December 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA4

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Locality-Based Programming: Virginia Tech's Powell River Project

The Powell River Project (PRP) is a Virginia Tech program that applies the land-grant research-Extension model to non-traditional program areas. PRP sponsors research and education programs to benefit the people of Virginia's coal-producing region. Funding is provided by industry, the University, and the state. A Board of Directors establishes priorities and allocates funds, a staff solicits research proposals and disseminates research results, and University personnel conduct sponsored activities. A variety of factors indicate program success, including influence on industry environmental protection practices and regulatory standards. Keys to success include local involvement, a multidisciplinary approach, and strong research-Extension links.

Carl E. Zipper
Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia
Internet Address:

Jonathan S. Rockett
Area Extension Agent
Mined Land Restoration and Development
Powell River Project
Wise, Virginia
Internet Address:

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University's Powell River Project (PRP) is a successful application of the land-grant research-Extension model to non-traditional subject areas. PRP sponsors research to address problems affecting a well-defined service region and conducts educational programs to disseminate research results. The PRP was founded in 1980 and is often cited by the university as a successful application of the Cooperative Extension concept in serving the needs of people in a specific geographic area. This paper describes the PRP program and organization.

Southwestern Virginia - PRP's Service Region

Virginia's coal-mining region consists primarily of three counties -- Wise, Dickenson, and Buchanan -- and parts of four others -- Russell, Tazewell, Scott, and Lee. These seven counties constitute the PRP service region. Located in the southwestern corner of the state, the region is bordered by eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and northeastern Tennessee. The region differs in character from other areas of Virginia: the terrain is rugged, coal mining and timber production are the major industries.

Land use patterns and economic activity in PRP's service region are strongly influenced by terrain. This portion of the Cumberland Plateau is frequently characterized as "Appalachian." Most intensive uses of land occur in narrow valleys adjacent to rivers and streams, and transportation corridors. The dendritic landscape makes it costly to extend public infrastructure, is not conducive to agriculture, and hinders location by manufacturing facilities. Limited industrial development by firms not related to coal mining has become a major concern, as coal-resource depletion and coal-industry mechanization are causing severe declines in coal mine employment. In 1995, the coal industry employed fewer than 7,000 people, 32 percent less than in 1990 when Virginia coal production peaked, and over 50 percent less than early 1980s levels.

Lack of public infrastructure accentuates industrial- recruitment difficulties and has a negative effect on local living conditions. Although usable groundwater is not plentiful and the mountainous landscape's steep slopes and shallow soils hinder placement of conventional soil-based septic systems, many communities lack access to public water and sewers.

The PRP was founded in 1980 to address coal-related land-use issues. Initial funding was provided by a major owner of coal- bearing lands (Penn Virginia Corporation) for the purpose of developing mine reclamation technologies that would improve the use-potentials of company-owned lands. Some of the initial activities addressed soil reconstruction, forestry, cattle, and horticulture on reclaimed mine areas. In the mid-1980s, additional companies were invited to participate and programming was expanded to non-mined-land issues such as water quality and the region's industrial competitiveness. Additional funding from the State's General Fund was obtained in 1984; Virginia Tech also supports the program.

PRP's linkage to Extension occurs through several mechanisms. Extension leaders serve on the board of directors along with other university administrators while PRP's staff are Virginia Tech faculty who occupy Extension positions. The Project's budget supports an area Extension agent whose primary responsibility is to conduct Extension programming based on PRP research. Several PRP-sponsored faculty hold Extension appointments.

Evidence of Program Success


A variety of factors can be cited as evidence of Powell River Project's success:

Financial Support: Direct financial support by industry is the major source of funds. Corporate support has been retained and expanded since 1980. Over $2 million in direct financial support has been provided by industry to support PRP; in addition, in-kind support -- such as assistance in establishing and conducting experiments -- has been provided to research projects. During the 1990s, fifteen coal-related firms provided funding. This is from an industry that has seen real-dollar prices for its primary product (coal) decline by over 50 percent since PRP's beginning in 1980.

