussels are extremely important to their ecosystems. Because they bury themselves into the streambed, they help prevent erosion like trees on a hillside.

They are also nature’s sewage treatment plants. Mussels feed themselves by drawing water through their siphons and filtering out particulate matter and small organisms—a single mussel can filter five gallons of water a day. It’s not just food they are pulling from the water, however. “They also filter out the contaminants,” Clayton says. “They’re filtering everything out of the water. What they don’t use in their bodies, they’re binding into pseudofeces. Other critters can eat that. That’s less for that our water treatment plants have to deal with.”

But as helpful as they are to their ecosystems, mussels are also extremely vulnerable creatures. Most of the events that lead to mussel deaths are not big, dramatic happenings like Dunkard Creek. Clayton says mussel deaths are usually caused by a slow accumulation of sediments over time. “We have a lot of sediment impacts from road construction, from the oil and gas industry,” she says. Chlorides, like those found in fracking fluid or road salt, are especially dangerous. “That’s highly toxic to mussels, and even more toxic to juvenile mussels.”

They are also threatened by invasive species. Zebra mussels—a nickel-sized freshwater mollusk originally native to Russia—killed 25 percent of the native mussels in the Ohio River in 2000. The native mussels sucked the microscopic zebra mussel larvae through the water column while trying to feed. As the larvae develop, “they become this ball of zebra mussels on top of the native mussel,” Clayton says. The intruders use up all the food and oxygen in the water and starve out the native mussel.

By and large, there’s little anyone can do about these threats. The golden algae could come back, if the conditions are right. Clayton says industrial disasters seem to be getting more and more frequent. There’s nothing to prevent zebra mussels from entering the state’s waterways.

But she can try to repair what’s been broken. Although the Dunkard Creek restoration isn’t going very well at the moment, there have been other, more successful projects. When chemical spills on the Ohio River killed thousands of mussels, Clayton and her team went into the river to stock adult muscles. “Our main purpose was to get some mussels in there to help hold the substrate,” she says. But those mussels made way for more to follow. “The last time we surveyed it four years ago, we picked up an endangered species that has naturally recruited back into that site.”

It’s these kinds of victories that keep Clayton fighting her fight. Although it has been nearly 30 years since she attended that first class on mussels, her passion for the creatures remains as strong as ever. It might seem odd to some to devote so much energy—not to mention a career—to these often overlooked, not very attractive, bottom-feeding creatures. But for Clayton, it’s no mystery. “They’re quite important,” she says.

Making the Stage

This story originally appeared in the summer 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

Jerry Run 14 small resArrive late to a show at the Jerry Run Summer Theater and you can hear the music as soon as you open the car door. Low frequencies seep from the uninsulated walls, drawing you along the worn grass path toward the green front doors. Inside, after you’ve paid the $5 entrance fee and a few bucks more for a hot dog and bottle of pop, the theater will be dark except for the stage lights and the fading sunlight that wriggles through the louvered, glassless windows.

Slip into the rows of thickly padded auditorium seats and you’ll likely go unnoticed. The crowds at Jerry Run are known for their attentiveness to the entertainment. But look around. See the scores of smiling faces. Neighbors will be tapping their feet and bobbing their heads to the music, alongside folks from farther away who’ve come to see this little theater in rural Webster County. And in the corner of the balcony, show after show, you’ll find Dusty Anderson—the soundman, master of ceremonies, handyman, and janitor, and the guy who designed and built the theater from the ground up.

Anderson is a lifelong music fan, having learned the basics at the knee of his organ-playing grandfather. In high school, he played electric bass in a rock band. But when he graduated and started working as a carpenter, his interests shifted—instead of playing music, he dreamed of building a place where he could host performances by other artists.

He was inspired by a benefit concert he and wife Renee organized to help save the local elementary school from consolidation. The school’s gymnasium wasn’t the most acoustically appealing space, but the response was overwhelming. “People really enjoyed themselves. It brought pleasure to their lives,” says Renee.

Dusty started researching theater construction, trying to find books about acoustical design at the local library. “I believe in a blueprint,” he says. The information proved lacking. Good acoustics, the authors seemed to suggest, are as much a matter of luck as anything else. This did not intimidate Dusty, however. He began making models of his theater, planning how it all would fit together.

A tract of land eventually came up for sale across the road from the Andersons’ home. They bought the property and Dusty began clearing trees. He designed and built tall arching trusses that make up the building’s rib cage, hoisting them upright with some assistance from helpful neighbors. “People were thinking, ‘What’s he doing out there?’” he says with a laugh.

He included skylights down the middle of the roof to provide ventilation and a little light, and built louvered windows for the same purpose. He built a tidy concession stand in one corner of the foyer and left the opposite side open for a seating area.

Dusty bought a speaker system from a friend who upgraded to a more high-tech setup. “They go back to the ’80s but they sound good,” he says. The theater seats also came second-hand, from a lecture hall at West Virginia Wesleyan College. The school had planned to send them to the landfill, but Dusty spent a whole weekend hauling them back to his theater. Each seat still has a fold-up desk bolted to the right-hand side—which makes for a handy place to rest your hotdog and pop while enjoying a show.

After years of planning and years of construction, the theater opened its doors in 2003. Now in its 14th season, Jerry Run hosts about 25 shows each year, beginning in late spring and running until early fall. Despite its out-of-the-way location, the theater has attracted scores of musical acts from across the state and around the country, as evidenced by the wall of framed pictures hanging in the foyer. Most are bluegrass bands—that’s what most local bands play, and that’s what audiences like to hear—but there have been rock, country, and folk groups, too. As word of the quaint little venue has spread, so has its roster.

In October 2014, Jerry Run Summer Theater got its biggest act to date:
internationally renowned songwriter Sam Beam, who goes by the stage name Iron & Wine. Beam’s manager Howard Greynolds saw an article about Jerry Run in a Chicago newspaper. Greynolds has family in Clarksburg, so he decided to stop by on his next visit to the Mountain State. He asked Dusty if Jerry Run would host one of his acts someday—to which Dusty agreed, although he didn’t expect anything would come from it. “We thought, we’ll never hear from this guy again,” Renee says.

More than a year later, however, Greynolds called the Andersons and asked if they would put on a special concert by Iron & Wine. Beam had been inspired by Dusty’s story and wanted to feature the theater in a short concert film to promote his new collection of early songs, Archive Series Volume No. 1.

Beam’s people trucked in loads of fancy cameras and lighting rigs, along with generators to power everything. The show attracted fans from Charleston and Morgantown and Pittsburgh, along with Jerry Run’s usual band of regulars. “People were just so thrilled. The crowd was hanging on every word,” Renee says.

The concert film—called “Dreamers and Makers are my Favorite People,” now easily found on YouTube—has gained Jerry Run national recognition, but it hasn’t changed the venue’s handmade charm. When the Andersons opened the theater in late April for this year’s first show, Renee was still at the concession stand, slinging hot dogs, pepperoni rolls, and popcorn with her longtime helper Barb Kopanko. Renee’s sister Linda Pugh was still behind the cash box collecting admission. “Glad to see you open again,” a woman said as she handed over her five-dollar bill.

At seven o’clock sharp the night’s entertainment, a Buffalo, New York-based folk rock group, walked onstage with Dusty in hot pursuit. He strode up to the mic, hands tugging at the lapels of his unbuttoned denim shirt. “Please welcome—Savannah and the Kings!”

Dusty was off the stage almost before the applause began. His tall, lanky frame quickly carried him to the darkened balcony, where he took his place behind the mixing board. Next week he’ll sweep up the popcorn off the floor and wipe up any coffee rings left on the folding desks. If a breaker knocks out the lights again, he’ll be the one hunting down the problem. But while the band is onstage, Dusty can just sit back, enjoy the songs, and appreciate a music scene he built with his own two hands.

A Job You Wear

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

On June 15, 2015, elected officials, members of the public, and journalists crammed into the dark wood-paneled council chambers at Charleston City Hall to watch Kanawha Circuit Judge Todd Kaufman administer the oath of office to Mayor Danny Jones. He had been reelected just a few weeks earlier, carrying 62 percent of the vote over Democrat candidate Paul Monroe and independent challenger William Carpenter.

Although the swearing-in ceremony carried much less pomp and circumstance than a presidential or gubernatorial inauguration, it was a historic occasion for Charleston. Once Jones said “so help me God,” he officially began his fourth term as mayor, the longest tenure in city history. It was a milestone for Jones, too. With 13 years under his belt—and three more to go—he has spent more time as mayor of Charleston than at any other job in his life.  

Since he returned to his hometown after a two-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, which included some time driving a truck in Vietnam, and a yearlong stay at Marshall University, where he studied political science, Danny Jones has worked as a bartender, bouncer, cook, waiter, gravedigger, bottled water salesman, restaurant owner, public relations man, county sheriff, state delegate, and radio talk show host, among other gigs. By his count, Jones has held 35 jobs in his 65 years.

Political opponents criticized him for this when he first ran for mayor in 2003. They said Jones, the Republican nominee, wouldn’t have the attention span necessary to run a city government. After he won that race with more than 57 percent of the vote, his Democratic opponent Chris Smith came to congratulate him and offer a word of advice. He told Jones, “I want you to stick with this.”

Little did Smith—or anyone else—realize how well the mayor’s office would fit Jones. “Some people are suited for a job, and some people aren’t. This is a job that he is more than suited for,” says Charleston Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis. “It’s one he can get out and move around, or sit behind a desk and face a challenge. He loves challenges.”

