JAMES HAUGHT: WHAT IS WEST VIRGINIA'S BEST HOPE? - "Far From The Madding Crowd," Who Would Want Sardine-Like Living?

By James Haught / Charleston Gazette 2003

What is West Virginia's best hope?

Charleston Gazette Editor (now retired) James Haught says "West Virginia's best hope lies in being a lovely haven, far from the madding crowd."

He writes in the Gazette:

Around the world, mountain regions usually lag behind in development, education and prosperity, because of their isolation and unusable terrain. This seems to be a global pattern (except for Switzerland, which thrived by avoiding wars).

However, rugged wildness may provide West Virginia's best hope in coming years. The rest of America is becoming an urban maze of congestion, crime, noise, stress, high costs, pollution, street gangs, traffic jams and other ills of human overcrowding.

In contrast, hard-to-develop West Virginia, with fewer people, engulfed in nature, seems like a blessed sanctuary.

Our state offers charms not available in megalopolis. For example, I live on a small lake, next door to grandchildren, with a swimming beach, sailboat dock, fishing for anglers, and miles of hiking trails in the hills behind us — just 20 minutes from my downtown office.

In big U.S. cities, only millionaires could enjoy such a life, and their grounds would be artificially manicured and guarded. Further, they wouldn't have the thrill of encounters with deer, squirrels, possums, herons, Canada geese and other delightful creatures, or cookouts in craggy rock formations on ridges.

In West Virginia, some variation of this Huckleberry Finn life is available to nearly anyone, in any economic bracket.

Each time I travel to a large city, I'm dismayed and wonder how people can endure the chaos and pressure of sardine-can living.

During recent trips to Newark, Indianapolis and San Antonio, my hosts drove me for hours, but we never left the concrete jungle: endless freeways, shopping malls, office complexes, subdivisions, etc.

I joked that you can't drive 15 minutes in Charleston without winding up in the woods. I was relieved to return to our safe, gentle, green hills.

When I was born in 1932 the world population was 2 billion. Now it's 6 billion — tripled in my lifetime.

Level land everywhere is being overrun by the man-swarm.

In the 1940 census, West Virginia and Florida both had 1.9 million people. Today, we're at 1.8 and Florida is at 16. America's population in 1940 was 132 million.

Today, it's nearing 300 million. As overpopulation keeps jamming other states, congestion will worsen until much of the nation is a massed urban complex like "BosWash," the 400-mile warren of 45 million from north of Boston to south of Washington. City limits signs merely will mark divisions on maps.

But steep, twisted, tumbled West Virginia will be among the last places to become nonstop concrete and asphalt, bricks and glass, neon signs and exhaust fumes.

It will remain a refuge. Although every state has some amount of unspoiled nature, it's the predominant feature of ours.

Already, harried families from teeming East Coast cities are escaping to the Mountain State for camping, whitewater rafting, hiking, skiing, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, canoeing, backpacking and just scenery-gazing.

The more crammed other states become, the stronger will be the lure of woodsy cabins and green solitude. Vacationing may grow into the state's largest industry.

Further, the information age allows many businesses to locate anywhere there's electricity and phone lines. Therefore, more firms may decide to move out of dangerous cities and relocate in the quiet hills, where life is laid-back and safe.

The arrival of four-lane highways opened West Virginia for vacationers and new businesses. I think both of these are the state's future — not the coal industry, which has wiped out 110,000 miner jobs over the years, and will die when reserves end.

Nobody can predict demographic trends with certainty, but it's my guess that West Virginia's best hope lies in being a lovely haven, far from the madding crowd.