Local Participation: The PRP is governed by a board consisting of representatives from the service region and Virginia Tech. Parties active on the PRP board include executives of sponsoring firms and cooperating organizations. Board meetings are well attended and discussion is active. An Advisory Council and a program development committee also emphasize local participation in a manner similar to Extension Leadership Councils.

Demand for Education Services: The PRP provides education services at a 1700-acre Education Center within its service region. The Education Center is located on land owned by an industrial sponsor, and maintained jointly with the sponsor. The center contains active mining and reclaimed land areas of various ages, many of the PRP's research projects, and land-use and reclamation-technology demonstrations based on PRP research. About 2,000 people have attended programs annually at the center since the late 1980s; most have been students at local schools. Others include personnel from industry and regulatory agencies, educators, environmental professionals, and overseas visitors. In recent years, requests have exceeded PRP's capacity to provide educational programs.

Program Evaluations: The program was evaluated favorably by Virginia Tech's Commission on Research in 1994. In 1996 Virginia Cooperative Extension's initiative to rank and target all programs ("Higher Ground") evaluated the program as having "high attractiveness" and a "strong competitive position," recommending that PRP should be "continued or enhanced." During a strategic planning process conducted by PRP staff in 1994 and 1995, external clientele consistently ranked current activities more highly than a range of potential alternatives.


Perhaps the best indicator of program success has been its impact on environmental protection practices by the coal industry and on other natural-resource problems in the region. A key factor leading to technology utilization has been the emphasis on developing technologies that improve industry's ability to protect the environment while achieving cost-effective regulatory compliance. Based on a 1995 coal industry survey, staff estimated that cost savings to industry easily exceed $1 million annually.

A number of improved land-reclamation and environmental protection technologies have been developed through research; Extension outreach programs have led to successful adoption by industry. For example, the coal industry routinely revegetates coal-processing wastes using technologies developed by PRP. Reforestation of surface mined areas is typically accomplished using tree-compatible ground covers recommended by PRP, while reduced-compaction grading (a PRP-recommended practice) is becoming far more common. A "passive" technology for treating acid mine drainage which uses microbiological and geochemical processes to replace the chemical water-treatment reagents typically used by coal-mining firms.

Coal mining and reclamation are highly-regulated activities. Changes in technology must often be accompanied by changes in regulations or regulatory agency policy. Several regulatory agencies have worked closely with PRP in modifying their approaches to accommodate research results. In 1994, for example, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality modified regulations governing use of coal fly-ash as a soil amendment during reclamation in close cooperation with a PRP-sponsored researcher. In 1996, the Virginia Division of Mined Land Reclamation (DMLR) issued a regulatory program amendment that is explicit in allowing reforestation practices recommended by PRP. The Kentucky Department of Surface Mining followed suit in 1997. Also in 1996, Virginia DMLR and US Office of Surface Mining (OSM) established a "regulatory flexibility" initiative to encourage environmental restoration of abandoned coal-mines by active operations; in 1992, PRP research documented benefits likely to result from this type of change.

Because the coal industry is an important source of employment, activities that support more cost-effective environmental protection also serve the larger community by allowing local industry to remain competitive. PRP activities have also addressed non-mining concerns. Because of geological conditions and effects of past mining, water resources are a particular concern. In 1993 and 1994, PRP sponsored a water- quality education program for area residents who do not have access to public water supplies; the program evaluation showed that many residents took action to improve the quality of their water supplies. In 1996, the Virginia General Assembly established a sub-committee to address regional water supply issues; results of PRP research had a major impact on subcommittee findings.

Environmental restoration also provides public benefits. In 1993, the Powell River Project and the Nature Conservancy initiated an effort to identify and document the worst impacts of acid mine drainage from pre-1977 abandoned mines in a watershed that harbors endangered aquatic species. In 1996, Virginia DMLR completed a plan to address the major impacts identified, using resources from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and OSM's Clean Stream's Initiative to complement the environmental restoration that will be achieved by an active mining operations.

