80 counties across Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama were surveyed by grassroots volunteers. The survey was meant to document land ownership, use, and taxation patterns by utilizing land records and records for each respective region. Of the 80 counties, 19 were selected to received more in-depth case study research to further investigate the impacts of land ownership patterns, current and past trends, and local response to those patterns and trends.
Excerpt from the 1,800-page report detailing the findings of the two-year land survey
The study revealed that “ownership patterns are a crucial underlying element in explaining patterns of inadequate local tax revenues and services, lack of economic development, loss of agricultural lands, lack of sufficient housing, the development of energy, and land use.”
The survey began with an undergrad research project focusing on the question of “Who owns Harlan County?” Joe Childers, who completed that project, found that only a handful of individuals and companies owned the land in Harlan County, Kentucky. This resulted in the inability of small farmers to sustain ownership of land and farm crops for profit, thus destroying their capacity to maintain a basic status of self-sufficiency. With the majority of the land held by an absent few (companies maintained their ownership from outside the region, residing mostly in the northern states) the production that took place on the land, and the profit gained from it, was controlled by the outsiders and taken out of the region, while leaving nothing behind but wages that could benefit the local economy.
The findings of the Harlan County study resulted in a grassroots call to conduct a more extensive study across Appalachian. In Kentucky, twelve counties were studied, and three were investigated more closely. By looking at records and interviewing people who knew owners of land and minerals, data collectors found that a lot of surface, mineral, and land ownership were held by a few companies (namely coal associations). These companies, after receiving tax exemptions from the state government on unmined coal, paid very little taxes compared to the average landowner, which allowed them to exploit local communities, and, on a larger scale, the region, in order to make larger profits. In Martin County in the 1980s, KY, for example, the Pocahontas Land Corporation owned 81,000 acres of coal-rich land and paid only seventy-six dollars a year of property tax—the same amount the average individual in the region was paying on a brand-new pickup truck. Also in that county, volunteer researchers found that a public sewer system did not exist, yet on one of the reclaimed mines, a sewer system was available for an elaborate experimental farm. The survey group began to advertise their findings and talk about the unfair tax rates to people in other communities, which inspired further involvement from citizens to correct those wrongs.
To briefly summarize the overall findings of the study with numerical data, the survey team concluded that only 1 percent of the local population—along with absentee holders, corporations, and government agencies—controlled 53 percent of the total land surface in eighty counties, meaning that only 47 percent of the land was owned by 99 percent of the population. 97 percent of the publicly owned land was owned by ten government agencies. Of the twenty million acres of land and minerals owned by over 30,000 landholders, 41 percent (over 8 million acres) were held by only fifty private owners and ten government agencies. Of the thirteen million acres of surface sampled, 72 percent was owned by absentee owners (47 percent by out-of-state owners and 25 percent by owners residing out of the country). Of the mineral rights, 80 percent was absentee owned.
Sample of field research collected by grassroots volunteers