There have been lots of challenges since Jones took over. His administration has faced budget problems, legal battles, and deadly tragedies. Jones was mayor during one of the worst environmental disasters of the century—when Freedom Industries dumped thousands of gallons of industrial cleaner into the Elk River, contaminating Charleston’s water supply and leaving its residents without potable tap water for days. While some government officials shrank from the ensuing media attention, Jones rose to the occasion, giving voice to the frustrations of his residents and demanding action against the perpetrators.

There have been personal struggles, too, which were often lived out in the local media. During his time in office Jones has been married, had two young sons, got divorced, battled prostate cancer, and dealt with the multiple drug-related arrests of his eldest son Zac, who was 13 when his father took office. While he might not have handled all these challenges perfectly, he has earned a reputation for addressing any situation with unwavering candor. “The one thing I like about Mayor Jones is, I know where I stand. He is honest and direct with his thoughts,” Davis says. “It’s politically incorrect, but it works.”

This is Jones’ modus operandi. “What else is there but the truth? The truth is to be used. The reason we don’t get to the bottom of issues is because people won’t tell the truth,” he says. It’s difficult to believe such a figure exists in our cynical age: a politician who speaks the truth for truth’s sake. You might even be inclined to believe he’s lying, but Jones is not blowing smoke. He’s not that kind of politician. He’s a mayor.

Occupying the space

Most mornings you can find Jones at the only Starbucks in city limits, located in the center court of the Charleston Town Center mall. He reads the newspaper over a small breakfast: a cup of coffee, a PowerBar, and maybe a pastry from the counter. Jones says he comes here to look at women. True to his politically incorrect nature, the mayor is a notorious flirt. But that’s just a bit of his barroom days showing through. Sit and talk with him, and you begin to see what is really on his mind.

Sitting on a stiff couch at a shopping mall coffee shop, Jones is surrounded by his city. He often stops mid-sentence to shout a greeting to a federal judge, lawyer, police officer, journalist, or taxi driver. Sometimes he greets people he doesn’t know. The strangers inevitably return the greeting. Jones calls this “occupying the space,” a concept he picked up from a political science professor at West Virginia State University, where he took a few classes while serving as Kanawha County Sheriff. “You’re mayor every moment you’re awake,” he says. “It’s not a job you work. It’s a job you wear.”

Danny Jones is a performer. During his time as county sheriff, he acted in local productions of Li’l Abner, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Music Man, and Annie Get Your Gun, which also featured a young Jennifer Garner. He considers playing the titular character in Abner the highlight of his life—besides, of course, his children. What was the attraction? “The power. You’re onstage. There’s 750 people in the audience and you can raise your eyebrows and they start laughing.”

But having your name perpetually on a marquee isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Jones’ insistence on wearing his job and occupying his space often causes his critics to attack the man as much as his decisions. Not long after taking office, Jones pushed for a $1-per-week user fee on anyone who worked within city limits. The fee generated $2.5 million in its first year, money the city used to pave roads, hire maintenance workers, and put more than 20 new officers on its police force. Yet many people—particularly those who worked in Charleston but lived elsewhere—balked at the fee. Some still have not forgiven Jones for dipping into their paychecks. Back then, commenters on local news websites gave him the disparaging nickname “Dollar Danny.” The name stuck and still gets regular use in some circles today.

But perhaps nothing has drawn more anger than Jones’ efforts to stop a 2014 state law that repealed all municipal weapons bans on city-owned properties. The mayor lobbied hard against the legislation, publicly calling on lawmakers to kill the bill. His efforts drew vicious criticism from gun rights supporters, and he eventually gave up the fight. “I don’t really fault them at all. I was basically a strawman. It was a tactic,” he says. “But nobody was there to help me. I was fighting that battle alone. I didn’t want to spend my last few years fighting something I cannot win.”

Either of these episodes, spun in the right way by opponents, could have ended his political career. Fighting to raise taxes and ban guns certainly would not work well for most candidates running on a Republican ticket. And yet he remains unrepentant about the battles he has picked even when, as with the gun ban controversy, he lost. He says being mayor brings you “nose to nose” with issues that affect your community—leaving little time for blind partisanship. Nanya Friend, former editor and publisher of the conservative Charleston Daily Mail newspaper who has followed Jones throughout his political career, knows what he means. “When you’re running a city it’s hard to be a pure ideologue, because of the issues that come up,” she says. “When you’re dealing with gun crime on the West Side, or need to make sure kids are safe in community centers, you get a different point of view.”

Amazingly, Jones’ habit of following his gut instead of the party line does not seem to have hurt him politically. If anything, it might have helped. Councilwoman Davis says this is because city politics are decidedly nonpartisan. “If you asked me to tell you who is a Democrat or Republican, I’d have to stop and think. When you come to the city level, you’re working for your neighborhoods. You’re working to make your city stronger. You don’t have time to think about who is what,” she says. “You don’t stay in office unless people feel you have the passion and they’re seeing change.”

Davis, for the record, is a Democrat. She was elected in 1999 and served for four years with Mayor Jay Goldman before Jones took office. “When I first went into City Hall, there was an area where there were hundreds of plans. Each administration makes its own plans of what it would like to see in Charleston,” she says. The plans in that room had never come to fruition. There’s only so much a mayor can accomplish in one term—and Charleston voters only allowed one of the five mayors before Jones to serve a second term. “Inevitably, what you have is a lot of plans gathering dust,” Davis says.

There aren’t many plans gathering dust now. Jones says he originally planned to end his mayoral career in 2011. But as he approached the end of his second term, he started to rethink his decision. “I thought eight (years) would be enough. But … there’s so many things that couldn’t have been done.”

Making a mark

Driving into Charleston at night, heading east on Interstate 64, the first thing that will catch your eye is the gilded dome of the West Virginia State Capitol. If it’s a summer night, another very impressive structure will come into view just seconds later. Appalachian Power Park is home of the Charleston Power, a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. Their games are a favorite social occasion for Charlestonians of all stripes, even those who don’t really like baseball.

But Appalachian Power Park almost didn’t happen. Early on, the project was incredibly unpopular. According to a Charleston Gazette article at the time, a poll found 75 percent of voters opposed the new park. Democrat mayoral candidate Chris Smith promised in his 2003 campaign to divert the $12 million state lawmakers set aside for the project to other needs like sewer system upgrades or a new library. Jones also expressed doubts about the project, but promised to see it completed. Over the following two years his administration oversaw the demolition of an old factory and grocery store on the site, and dealt with lawsuits that temporarily tied up the state funding. In the end, a modern, $23 million complex rose on the city’s East End and Power Park opened just in time for the 2005 baseball season. “It’s one of those amenities that make Charleston a better place to live,” Jones says. “It makes everything look better.” Now businesses and apartments are moving into a side of town that once contained little more than abandoned warehouses.

As you leave the ballpark, make your way toward the Kanawha River and turn right on Kanawha Boulevard. After a few blocks, you’ll spot another spectacular bit of architecture: Haddad Riverfront Park. What began as a simple concrete amphitheater along the Kanawha River is now covered with a sweeping white canopy, a little reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. Down front, the stage has its own arching canopy, designed to look like the paddlewheel of the sternwheeler boats that once frequented the adjacent waterway.

This park is also a monument to Jones’ tenacity. In 2008 he secured $2.4 million in federal earmarks from then-Senator Robert C. Byrd to build the roof at Haddad, which paved the way for additional donations from local philanthropists. The park, where spectators once blistered in the sun, is now the centerpiece of almost every summertime celebration in Charleston’s downtown.

By the beginning of 2018, Jones hopes to have completed another ambitious improvement project for the city. Workers have begun construction on a nearly $100 million revamp of the city’s Civic Center, largely funded by a half-cent sales tax passed by City Council in October 2013. It’s a project he has wanted to tackle since he first took office. “When I was in a show (in the Little Theater) in 1986, I was performing and the lights went out. It was a worn facility and needed work,” he says. “We don’t know how many events we lost, but we lost some.”

Now the aging, utilitarian Civic Center will be updated with a towering glass façade and an overhanging roof, a stylishly updated interior, and an outdoor plaza along the Elk River. Jones believes the project will attract bigger conventions and other events to the city, which will boost the local economy as a whole. “I’ve been in some world-class venues and I think this is definitely going to be one,” he says.

There have been other big changes since Jones took office. Businesses are growing on the city’s East End and West Side. Capitol Street in the heart of downtown was once a derelict row of boarded-up storefronts with a bad reputation; now it’s the city’s main cultural thoroughfare. But the accomplishment Jones is most proud of—the thing he hopes will define his legacy as mayor—is something you can’t see. It’s something visitors, as well as most residents, will never consider. “Barney Frank once told me you never get credit for what you prevent,” he says.

In 2009, the Pew Charitable Trusts named Charleston as one of worst cities in America for unfunded pension liabilities. At the time, the city had  saved only a quarter of the $270 million it owed in firefighter and police pensions. Jones knew that kind of debt could bankrupt a city—pension debts are what drove Detroit, Michigan into economic disaster—so he began looking for ways to pay down the debt. The city instituted hiring freezes on its fire and police departments, then made deep cuts to the city budget in 2010, removing across-the-board raises for city employees for the first time since Jones took office. In 2015, the city instituted a half-percent sales tax, expected to generate $13 million a year by 2029. Although the city still has hundreds of millions in pension debts on the books, Charleston is now on track to have its accounts settled within 25 years.

Jones did not tackle any of these challenges alone, and he admits that. He’s proud to have built a team of smart people who know how to get things done. But he can be credited for creating an environment where good things can thrive. “Like him or not, you have to respect that he wants to push Charleston and make it move forward,” Davis says. Ric Cavender, executive director of Charleston Main Streets, says this will be the legacy of Jones’ administration. “He’s somebody that’s up for new ideas. His vision will have a residual effect. These aren’t changes that will go away.” Friend, of the Daily Mail, agrees. “I’m not sure I’d want to be his successor.”