Keys to Powell River Project's Success

Tangible Impacts and Accomplishments

From the beginning, Powell River Project has emphasized applied programs to generate tangible results. The documented success of Powell River Project in identifying problems of local concern, and in generating information useful to clientele dealing with those problems, has been essential to its retention of both financial and political support. Industry participation in the board of directors has helped PRP maintain a practical and applied focus.

Extension - Research Linkage

An essential component is a strong linkage between Extension and research. As in most Extension programming, PRP staff work with researchers to disseminate research results in appropriate forms including publications, technical workshops, and field tours. The PRP model also seeks to take advantage of the knowledge of Extension field personnel, who are closer to local concerns than campus-based researchers, in establishing research priorities.

The campus-based component of PRP operates at the University level; it is not confined to an individual college or department. Therefore, the PRP has access to a wide range of disciplinary research expertise with which to address community concerns.

Local Presence and Involvement

The PRP supports an Extension position in it service region. This Extension professional maintains an active liaison with other Extension personnel and local organizations. The insight gained through this approach enables that person to provide informed input to the research development process. Education programs provided to students in local schools through this position are supported by local communities and provide visibility for Powell River Project activities. This local visibility is important to maintaining local sponsorship, as sponsors see the funds for research coming back into the region in the form of educational programs.

All sponsored programs have local-activity components. Sponsored researchers travel frequently to the coal field area, interacting with service-area clientele while conducting research. Mine-reclamation and environmental protection research is usually conducted in close cooperation with the coal industry, often on active mining sites.

Administrative activities are strongly linked to the local level. The board of directors has a strong local membership component and real decision-making power. Funding requests submitted to PRP are reviewed by a program development committee, whose membership represents key constituencies and organizations of PRP's service region. The committee's recommendations are key factors considered by the board in allocating funds.


The Powell River Project has formed a variety of partnerships. Working closely with mine-reclamation regulatory agencies helps to assure that technology-development research is targeted towards objectives that have a real potential to be put into practice.

Partnerships also extend the PRP's funding. Most research is co-sponsored by other organizations with similar interests; in many cases, the research is initiated by PRP, and co-sponsorship funds are sought by PRP and sponsored faculty. These arrangements help PRP have a major impact despite a limited funding base.

Locality-Based Programming and the Extension Model

What can be learned from this example? How does the Powell River Project program and organization relate to the traditional Extension model? This question is especially relevant to Cooperative Extension in urbanizing states such as Virginia, where the declining role of agriculture and rural communities causes many to question Extension's relevance to the 21st century.

One observation is that the basic elements of the Extension model work. Communities and industries face a wide variety of problems and concerns; information and knowledge generated through university research can help these entities to deal positively with problems. Extension professionals have a role to play in both identifying research priorities and in disseminating results. A problem for Extension, in some areas, is the lack of a mechanism to communicate research needs from the local level to University level and to influence the research agenda. Powell River Project has established a locality-based organizational structure to raise and allocate funds. Cooperative Extension's continuing success in serving the agricultural industry shows that the Extension model works best when field personnel are able to influence the research agenda as well as disseminate research results.

An important feature of the Powell River Project is that its primary organizing feature is service to a locality. Real-world problems typically extend across a variety of academic disciplines and Powell River Project's structure allows it to employ the talents of faculty from across the university in addressing real-world concerns. Personnel representing seven of Virginia Tech's eight colleges have been funded by Powell River Project over the past 10 years. Involvement of parties from the service area in decision-making has helped to maintain the PRP's locality-based focus.


The success of Virginia Tech's Powell River Project shows the vitality of the land-grant research-Extension concept in the late 20th century. The PRP has retained financial and community support by linking research and Extension to address community needs, emphasizing local involvement in establishing priorities, and encouraging faculty participation from throughout the University. As a result, PRP has had major impacts within its service region and retained financial support for nearly two decades.

Note: A number of PRP's Extension publications can be accessed at the Virginia Cooperative Extension world wide web site ( through "Natural Resources and Environmental Management" and then "Mine Restoration and Development."