Appalachian Land Ownership Survey Map

The Appalachian land ownership survey was project that took place from 1979-1981 with the intent of spurring economic growth in Appalachia. The study was a result of a two year community research project that covered 80 counties across Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia. The survey was conducted as a means to examine land ownership patterns, particularly absentee and corporate ownership, and the resulting effects on regional development. With high levels of absentee land ownership in the region citizens in rural Appalachia had restricted access to their own land for sustenance or profit farming. Additionally, corporations paid little in taxes, thus profiting highly off of the region without returning any of the riches to their respective communities.

Through the unique partnership between the Highlander Research and Education Center, Appalachian State University, and the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force, a seven volume (1,800 page) study was published. Authors highlighted the negative impacts of unbalanced land ownership throughout Appalachia. Patterns highlighted in the survey’s findings served as key underlying elements explaining inadequate local tax revenues and services, lack of economic development, loss of agricultural lands, lack of sufficient housing, education, energy development, and land use in central Appalachian regions. According to the report itself, the survey served three main goals:

  1. Ownership: “To document land ownership patterns in rural Appalachia by examining corporate ownership, extent of absentee ownership, extent of individual or family ownership, extent of local ownership, rate of change in ownership patterns, relationships between ownership and land use.”

  2. Impact: “To investigate the impacts of these land ownership patterns upon economic and social developments in rural Appalachia exploring the relationships of land ownership patterns to land use, taxation structures, land availability for housing and industry, coal productivity, agricultural productivity, economic growth and stability, social development and stability.”

  3. Action: “To develop action-oriented policy recommendations for ARC*; state, federal, and local officials; government agencies; and the public to assists them in dealing with problems relating to ownership patterns” *Appalachian Regional Commision

Timeline of Events Leading to the Land Study:

1932: The Highlander Folk School and was founded by Myles Horton, Don West, and Jim Dombrowski.

1961: The school opened under a new name, the Highland Research and Education Center, in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Spring 1977: Flooding of the Tug River in West Virginia displaced thousands of residents. Coal companies were indifferent to this mass displacement, despite the fact that regional land abuse had intensified the flooding. Furthermore, the inability of government to find alternative home sites for the victims was  traced to the monopoly of local land by coal companies.

1977: Angered by the indifference of the coal companies, residents of Williamstown, West Virginia, formed a group called the Appalachian Alliance, who establish a coalition of community groups, scholars, and individuals called the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force.

Fall 1978: The Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force, receiving guidance from the Highland Center of New Market, Tennessee and the Center for Appalachian Studies of ASU, proposed to the Appalachian Regional Commission to conduct a study of the ownership of land and resources in the Appalachian region.

May 1979: Training sessions for the project began.

Summer-Fall 1979: The majority of the fieldwork was conducted.

1980: Data analysis, writing, and production of the report was completed.

February 1981: The final report was delivered to the ARC.