Vacating the space

Danny Jones’ great-great-grandfather, Henry Clay Dickinson, was the sixth mayor of Charleston. His administration has only one notable accomplishment: Dickinson was the city’s shortest-serving mayor, lasting only a month in office before he unexpectedly died.

Dickinson’s great-great-grandson is now the city’s longest-serving mayor. But he has no intention of dying in office. When Jones announced he would seek a fourth term as mayor, he made it clear it would also be his final term. Will he change his mind? “That ain’t gonna happen. We need to have younger people in these positions,” he says.

He believes leaving office in 2019 is best for the city. But you also get the feeling the job is wearing thin for Jones. He finds being mayor an inherently lonely job. “It is, by nature, selfish. You have to base everything around yourself because that’s whose name is on the line.”

In the meantime, Jones is content. In January, he made his return to local airwaves as the host of “580 Live with Danny Jones,” an hour-long news talk show on AM station WCHS. On a snowy morning in February, he arrives at the station a few minutes before the start of the show. He exits his black Toyota and heads into the building without feeding the parking meter. The blue and yellow “Danny Jones, Charleston Mayor” sticker on his rear bumper ensures he won’t be ticketed.

Inside, Jones makes small talk with the receptionist and says hello to news director Jeff Jenkins before stepping into the subterranean broadcast studio. He carries no notes or other preparatory material other than the newspaper he had at Starbucks earlier in the morning. “When I go on the air, I never know what I’m going to talk about,” he says.

He has no difficulty filling the silence. In the radio studio, Jones is animated behind the microphone. He shakes his head, swivels in his chair, and talks with his hands. He muses about the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the U.S. Senate’s promise to block any appointee from the Obama administration. He talks about the sentencing of executives from Freedom Industries. Owner Dennis Farrell and CEO Gary Southern each received 30 days in jail, while other officials got probation. “They should’ve gotten a lot more time,” Jones tells radio listeners. “The damage those people did to this community is incalculable when you think about it. Three hundred thousand people were affected by what they did … and it lasted for days and days and days.”

He also talks about the political battles being fought at the State Capitol a few miles away. Jones, who served two years in the House of Delegates before leaving to run a barbecue restaurant full-time, says the state is in the worst financial shape he’s seen. He criticizes lawmakers—of both parties—for not doing more to fix it. “This is conviction-driven government. They have no new taxes. That is what they believe,” he says. “Where’s the money going to come from?”

Jones holds up Charleston as a model of effective government, touting his town as “a sea of certainty.” “A place where we give great service. A place that has good finances, unlike the rest of the state. I’m so glad we planned for 13 years. We put things in order. We did things the way they needed to be done,” he says. But he doesn’t spend too much time congratulating himself—he wants to hear from listeners.

Throughout the hour Jones asks again and again for calls. Two people phone in wanting to talk about medical marijuana. Jones isn’t against the idea, but is skeptical state lawmakers would legalize pot. Someone else calls in to ask why the city hasn’t sued over the Freedom Industries spill. “Can I answer that? We have,” he says.

He continues pushing listeners to call in. He wants something to sink his teeth into. Danny Jones wants a challenge. “We’ll take your calls and talk about any issue you want to talk about,” he hums into the microphone as the show draws to a close. “We have about four minutes left if you’d like to call the show. We’d like to hear from you if you’d like to ask me anything. You know, I am the mayor.”

A Boy and His Bird

This story originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

For more than a millennium, people in Japan and China have used aquatic birds called cormorants to help them catch fish. Fishermen tie hemp snares around a trained bird’s throat so that, when the animal dives into the water after its prey, big fish remain stuck in its gullet. The fisherman then brings the bird back onto his boat and makes it spit up the trapped fish.

In West Africa, the Boran people of Ethiopia have for centuries worked alongside a bird known as the greater honeyguide. The bird leads tribespeople to honeybee nests using its calls and flight patterns. After the humans smoke the bees away and rob the honey, the bird gets to eat the leftover wax and insect larvae.

In Randolph County, West Virginia, Collin Waybright and his red tailed hawk Ace have been hunting together for about a year. Ace flies from tree to tree as Collin walks below. “He knows I’m going to flush something out,” Collin says. When a critter eventually does emerge from the underbrush, Ace dives from his perch and—usually before Collin knows what is going on—overtakes the prey and quickly dispatches it with the crushing grip and razor-sharp tips of his talons.

This bird isn’t much interested in fish or honeybee larvae. He prefers to hunt chipmunks, although he and Collin caught their first grey squirrel together last November. Ace once caught a king blacksnake, too, which gave Collin quite a scare. “They’ll take anything they can catch. You never know what you’re going to get if you go hunting with a hawk,” he says. “It’s never a boring time.”

Never boring and almost always successful. Collin says Ace catches something almost every time he goes into the woods—which is more than any other hunter can say for his prized shotgun or rifle. This is probably why ancient humans got the idea of hunting with birds in the first place. “I think at some point early man realized these birds were catching the quarry he himself was pursuing,” says Matthew Frey, co-founder of the West Virginia Falconry Club.

The origins of falconry are hazy. The practice likely goes back before the written word, but historians know the Mongols practiced falconry between five and six thousand years ago. It spread throughout Asia and the Middle East—there is even a mention of the sport in the Quran—but did not take hold in Europe until the Crusades, becoming extremely popular during the Renaissance period.

It was more than an entertainment, however. “Way back when, it was a viable way of bringing meat,” says master falconer Paul Fowler. Reliable firearms were not available until the 1700s and even then the weapons were not very efficient or accurate. “Even then, falconry was one of the only reliable ways to take winged prey,” Paul says.

The sport declined in popularity as weapons improved. It is relatively obscure today, with only a few thousand licensed falconers in the United States and fewer than 20 falconers in West Virginia. Matthew says he has seen increased interest in falconry over the last few years, but he also knows the sport likely will not and maybe should not become totally mainstream. “It’s really not for everybody. And, in fact, the people that are successful are a small, esoteric few,” he says. “You really have to be an expert in it, and to be an expert you have to be passionate about it.”

At 15 years old Collin is, as far as he knows, the youngest falconer in the state. He got his apprentice falconer’s license when he was 14, after being introduced to the sport at West Virginia’s Celebration of National Hunting and Fishing Days at Stonewall Resort State Park. At an age when most boys his age are thinking about learner’s permits, Collin began the long process of becoming a licensed falconer.

West Virginia law requires beginning falconers to pass a huge multiple-choice test and have all their equipment inspected by the Division of Natural Resources. Applicants must then spend two years under the tutelage of a more experienced falconer. Collin didn’t know any falconers when he started but contacted the DNR and found, as luck would have it, there was a guy about 10 minutes away who could help him get started—Paul Fowler.

Once he passed his test and had all the necessary equipment, Paul helped his apprentice catch his first bird. State regulations only allow apprentices to hunt with red tailed hawks or American kestrels, and each student must catch their own hunting birds.

Paul loaned Collin a Swedish goshawk trap. The device features a hinged A-frame design so when it is set, the sides stand straight up to expose a bait animal in a special compartment at the bottom of the trap. When a bird swoops down after the bait, the sides of the A-frame snap together and enclose the raptor.

In early January 2015, Collin and Paul dropped the trap along a back road and drove away, hoping a bird of prey would come along and be hungry enough to take the bait. When they returned a short time later, the trap was closed. Collin’s pulse quickened but he tried not to get his hopes up. “I thought the trap had been blown shut or something. We drove closer, and there he was.”

Inside the box was a red tailed hawk—the bird soon to be known as Ace.

He was a little on the small side and missing one of his toes, likely from a bad encounter with some would-be prey. Paul helped Collin put a hood on the hawk to calm the bird down, then taped Ace’s legs together and wrapped a towel over his wings to keep him from hurting himself or someone else. Back at Collin’s house they placed the hawk in the eight-foot-square “mew” Collin and his dad built to house the bird, and hooked anklets and a leash to his feet.

Collin and Ace began training the next day. The first step was to get Ace to eat from Collin’s glove, a way to establish trust. Food is the only thing that motivates a bird of prey. Raptors used for falconry do not desire the approval of their human partners, and do not consider hunting as a means of play. This means falconers must keep an extremely close eye on their birds’ weight and food intake, keeping them hungry enough to cooperate but not so hungry they become malnourished.

Once Collin earned Ace’s trust—and established himself as a reliable source of food—it was on to the next step: getting Ace to jump from his perch onto Collin’s leather glove. The more they practiced the farther Collin moved from the perch, giving Ace the confidence to jump longer distances. Soon they moved this exercise outside the mew. With Ace attached to a creance—a cord falconers attach to their birds’ feet to keep them from flying away during training—Collin started jumping the little hawk from 50 feet away, then slowly progressed to 150 feet. Once he was comfortably flying 150 feet to Collin’s fist, it was time to give Ace his first free flight.

Collin walked to a field near his home with Ace firmly planted on his gauntlet. It had been only two weeks since Collin first trapped Ace, and he was nervous about what would happen once he allowed the bird to take off on his own, with no tethers on its feet. “It was nerve-wracking. Some people’s birds just up and go.”

Standing with his arms and legs apart, Collin turned at his waist and stretched his arm toward Ace’s target—a large trailer filled with hay bales. The bird took off, fast. The tracking bells on his feet jingled as his wings flapped, and in a few seconds Ace was perched atop one of the bales. Collin blew two sharp chirps on his whistle and Ace came off the perch, soared across the snowy ground, and lighted back on Collin’s forearm.

