After a family picnic, Larry Gibson leads three generations of relatives up a rocky path to a small ancient cemetery at the top of Kayford Mountain near Whitesville, W.Va. Clutching a bouquet of wild daisies, his cousin Renda Phelps, 68, kneels at the tombstone of her niece. Gibson lingers over the grave of his younger brother Billy, who died in 2004, and closes his eyes. "A lot of history up here," Phelps muses quietly. "There sure is," says Gibson.
After a few minutes, the reverie is broken by the clank of coal-mining equipment a quarter-mile away. The constant clatter is part of life for Gibson in this rural region in southern West Virginia, an area both torn apart by and utterly dependent on the riches of coal. And Gibson, 62, has become something of a local celebrity—and an irritant to the coal companies—for refusing to sell his 50-acre patch of green. Surrounded by a barren moonscape of 7,500 acres of coal mines, Gibson's land has been in his family for more than 200 years, and he has vowed never to let it go, in spite of threats he claims he has received and no matter how sweet an offer the coal companies make him. "It would be a slap in the face to the people of Appalachia to give my heritage up like that," he says. "This land has given me life."
In coal-rich West Virginia, where mining is one of the biggest industries, Gibson's holdout position has ignited a heated debate, provoking anger among locals dependent on the jobs created by coal companies and inspiring admiration among conservationists opposed to mountaintop removal mining, a process that involves clear-cutting forests, then blasting away the tops of mountains with dynamite to get at the ribbons of coal beneath [see box]. "He's as much a hero to me as the soldiers who fought in World War II," says environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. "Larry has drawn a line and said, 'It stops here.'"
Life isn't easy for a holdout. Gibson says he turned down an offer from Massey Energy, one of the nation's largest coal companies, to buy his land for $140,000 in 1993 (Massey representatives could not confirm the offer). But his neighbors made a different choice, and soon coal companies moved in and began to dynamite every peak around him. With almost daily blasts nearby—many far more powerful than the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing—Gibson lives in his two-room cabin with no running water, supporting himself with his pension and private donations. He gathers rainwater for bathing and relies on a generator and the use of solar panels for electricity. "Larry endures the hardships of olden times," says Renda Phelps. "But he loves that mountain and it's not a sacrifice."
Nearly every week students, conservation groups or filmmakers from as far as Australia trek up Gibson's mountain for a firsthand look at the surrounding devastation—and, occasionally, the anger Gibson attracts. Patricia Lutfy, 43, brought her 9- and 10-year-old daughters from Milford, Pa., for a four-day school trip last April and says she witnessed a coal company worker harass Gibson and other parents, who were driving in a caravan led by Gibson's familiar truck, emblazoned with a "Stop Mountaintop Removal" sign, up the hill. "This tractor-trailer loaded with coal was trying to hit the car in front of me," she recalls. "This young guy was screaming at us. The kids were scared." Officials think fear of losing jobs motivates locals to lash out at Gibson. "All southern West Virginia has is coal mining," says state senator Ron Stollings. "If someone's job is threatened, they get passionate about it."
The son of an itinerant coal miner, Gibson is no stranger to adversity. Attacked in his crib by river rats as a 6-week-old baby, he suffered nerve damage that stunted his growth and left him partially disfigured. He moved to Cleveland as a child, quit school at 13 and eventually spent 16 years working as a mechanic for General Motors before returning to West Virginia in 1985. Around the same time, coal companies began dynamiting mountaintops nearby. "I heard the booms," Gibson remembers. "And month after month they got nearer." Sensing what was coming, Gibson started gathering signatures from relatives who controlled deeds to 50 acres on the top of Kayford. He brought a camper trailer up the mountain and began staying overnight on the spot where his great-grandfather's home had stood.
Then, he claims, the harassment started: anonymous threats left on the answering machine at the home he shared with his second wife, Sheila Ann, and daughter Victoria, 20, in neighboring Putnam county. (He also has two grown sons.) In 1995 Victoria found the family Labrador retriever Jumper shot in the head. The next year, Gibson says vandals shot six holes in his camper. "My mom got too petrified to let us stay up on the mountain anymore," says Victoria, who now lives with her mother about 70 miles away. "But Dad wouldn't budge. It drove our family apart."
Recently married to Carol, a childhood friend, Gibson shrugs off the threats as part of life on the mountain. His greatest reward now is playing host to his extended clan. More than a dozen relatives have built small cabins or brought trailers to use for weekend getaways. Last Labor Day, the place was buzzing with all-terrain vehicles, as cousins caught up with cousins over barbecued chicken and salads. And a few made the hike up to the well-groomed family cemetery, adorned with flowers and miniature American flags. "Thanks to Larry it's still there," says his sister Becky Steinbrenner. "It's where I hope I'll be buried when my time comes. It's where we belong."