His nerves dissolved into a heady rush. He repeated the exercise a few more times, and each time Ace found his perch before returning gracefully to Collin’s arm. It wasn’t long before they took these newfound skills into the woods. There is a video on Collin’s Facebook page, showing him flushing an animal from a big brush pile with a large stick. Ace sits atop the heap with his eyes peeled for movement. In an instant, he drops off his branch and onto the ground—his talons wrapped around a chipmunk.

The power dynamic is fascinating. We humans are so used to being at the top of the food chain and yet, when Collin goes hunting with ace, he is mostly relegated to the sidelines. He is the bird’s assistant—and it’s exhilarating. “I have this relationship with this wild animal that not very many people get to have. He actually comes to me when I call him,” he says. “And you’re hunting with it. You’re working with it cooperatively.”

Falconry creates a unique, rewarding relationship between birds and mankind, but it’s nothing like most relationships humans forge with animals. Although they work closely together, Ace does not seek Collin’s approval and does not express love. Some days Ace will allow Collin to pet him but on other days he’s skittish and does not want to be touched. Some days he’s ready to hunt. Other days he’s not interested. “They’re always going to be wild, no matter how long you’re with them.”

But the boy and his bird do share a special bond. The longer Collin hunts with Ace, the more he understands his hunting partner. “You figure out how it thinks.” Collin believes Ace is learning about him, too. He has seen the way the hawk reacts to his body language and emotions. Ace is learning how Collin thinks, too. “He trusts me.”

* * *

As we were readying this story for publication, I got a call from Collin’s mother Marsha. “I have some bad news,” she told me. Just a few days after our interview, Collin found Ace on the floor of his mew, dead. “It looked like he had just dropped. My heart just sank to my stomach,” Collin says.

There were few signs the hawk was sick. He was a little sluggish a few days before but seemed fine otherwise. “He had performed awesome. He was coming to the fist even before I whistled,” Collin says. Then all at once Ace stopped eating and wouldn’t hop on Collin’s glove.

The family called the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Fairmont for help, and made arrangements for Ace to see one of the center’s veterinarians if his health did not improve. The hawk took a turn for the worse before that could happen, however. Collin is still working with the center to figure out what killed Ace but they believe it could have been a congenital condition. His time with Collin might have even lengthened his life—captivity has been known to double or even triple the average lifespan of red tailed hawks.

Ace’s death hasn’t affected Collin’s interest in falconry. He plans to get another bird, he just doesn’t know when. “It’s just part of the sport. You get a bird and you like it and you keep it, it’s going to happen eventually.”

But that doesn’t make losing Ace, his first bird, any easier. This was the animal whose willing cooperation inducted Colin into a fellowship that predates recorded history. But more than that, Ace was a huge part of Collin’s everyday routine. “It’s a way of life. You’ve got to plan everything around the bird,” he says. “I’m having a hard time just believing he’s gone.”

 

 

Blackout: Scenes from a Coal-Dependent Economy

This article was originally published in the Jan./Feb. 2016 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

One day Bill Thompson, 76, decided to just sit and wait by the front door of his Boone County home improvement store. Thompson bought Danville Lumber from his uncle after he left the Army in 1963. Business was strong back then. In the 1970s, the company had more than 70 employees on three shifts.

But this day, as Thompson waited by the front door, there were only about a dozen people on staff. The inventory that used to tally upwards of $1 million was down to about $200,000. And the phones that used to ring off the hook don’t ring as often anymore. Thompson sat and waited, and more than an hour passed before one customer walked through the door.

As the coal industry has declined, thousands of Boone County coal miners have found themselves without jobs. That drastically affects the demand for construction materials—folks who don’t have jobs don’t build houses. “And the ones that are working are afraid to spend money,” Thompson says. Most of Danville Lumber’s local sales are now for smaller stuff, emergency repairs. If a big order does arrive, it usually comes from Kanawha or Putnam County.

Danville Lumber used to offer customers in-house credit, but not anymore. “We’re scared to death they won’t pay us,” says Arthur “Cooter” Berry, Thompson’s son-in-law. “They’re going to pay the power bill before they pay us.”

Thompson and Berry understand what it’s like to have bills that are difficult to pay. In October 2014, Thompson realized the company could no longer afford to provide its employees with health insurance. He spent a week mulling the decision before finally telling employees. “I thought how many are going to quit today? I thought that would be the end of the company.” But to Thompson’s surprise, no one quit. “There’s no other jobs,” he says.

Danville Lumber has been in Thompson’s family since the 1920s. The business has weathered many ups and downs in the coal market, but Thompson says he has never seen times as bad as this. “It seems like everything in Boone County is going against you right now,” he says. “It’s a different world out here, and the public away from here doesn’t know that.”

* * *

Recent declines in the coal industry are wreaking havoc on West Virginia’s economy, especially in the southern part of the state.

The state produced 166 million short tons of coal in 2008, according to data compiled by the West Virginia Coal Association. By the end of 2014, production was down to around 117 million. The state has also seen massive layoffs during that time. In 2009, there were nearly 28,000 people working in mining jobs. That has fallen by 65 percent, with just 18,000 coal mine employees in 2014.

The slide in production and jobs can be attributed to four main factors: the ever-growing difficulty of mining coal in southern West Virginia, competition from cheap natural gas, tougher carbon emissions standards from the federal government, and a weak international export market.

These factors have been studied by economists and geologists and debated by politicians and lawyers, as they should be. But something that is often lost in those high-level conversations is the very real effect these declines have had in small communities all across West Virginia.
And nowhere has been more affected than Boone County.

* * *

In some ways West Virginia owes its coal industry to Boone County. It was here that, in 1742, European explorer John Peter Salley was exploring a tributary of the Kanawha River when he noticed a thick black seam running through the rocks along the river. Salley would dub the waterway “Coal River,” a name it still bears today.

Just like West Virginia as a whole, Boone County has based almost its entire economy on coal mining for a very long time. And for a very long time this made perfect sense because Boone County produced vastly more coal than anywhere else in the state. In 2008, the county mined 30.9 million short tons of coal. Its closest competitor, Mingo County, produced 11.9 million short tons that year.

As a result, the county government received lots and lots of money from coal severance taxes. In 2010 alone, Boone County received $5.3 million in severance taxes. The county commission used this money in myriad ways—including hiring college students for summer jobs at the courthouse, stocking rivers and streams with catfish and trout, paying for public transportation, and funding construction projects on county offices and parks.

But over the last few years coal severance monies have steadily declined, forcing the county to cut back. County Commissioner Mickey Brown says the summer job program ended around 2012. The county stopped stocking fish in 2014. In 2015, the commission dropped funding for public transportation and cut its contributions to local municipalities, the county health department, and the county parks and recreation department by 30 percent.

On January 30, 2016, the county will close its public dump, where many Boone County residents dispose of their household trash for free. The program cost about $1.2 million per year and was paid for entirely by coal severance taxes. Commissioners are also looking at ways to bring down the county’s $1 million jail bill using less expensive sentencing options like day report centers, home confinement, and drug court. Brown estimates this will save the county about $150,000. “We knew things were going down but we didn’t know how drastic it was going to be,” he says.

* * *

The lights are off in the front room of Bill Stone’s office in Danville. He sits behind the receptionist’s desk with a large cup of coffee and some store-bought muffins. He has Fox News on a small television screen but the sound is turned off.

Stone, 77, is dressed in hiking boots, pressed chinos, and a denim shirt with his company’s name embroidered on the left lapel: J&R Cable. He started working here in 1980 and bought the business from its original owners, J.R. Roger and Larry Javins, three years later. He never bothered to change the name, or even add his own initial. There wasn’t time.

The business provides industrial-grade cables to underground and surface mining operations. Since mines use a lot of power, they need a lot of heavy-duty cables. In the good years—basically anytime before 2008—J & R Cable serviced between 50 and 60 mines in a 150-mile radius from its Boone County headquarters. Now the company has about 10 clients.

At one time Stone employed 17 workers. Now there are just eight people, including him. As business has dried up, Stone has been forced to cut back on overtime. Three years ago, he cut his employees back to four days a week. That’s why the office is dark—his office staff is out on Fridays.

Stone says there isn’t any way to pivot the business, to find new clients for the service he offers. A few times a year he might get a call from a gravel pit or cement company, but those businesses don’t need nearly as much cabling as the mines.

Nearing his eighth decade, Stone would like to retire in the next few years. But even quitting might be difficult. “I don’t think this business will ever sell. It’s not feasible or practical.” He imagines the company will have to be liquidated, sold off piece by piece. He jokes he’ll turn the property into a bed and breakfast. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. They’ll be mining coal, but it won’t be like anything we’ve seen in the past.”

* * *

In a small cinderblock gymnasium, under humming lights, a crowd of about 90 people sat on folding chairs and plywood bleachers waiting for a meeting to begin. Members of the Boone County Board of Education and school system administrators sat at a long table at the front on the room.

Off to the side was a large projection screen showing a PowerPoint presentation with an unwieldy title: “Reasons and Supporting Data Required for the Closure of Nellis Elementary school and the Consolidation of Nellis Elementary with Ashford-Rumble Elementary.”

Boone County Schools had three of these meetings in fall 2015, one for each of the three elementary schools that will permanently close once this school year ends. It’s not uncommon for counties to close schools but usually when that happens students are moved into larger, newer, nicer schools. Not here. Students at the three closing schools will just be sent to three other small elementary schools.

It’s a drastic cost-saving maneuver, but a necessary one when you look at the school system’s budget. The county’s student population fell from 4,599 in the 2013-14 school year to 4,331 in 2014-15, leading to a $1.2 million cut in state Department of Education funding. Then in October, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin called for a 1 percent cut in state aid to schools. That cost Boone County $176,000.

But worst of all, the county’s property tax income has taken a major hit. Collections fell by $2.2 million between the 2014 and 2015 budget years. During the first four months of the 2016 budget year, property tax revenue was $4.8 million lower than it was the year before.

The school system had only one option to make up the shortfall—deep budget cuts. “We tried our best not to touch our schools,” Superintendent John Hudson says. The school board cut operation costs, eliminated 37 positions in middle and high schools, as well as five positions at the central office. That amounted to $2.6 million, but it wasn’t enough.

Closing the elementary schools is expected to save around $1.8 million. Hudson figures he will have to find an additional $1.6 million in cuts just to balance next year’s budget. “People say, ‘Do something else.’ Well, what is the something else?” he says.

All West Virginia schools receive money from the state Department of Education according to the size of their student populations. Many counties supplement that income using property taxes, collected through regular and excess levies. For a long time schools in the southern part of the state greatly benefited from these levies, because they were able to collect property taxes from coal mining operations.

During the industry’s salad days, Boone County Schools were able to hire as many as 130 more employees than state education funding allowed, based on that property tax money alone. “We had that luxury,” Hudson says.

Now things are heading in the opposite direction. “When you see companies going out of business, that affects our tax collections,” Hudson says. He sees the evidence every time he leaves his Madison office and drives on West Virginia Route 85 toward Van High School, or State Route 3 toward Sherman High School in Seth—big pieces of machinery being hauled away on the backs of trucks. With each one that crosses the county line, Boone County Schools loses a little more money.

The economic realities of the situation provided little comfort to the parents, teachers, and community members for at the consolidation meeting at Nellis Elementary, however. Some parents begged—and some demanded—board members find other ways to save money. “Give yourself a pay cut,” said Sandra Evans, whose grown children once attended Nellis.

Robert Blaylock, a parent, suggested cutting one of the system’s two assistant superintendents. “You’re taking the heart plumb out of this community,” he said. Kim Lay, who has taught at Nellis for 10 years, asked if the board was going to let “the almighty dollar” cloud their judgment. “Cuts need to start from the top. Not our children. Not our future.”

* * *

Christina Adams spent more than 20 years in the classroom, including 10 years teaching kindergarten, before she became principal of Wharton Elementary three years ago. “I just felt like I was ready for that challenge,” she says. “I wanted to make a difference. A big picture difference.” She says she cried for a week when she found out Wharton would soon close its doors for good.

With three fewer schools to staff, Boone County will likely lay off many teachers and service workers, although it’s still unclear how many layoffs will be necessary. Adams will have a job next year—she has over 25 years seniority with the school system—but it’s doubtful she will be able to find another principal position. “Change is good because it keeps you on your toes, but I haven’t got comfortable enough in this job to be ready for that change yet,” she says.

It hasn’t been an easy couple years for Adams’ family. Her husband worked for Patriot Coal and was laid off for three months in 2014 before going back to work for about a year. He was laid off again in March 2015. “We saw the handwriting on the wall and decided we’ve got to have a plan B,” Adams says.

Her husband had been making extra money by running heavy machinery. He decided in July 2015 to make that his full-time job. Business is doing “fairly well,” Adams says, but she doesn’t know what will happen if the venture doesn’t work out. “There’s no plan C. Plan C might be to move out of state—although that’s not what we want to do.”

Adams has seen many families in her school face similar decisions. When she first took the job, Wharton had 124 students. Now the school has 96. “A lot of them, parents come in and say we’re leaving the area. I’m going out west, I’ve got a job, I’m taking my family and going.”

* * *

It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to pinpoint ways Boone County might have avoided its current financial turmoil. The school system could have consolidated some of its elementary schools years ago to avoid having to shutter three schools at once. The county commission could have depended less on coal severance money to fund services. Leaders could have put more emphasis on diversifying the economy, creating more opportunities at home for young people.

But it’s also easy to see why none of those things occurred. “We were so spoiled by coal and what it was doing for us we were never able to bring in another industry,” says Bill Stone at J & R Cable.

There are a few reasons to be hopeful about the coal business. “Some doomsday people are saying coal is going to go to zero. That is absolutely not true,” says John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Deskins’ office released a report last year predicting coal production will drop to 98 million short tons in 2016 but rise to about 105 million tons in 2020. Rising natural gas prices, a continued demand for coal in the steel industry, and a healthy international export market will fuel this resurgence, Deskins and his team believe.

But what happens from there? In the worst-case scenario, annual production could fall to 80 million short tons by 2035 if the government imposes strict carbon-cutting environmental regulations, Deskins says.
In the best-case scenario, a growing global economy will drive up the demand for both steel and coal.

This will not be enough to completely revive the industry, however. “We don’t expect anything like we saw even a decade ago,” Deskins says. “Best case scenario, coal may go back to 110 or 115 million (short tons per year), and that’s still a big drop.”

Which scenario is more likely? It doesn’t really matter. Even in the most optimistic future, West Virginia’s coal production will still only be a fraction of its heyday. Which means, at least for the foreseeable future, the people of Boone County and the rest of southern West Virginia will continue to face some very difficult choices.

* * *

About a month before their ninth wedding anniversary in October 2015, Brittany and Derek Chase packed up their three children in the family minivan and made the ten-hour drive from their home in Boone County to an apartment in Bristol, Connecticut. They stayed there for two months before moving again, this time to Hazelton, Pennsylvania. They will probably move again in a couple more months—Brittany hopes to somewhere warmer.

The Chase family has adopted this nomadic lifestyle because of Brittany’s new job. She is a travel nurse, transferring between hospitals every few months, wherever there’s a shortage of help. It’s a career move she has wanted to make for a long time but Derek was always hesitant. “We’d talked about it before but we didn’t do it. I still had a job and I didn’t want to pick up and move,” he says.

His hesitation waned once his employer Patriot Coal declared bankruptcy. Sensing layoffs in the near future, Derek applied for a job with CSX. He got the job, but the railroad kept pushing back his training—first it was scheduled to begin in July, then August or September, and then it was canceled altogether. CSX is having financial difficulties of its own, partially because of the lack of coal being shipped on the rails.

The family decided it was time for a change. Brittany hired on with a travel nursing agency and they headed for New England. It was excellent timing. Just two months after they arrived, Patriot laid off 1,900 workers in Boone and Kanawha counties, including Derek’s former coworkers.

Their new life in New England has been an adjustment. Brittany is now the family’s sole breadwinner. Instead of going off to work, Derek now spends his days homeschooling the kids while trying to finish his bachelor’s degree online through Marshall University.

Their children—Rylee Jo, 2, five-year-old Jackson, 5, and Brooklyn, 7—are adjusting well, making new friends in each new place. “They think it’s the best thing ever,” Brittany says. But after the family returned from a trip back to West Virginia for Thanksgiving, they started asking why they couldn’t go “home.”

For Brittany, missing home is mostly about missing her mom. “Every time I talk on the phone with her, she cries,” she says. “I feel like I’ve broken my mom’s heart.”

Speed Limits

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

Patrecia Gray’s home is tucked away up a narrow hollow in Mason County. She bought the property in the 1970s with her husband, partly because it reminded her of the Laura Ingalls Wilder book On the Banks of Plum Creek. “We were just going to rough it, and we found out how rough it is.” The property is connected to the outside world by a gravel road. It’s a source of constant consternation for Gray. The gravel often washes out when it rains. State workers come and repair it, but the fix is always the same: more gravel dumped in the road to be washed away when the next downpour arrives.

From a purely economic point of view, the state’s strategy is simple. There are only a few homes in Gray’s hollow and gravel is pretty cheap, so it doesn’t make much sense to spend lots of money paving the road. But economics do little to ease Gray’s mind. After all, she’s the one who gets stuck when the road washes out.

Gray’s other connection to the outside world, her Internet connection, is similarly fraught. Although she only lives about a dozen miles from Point Pleasant, she’s too far into the country to join the cable company’s network. She used a dial-up connection for a long time, longer than most other Internet users, but ultimately found it to be too slow and unreliable.

For a while Gray hoped Frontier Communications would bring its highspeed DSL broadband through her phone lines, but the company eventually decided against it. You can probably guess why. It’s the same reason the state won’t pave her road—too few beneficiaries for too large an investment. “They just say we’re on the end of the line here,” Gray says.

She now uses Frontier’s satellite Internet service. While much faster and more reliable than dial-up, it still has some drawbacks. Gray gets a limited amount of bandwidth each month and if she exceeds that amount, as she often does, the speed of her connection drops way down.

Gray is no super-user. She relies on the Internet for the same things as most of the rest of us—email, web browsing, keeping track of family members on Facebook, and watching videos on YouTube. Her husband is a teacher and mostly uses the connection for work, making lesson plans and remotely accessing his school’s network to update students’ grades. But many times, the connection is just too slow and he gets frustrated. “There’s been times he just shuts it down,” Gray says. Frustrating as it might be, the couple has come to terms with their slow connection. “It’s like a bad tooth,” she says. “If you can’t get it pulled, you just learn to live with it.”

Lots of West Virginians find themselves in similar situations. While about 90 percent of state residents have access to hardwired Internet connections in their homes, the Federal Communications Commission says the majority of those connections are much too slow. Since 2010 the FCC defined “broadband” as Internet connections with download speeds of four megabits per second and upload speeds of one megabit. That’s comparable to using a smartphone connected to a 4G wireless network—just fine for most Internet activities like web browsing, checking email, and basic video streaming. But as technology has advanced and more Internet-enabled devices have entered the home, the FCC announced in January its four-megabit standard was “dated and inadequate.” Now the agency requires speeds six times faster than the old benchmark—25 megabits per second—before a connection can be considered “broadband.”

According to that new definition, West Virginia ranks 47th in the nation for overall broadband access. More than half of the state’s residents do not have access to broadband Internet. Only Arkansas, Vermont, and Montana rank worse. West Virginia’s urbanites fare better than rural residents. Only a third of city dwellers do not have broadband access, according to the new FCC definition. It’s a much different story for the state’s rural communities, however—three-quarters of those residents do not have adequate Internet speeds. These statistics are far worse than the norm. Nationwide, eight percent of urban residents and a little more than half of rural Americans lack access to broadband that meets federal requirements.

Many state leaders worry West Virginia’s lack of access will hold back our economic growth. “You can’t transition if you don’t have this tool.” says U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who has declared broadband expansion as one of her top priorities in Congress. “Everyone wants sewer, water, and transportation, but if you don’t have the ability to transmit designs if you’re an engineer, or transmit photographs if you’re a photographer, you’re really hemmed in.”

It’s an important, complex issue that lots of people are hoping to solve. But in the last year, two potential paths forward have appeared. One aims to increase the number of Internet service providers (ISPs) in the state, hoping increased competition will drive providers to expand their networks. The other approach, favored by the state’s largest Internet provider, aims to stretch service to the outer edges of the existing network.

Each approach has its fans and its detractors.

Slow Traffic Ahead

Before we begin talking about those possible solutions, however, it’s important to understand how the Internet works. Think of it like a giant highway system made of wires. All your news stories, Facebook posts, and Netflix movies are carried down this highway in packets, like millions of tiny trucks. These packets ride on “core networks” that run between large cities, like major interstates. Each of these cities have off-ramps known as “carrier hotels,” where your local ISP taps into the core network.

Your packets leave the interstate, take one of these offramps, and turn onto your ISP’s “middle mile” network. This would be the equivalent of state roads in our analogy. This collection of wires carries the data to intersections connected to smaller roads. These “last mile” connections make up the final leg of the journey, like a county route, delivering data to your home or business.

West Virginia’s broadband speeds are slow because some of our “local roads” have very low speed limits. The core networks and middle mile networks are pretty fast—they’re strung together with fiber optic cable, which transmits data using waves of light. Data can travel on these wires as fast as an ISP’s servers will allow, since nothing travels faster than the speed of light.

Things begin to fall apart as we get closer home, however. In West Virginia, the last mile connections are almost always made of copper. These are the telephone lines or coax cables that deliver the Internet to your house. Copper wires transmit data through electrical currents that, unlike light, get weaker over long distances. That means ISPs have to use repeater stations, which recharge the data so it can continue on its way. The farther customers live from an ISP’s repeater station, the slower their connections go. Many customers, like Patrecia Gray, live so far away the connection will not work at all.

To see significant increases in Internet speeds, West Virginia would have to beef up its Internet infrastructure. That could mean more copper wire and repeater stations. Or, if we are truly forward thinking, fiber connections extended to homes. A few things hold this progress back, however. West Virginia’s geography is so challenging and our tiny population is so spread out, it would take a lot of time and money to expand and upgrade the network. And if there’s one thing our state lacks at the moment, it’s money.

One young state lawmaker believes he has figured out a solution to this dilemma.

The Middle Mile

About halfway through the 2015 legislative session, state Senator Chris Walters introduced a bill to construct a new 2,500-mile fiber network with tendrils stretching to every corner of the state, at an estimated cost of up to $72 million. Internet service providers would lease access to this middle mile network, with the proceeds used to cover construction costs and upkeep of the line.

Walters says a state-owned middle mile would increase Internet speeds while also keeping costs down for subscribers. Right now large ISPs are the only ones with middle mile lines. Since they own these networks, they can charge smaller ISPs whatever they like for access. This reduces competition, Walters says, which reduces companies’ incentives to cut subscriber costs or increase speeds.

He believes a state-owned middle mile would level the playing field and increase competition, which would result in fast, cheap Internet. Walters hopes this would encourage more businesses to open in West Virginia. In fact, an economic impact study produced by West Virginia State University estimates the fiber line would create 4,000 permanent jobs and add more than $900 million to the state’s gross domestic product in just the first year after its completion.

Walters’ bill did not gain much traction in the Legislature this year, however. It passed the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee—which Walters runs—only to die in the Senate Finance Committee amid a logjam of other legislation. But its author is not deterred. He believes the legislation stands a much better chance of passing in 2016 and plans to introduce the bill as soon as the Legislature reconvenes in January.

He has spent the last year lobbying fellow lawmakers—Senate President Bill Cole even referenced expanding broadband when he launched his gubernatorial campaign in June—and building a “ground game” with like-minded organizations. “We have a groundswell,” Walters says. “This is our generation’s interstate system. It’s just as important. If you don’t have an interstate of fiber to get there, building the off-ramps is impossible.”

Walters’ “middle mile” bill will be one of Generation West Virginia’s top legislative priorities in 2016, says Executive Director Natalie Roper. “This isn’t about Netflix. It’s so much more than that,” Roper says. “It’s really about business and economic revitalization. We can’t think of anything more fundamental to attract the next generation.” Without modern, high-speed Internet connections, she says, the state’s economy cannot move forward. “Broadband is everything. It’s critical infrastructure just like highways and water and sewage.”

Both Walters and Roper admit Internet service providers have trouble justifying investments to connect the state’s most rural citizens. It’s an expensive undertaking, with not much initial return on investment. “This is why we need a state investment,” Roper says. “If it doesn’t make sense for private companies to create this infrastructure, we need the state to come in and provide that valuable investment.”

The Last Mile

Not everyone likes Walters’ plan, however. “Spending time and public money on things that are already there doesn’t make much sense,” says Andy Malinoski, spokesman for Frontier Communications, the largest ISP in the state. While Walters’s bill would spend the state’s money to build a new middle mile network, Malinoski says the work has already been done. Frontier, along with other large ISPs, already have high-speed fiber lines running all throughout the state. “That would be like creating another four lane up to Morgantown,” he says.

Malinoski says West Virginia’s Internet connections are plenty fast, even though the FCC’s new broadband definition conveys a much bleaker—and, in Frontier’s mind, skewed—picture of Internet access in the state. While many residents do not have 25 megabit access, Malinoski says most households don’t need or even want the service. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai agrees. In a dissenting statement released alongside the agency’s new broadband definitions earlier this year, Pai says most consumers are perfectly happy with slower speeds. “Seventy-one percent of consumers who can purchase fixed 25 (megabit) service—over 70 million households—chose not to,” he says.

Malinoski questions the purported economic benefits of Walters’ project. He says access to super-fast Internet service is not enough, in itself, to spur business growth. “There are other factors as to why people relocate to West Virginia,” he says.

Frontier does acknowledge that many areas of the state still have difficulty connecting to the Internet, let alone accessing broadbandtier speeds. But Malinoski says a new middle mile network will not help West Virginia improve its access rankings. Smaller ISPs might use the network to expand to some residential customers, he says, but will not spend money to connect the farthest hills and hollows— leaving Frontier to pick up the slack. “The rest of rural West Virginia, we’re still going to be out there trying to connect them.”

Taxpayers would be better served, Frontier says, if the state focused its investments on the wires that connect the middle mile to customers’ homes. Over the last five years Frontier has invested $460 million of its own money—plus about $60 million in federal grants—to upgrade its network. That includes extending access to nearly 190,000 state households that previously did not have connections. Last month, the company introduced 24 gigabit service to Hinton. “The mission of Frontier is to connect rural America. Where we’re taking our investment is that last mile,” Malinoski says.

The company’s distaste for Walters’ plan is understandable, since the state-run middle mile is designed to create more competition for Frontier and other large ISPs. As it stands now, these companies own the middle mile and have complete control over who uses it. This has recently caused some controversy in our state, however.

Last year, the Bridgeport-based ISP Citynet wanted to extend broadband service to Snowshoe Mountain and asked to lease Frontier’s fiber middle mile to get there. Frontier agreed, but wanted $2 million a year for access to the line. Malinoski says his company thought that was a fair price—after all, Frontier paid for the line and is responsible for the network’s upkeep. But Citynet balked. Rather than pay Frontier’s annual fee, the company opted to build its own line to Snowshoe using rights of way along the tracks at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park—for $820,000.

Also last year, Citynet asked to lease Frontier’s unused “dark fiber” lines. These lines—connecting Clarksburg with Elkins, Philippi, and Buckhannon—were already in the ground but are not currently in use. Frontier denied the request, and Citynet filed a complaint with the state Public Service Commission. In July, a judge recommended the PSC require Frontier to give Citynet access to the unused lines, based on a decade-old agreement Citynet had with Frontier’s predecessor Verizon. Frontier has since filed an appeal over the judge’s recommendation, arguing it should not be forced to help its competitors, and that Citynet has no right to the fiber.

As this issue goes to press, the PSC has not made a final decision on the matter. But for Citynet CEO Jim Martin, the issue is simple. “They control the middle mile, the highways in and out of these markets. They make the price so high, it’s a barrier for anybody to get into those markets,” he says. “And guess what? There’s no other option.”

Others argue Frontier is well within its rights to limit access to its privately owned middle mile. Elaine Harris, lobbyist for the Communication Workers of America, served on the now-defunct West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council, which gave grants to ISPs to expand Internet access in the state. She says companies like Frontier have made significant investments in the state’s broadband infrastructure and should be allowed to use the fruits of those investments as they see fit.

Harris, whose union represents many Frontier workers, also worries a state-owned, state-run middle mile like Senator Walters proposes might discourage future investments. She thinks it would give small ISPs an unfair advantage. “There has got to be some skin in the game. There has to be,” she says.

Miles to Go

No matter which solution the state adopts to solve its broadband connectivity issues—whether it’s a new middle mile, as Walters wants, or increased investment in the last mile, as Frontier wants—residents’ access to high-speed broadband Internet will ultimately depend on the same forces that keep Patrecia Gray’s gravel road unpaved. Simple economics. For all the efforts to improve and expand broadband access, there are communities in this state so small and far removed it will never make economic sense for any company, large or small, to run provide service there.

There is one surefire way to ensure everyone has access, however: Turn broadband into a public utility. After all, that’s the way rural America received electricity in the early 20th century. By allowing ISPs to become government-approved monopolies, the companies could invest in their infrastructure without any concerns about competition. In return, government agencies could control Internet costs and require providers to meet certain coverage benchmarks.

This will likely never come to pass. Internet service providers certainly do not want to be regulated by the government, no matter the benefits. Competition-minded politicians like state Senator Walters and U.S. Senator Capito don’t want it either. And although it appears some FCC commissioners may be interested in making broadband a lightly regulated utility, no one at the agency seems to intend the Internet be regulated as stringently as electricity, natural gas, water, or railroads.

Whether we invest in middle mile or last mile, for the foreseeable future economics will continue to reign. And some roads, it seems, may never be paved.

To the Dogs

This story was originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus.

When Sam Burdette first visited the Tri- State Greyhound Park in Cross Lanes in the mid-1980s, he didn’t even know how to read the program. The sheets of paper were filled with an overwhelming array of fractions and decimals, arranged in almost indecipherable rows and columns. A buddy had to help him navigate—the strange figures were statistics for each dog in a race, detailing the animal’s weight, past race times, total number of races, and odds of winning, along with the names of the dog’s owner, kennel, and trainer.

Burdette caught on quick. He won $600 on a $60 bet that first night and started mulling a strategy to make some real money. He would use the race standings to figure out which kennels had the most successful dogs, and then bet only on dogs from those kennels. Burdette was a civil engineer, comfortable with crunching numbers. He started keeping a notebook, making hypothetical bets on races based on the handicapping numbers in the program. “Each day I’d tally it up and see if I was ahead or behind. I was approaching it from an analytical standpoint.”

The experiment ran for three months. By the end Burdette realized if he had used real money, he would be $200 behind. “I said, well, you can’t buy groceries with that. My object was to take money away from the racetrack, not leave it there,” he says. “To this day, I don’t bet.”

Instead, Burdette made what he considered a safer wager. After years of hopping from state to state with his job, he moved back home to West Virginia in 1997 to take care of his ailing mother and father. He retired from engineering and decided to start raising greyhounds. He had learned a lot about the industry during his brief stint as a pretend professional gambler, and he fell in love with the dogs.

It was more than the dogs, however. In 1990 the state legislature took a portion of greyhound wagering money and created the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund. In addition to the purse money breeders received when their dogs placed in races, they would now get monthly checks from the state Racing Commission. The payout was determined by the amount of money in the fund and the number of points an owner’s dogs earned during races that month. The more dogs a breeder raised and raced, and the better those dogs performed, the larger the checks would be.

Successful breeders were soon receiving thousands of dollars each month from the fund. As a result, those breeders began doubling down on their investments. They started raising more dogs and taking out loans to expand their kennels. Out-of-state breeders began moving to West Virginia, even though they were required to live here for four years before receiving any money from the fund.

“That’s when I decided to start raising dogs,” says kennel operator Harvey Maupin. He grew up in Colorado, where his father raised and raced greyhounds. As he got older, Maupin began training dogs, and he came to West Virginia in 1988 to work as a dog trainer. He whelped his first few litters around 1995, raising the dogs in the backyard of his Cross Lanes home. He later purchased a farm in Red House in 2000. As his operation grew, he spent $140,000 to get a kennel at Tri-State, and about $100,000 for a partnership in a kennel at the Wheeling Island greyhound track. At one point, Maupin had 15 employees.

“Times were booming,” says Burdette, who is now president of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association. “The Legislature had done something that actually worked. We had created a greyhound breeding industry. Wheeling was the number-one track in the United States. People were making a living at greyhound racing.”

But then the industry’s luck began to change. Nationwide interest in greyhound racing started declining. In 2001 there were greyhound tracks in 15 states around the country. West Virginia is now one of only seven states that continue to race dogs, and the sport has grown increasingly unpopular in this state as well.

A few things are to blame for this downturn in interest. Greyhound racing has faced increased scrutiny by animal rights groups like Grey2K, a Massachusetts-based organization that tracks reports of racing-related injuries and abuse. The group’s findings often gain media attention, which has helped turn many animal lovers away from the sport. But animal welfare concerns are not the biggest threat to the greyhound industry. The major declines in attendance and revenues have come from an enemy familiar to most industries—competition.

In early 1994 the West Virginia Legislature legalized video lottery terminals—better known as slot machines—at state greyhound tracks. By September the machines were up and running at both greyhound tracks. It seemed like a mutually beneficial move for racetracks and the racing industry. Tracks gained an additional revenue stream and, because of the way legislators crafted the law, greyhound breeders and kennel operators would be allowed to continue racing while also taking a 15 percent cut of video lottery money, which was added to race purses and the breeding development fund.

But over time, the slot machines that were supposed to help the greyhound industry began to overtake it. “People switched over from racing to slot machines. They and sit there in a trance and push that button,” Burdette says. He likes to joke—not incorrectly— that it used to take all night to lose $50 at the dog track. With a slot machine, it can take just a few minutes.

Competition only increased after the legislature legalized table games like blackjack, roulette, and craps in 2007. The racetracks began rebranding themselves accordingly. In 2008 both Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center and Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center changed their names. They are now Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino and Resort. Live racing had gone from the main attraction to just one more way to gamble and was losing customers in droves to the one-armed bandits.

In addition to the troubles at the racetrack, the greyhound industry has also faced repeated challenges from the statehouse. Every few years, it seems lawmakers take a look at the millions of dollars in subsidies dedicated to greyhound racing and usually decide that money could be better spent elsewhere. In 2001 the legislature put a cap on video lottery subsidies to greyhound racing, with revenues over that cap flowing into the state’s general revenue fund. In 2005 state lawmakers took another chunk of greyhound purse supplements to create the Workers Compensation Debt Reduction Fund. Then, last year, lawmakers again cut greyhound subsidies with the passage of a so-called “haircut bill,” which reduced money for purses and the development fund by 10 percent.

The Spectrum Report

Although it was clear the greyhound racing was suffering, no one had collected the evidence to prove it. So in 2014 the legislature ordered a $68,000 comprehensive study of the industry. The West Virginia Department of Revenue hired the New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group to conduct the study, and the completed report was presented to lawmakers in January 2015. The findings were discouraging.

Although West Virginia does not track attendance figures at greyhound tracks, the Spectrum report found live wagering on races fell by 55 percent between 2004 and 2013, from $35 million to $15.8 million. Researchers also found the greyhound industry now largely relies on video lottery and table games revenues for its purse awards. When purse supplements were first put in place at Mardi Gras in 1995, subsidies from slot machine revenues made up 49 percent of total purse awards. Four years later, slot machine subsidies made up 75 percent of purses. Now more than 95 percent of total purses come from video lottery and table games like blackjack and roulette.

The additional revenue still wasn’t enough to stem the decline in purses, however. As greyhound wagering has declined, slot machine and table game revenues have also fallen as new out-of-state casinos steal gamblers away from West Virginia. As a result, greyhound purse awards declined from $30 million in 2004 to about $18 million in 2013. Without the subsidies, last year’s purses would have been only about $900,000. Most of that purse money also goes to out-of-state greyhound owners. Only $2.6 million of the $11.7 million in purse awards paid at Wheeling Island in 2013 went to West Virginia owners, according to the Spectrum report.

As surprising as some of the findings were, the report only confirmed what many people—lawmakers, greyhound breeders, and track officials—already knew. “It’s not only decreasing in popularity, it’s dead,” says Danny Adkins, vice president of Mardi Gras’ parent company, Hartman & Tyner, Inc. And so, for the first time since greyhound racing came to West Virginia in 1976, lawmakers have started looking in earnest for a way out of the dog racing business.

Decoupling

Shutting down greyhound racing is not as easy as it sounds. Back when West Virginia legalized slot machines and table games, legislators included language in the bills requiring greyhound racing to continue alongside those other activities. Casinos never loved that idea. Adkins compares it to the government telling Ford Motor Company, “you can continue to build all the F-150s you want to build, as long as you build the Model T.”

But that’s the law. If racing stopped tomorrow, so would all other forms of gambling at the casinos, unless the legislature passed another law to decouple the activities. If and when that occurs, it will be very important for lawmakers to get the legislation absolutely right. West Virginia uses gambling revenues to fund lots of programs, from the PROMISE scholarship to senior centers, and also uses the money to pay off bonds for projects like the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston and Pullman Square in Huntington. Credit rating agencies would get pretty anxious if the state compromised one of its major revenue streams.

About a month into this year’s legislative session, state Senator Ron Stollings of Boone County introduced a bill crafted by the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association to create a “greyhound racing cessation program.” The bill would have put an end to greyhound racing in West Virginia by July 1, 2015—while also taking $37.5 million from the breeder development fund to bankroll a three-year-long buyout of the industry.

The breeders association previously put forward a bill in the House of Delegates to create a $75 million buyout, but that number didn’t sit well with lawmakers. The state Senate version was more conservative and included $1 million to cover administrative costs and handle adoptions of the greyhounds. The remaining $36.5 million would be distributed among greyhound owners in the state. Payouts would be determined by how many years an individual participated in the breeding development fund, how much money the breeder received from the fund, and how many greyhounds the breeder raised. Breeders who also operated racetrack kennels would be eligible for additional compensation.

Stollings, a Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee, says he knows very little about greyhounds and did not expect the to bill pass, but he hoped it would spark conversations among his fellow lawmakers. “The writing’s on the wall. Obviously the profitability has gone south,” he says. “The idea was, let’s see if there is some way to have a graceful exit.” The bill was ultimately shoved to the side while lawmakers worked on more pressing issues, however.

For the first time in more than 80 years, Republicans were the majority party in the statehouse this session. To celebrate, the caucus took on an ambitious agenda. Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, a Republican from Putnam County, said his committee had more than 200 bills to consider over the 60-day session while also preparing the state’s 2016 budget.

Hall says his committee tried to look into the greyhound buyout but there was not enough time to adequately research the issue. “The lottery statute is very complicated and intertwined,” he says. “The unintended consequences of trying to unwind it in the last two weeks were massive.” As the clock struck midnight on March 14, bringing the 2015 regular legislative session to an end, the buyout bill was still stuck in committee.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee along with their counterparts in the House of Delegates will continue to examine the issue over the next year during legislative interim meetings. “I suspect by next legislative year, we’ll be somewhere with these decisions,” Hall says.

Burdette says members of his organization are well aware of the state of their industry. “As times change, as technology changes, they have to change their business model. If it’s no longer beneficial to have greyhound racing, fine.” But he is adamant a buyout should be included in the phase-out plan. The way Burdette and many members of his organization see it, all those purse subsidies and development fund money were a business agreement between breeders and the state. Breeders agreed to raise dogs and invest money in the industry while the state, through legislation, agreed it would make sure the dogs kept running. “We reinvested with the belief things were going to continue,” he says.

If the state should break its side of that perceived bargain, Burdette believes breeders deserve something in return. He says breeders need the cash to pay off loans and transition into other livelihoods. Maupin says the breeders association has discussed taking legal action against the state if racing ends without a buyout. “This is not a natural death. This is not just, ‘You’re a bad businessman,’” Maupin says. “They’re breaking their promise.”

But outside of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association, there does not seem to be much support for a buyout. Adkins at Mardi Gras Casino calls the idea “absurd.” Hall says while Stollings’ bill became a “vehicle” for discussing the issue, the bill would never have passed as written. He says there’s not much appetite among Republicans for a buyout. “People took on a business risk when they got into this,” he says. While state subsidies might have enticed breeders to get into the business, Hall does not believe the state has a responsibility to help them get out. “A legislature in the past cannot bind a future legislature,” he says.

There is even a group of greyhound owners who do not believe a buyout is the correct course of action. Despite what lawmakers, track officials, and the breeders association say, the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association insists greyhound racing is still a moneymaking business and should be allowed to continue. “There are plenty of breeders—a lot of big breeders in West Virginia—who are profitable,” says board member Steve Sarras.

Sarras admits the industry isn’t what it used to be. In addition to racing at West Virginia tracks, he stays afloat by sending dogs to Arkansas and Florida to race. He has also tightened his belt at his kennel in Wheeling, eliminating some bonuses and limiting his six employees’ overtime pay. But Sarras says greyhound racing remains a viable enterprise. “Have our profits gone down? Yes. Can we still sustain as a business?” Sarras thinks so.

He says breeders who are pushing for a buyout are just looking for an easy way out of the business—a government-funded retirement plan. “In my opinion, they were just trying to get a handout at the expense of state taxpayers,” he says.

Naturally, Burdette and Maupin disagree. They allege breeders like Sarras and other members of his organization are only able to make money because they are the biggest fish in an evershrinking pond. “They want to keep it going because they’re the ones making the last little bit,” Maupin says.

But Burdette admits some smaller breeders—members of his own organization—also do not want to give up on racing just yet. They hope things will eventually get better, that wagering trends will turn around and the legislature will restore cuts to subsidies. “They hope against hope,” he says.

Maupin doesn’t want to stop racing, but says a buyout is better than a “starve out.” Times have gotten tight for him. He no longer raises greyhounds—the kennel on his big farm is empty. He let the kennel in Wheeling go in November 2013 and now leases dogs from a breeder in Wheeling to fill his kennel at Mardi Gras. When he couldn’t afford his trainer anymore, Maupin went back to training the dogs himself. Instead of 15 employees, he’s down to two. His 27-year-old stepson keeps asking to join the family business, but he refuses. “He keeps wanting to be in it and I’m like, ‘No. This is not going to last.’ I keep pushing him away.”

Instead of raising dogs, Burdette now spends most days substitute teaching for Kanawha County Schools. “After I got up to my neck, I stopped wading out,” he says. He has seven greyhounds left but is working to find them homes. Except one, Hickory. Burdette plans to keep him. Hickory only ran about 30 races before being forced into retirement by an ankle injury, but during that time earned more than $50,000. “He was a good running dog—and I just like him.”

Shot at a second chance

This story was original published in the March/April 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

In late October 2011, storm winds brought down trees all around James Ball’s home near Danville, making the road to his home impassable. It was a terrible time to have a drug overdose.

Ball’s cousin, Delegate Josh Nelson, recently took to the floor of the House of Delegates to recount what happened next. Someone called 911 once it was clear Ball needed medical attention, but paramedics could not make it up the 10-mile-long hollow where he lived. Nelson and his family members tried to cut the trees out of the roadway with chainsaws. They tried to drag the trees out of the way with all-terrain vehicles. But despite their work, the ambulance only made it halfway to Ball’s house.

Desperate, they switched strategies and loaded Ball onto a stretcher, strapped the stretcher to an ATV, and hauled him to the ambulance. “Unfortunately we did not get it there in time and he passed on,” Nelson told his fellow lawmakers. “It was too late.”

Ball battled his addiction to prescription painkillers for years, Nelson says. More than once he started attending church, trying to live right, only to have his demons drag him back to the bottom. “He would kind of get better and do it again,” Nelson says. Ball had overdosed before but was lucky enough to get to a hospital in time for doctors to resuscitate him. On October 28, 2011, his time ran out.

Nelson says Ball probably would still be alive, however, if his family members had access to Naloxone, an “opioid antagonist” medication that oftentimes can save the life of someone suffering from a heroin or painkiller overdose.

The medication, sometimes known by its brand name Narcan, has been on the market for more than 30 years but, until recently, only medical professionals had access to it. During his State of the State address in January, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vowed to put Naloxone in the hands of both emergency responders and addicts’ loved ones. “By expanding access to this life-saving drug, we can prevent overdose deaths and give those suffering from substance abuse the opportunity to seek help, overcome their addiction, and return to their families, workplaces, and communities,” Tomblin said in the speech.

West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdose deaths, according to a 2013 report by Trust for America’s Health. In 2010 there were 28.9 fatalities per 100,000 people in the state, the highest per-capita rate in the nation. That is also a 605 percent increase over 1999, when the state had just 4.1 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents. Gary Mendell, CEO of the anti-drug lobbying group Shatterproof, says many of those lives could have been saved if Naloxone were more readily available.

Members of the state Senate passed a bill to deregulate the overdose antidote during the 2014 regular session, but the measure failed to gain traction in the House of Delegates. Governor Tomblin’s proposed legislation did not meet the same fate, however. It passed the Senate with a unanimous vote in early February. A little more than a week later, following Nelson’s heartfelt floor speech, it received another unanimous vote in the House of Delegates.

Tomblin signed the bill into law on March 9, so by the end of May state doctors will be able to prescribe Naloxone to drug addicts’ family, friends, and caregivers, as well as police and firefighters. The medicine can be given through a single-use shot, like an EpiPen, or a nasal spray. And while the law also created a limited liability statute for those administering Naloxone, the medicine carries little risk. It’s not even dangerous if given to someone who is not experiencing an overdose. “There’s no negative effects. It’s not addictive. There’s no abuse potential,” Mendell says.

Naloxone works by blocking the receptors in the brain affected by opioids, a category of drugs that includes heroin, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and methadone. By blocking the receptors, the medicine temporarily stalls the opioids’ effects on the body. The results usually are immediate. Most overdose victims in respiratory distress begin breathing regularly within minutes of receiving a dose.

The medicine is not without risks, however. It does not work on non-opioid drug overdoses—meaning it would be useless on cocaine or methamphetamine addicts, for instance—and overdose patients still must seek medical attention even if they feel fine after receiving Naloxone. Dr. David Seidler, chairman of Charleston Area Medical Center’s emergency medicine residency program and medical director for the Kanawha County Ambulance Authority, says overdose patients often refuse medical treatment after being revived with Naloxone. “They refuse to go to the hospital because they wake up and they’re feeling fine, or they wake up and they’re pissed off,” he says.

And Naloxone does not always last as long as the opioids it neutralizes. The medication can wear off while the other drugs are still coursing through an addict’s veins. “There’s a risk they’ll become unconscious again and potentially could die,” Seidler says. “Thirty or 40 minutes later, if they had a big enough overdose, they’ll be unconscious again.” If that happens, medical treatment at a hospital is an overdose victim’s best chance at survival.

Rodney Miller, president of the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association, says he’s glad officers will now be allowed to use Naloxone. Police often arrive at the scene of overdoses long before ambulance crews, but since state law limited the medication to medical professionals, “we couldn’t, by law, have Narcan in our possession, let alone administer it,” Miller says.

He says expanding Naloxone’s availability will not solve West Virginia’s rampant drug abuse problems. But, he admits, that’s not the point. “The spirit of this legislation is, if you’ve got a person that’s an accidental overdose, it can save their life and give them a second chance.” It will be up to the addict to decide what to make of his second chance.