An explosion rocks the mountains of Southern Appalachia. A concussion wave from the blast sweeps over the mountains and down the valleys. The trees sag with sadness as the wave moves on. The local people hang their heads. Another ancient mountain is dead, and with it, more jobs.

The people here know with every mountaintop stripped away, they are one day closer to being laid off. This is common around these parts. The people, towns and land show scars of mining operations perpetuated by greedy companies that took, took and took, then moved on when nothing was left.

Fossil fuel extraction, mainly coal, once was the lifeblood of the economy in and around the Tri-Cities. The populations of rural farming communities doubled overnight during the hay-day of fossil fuel extraction. The rail stations saw an incessant line of train cars over flowing with coal roll through daily. Gone are those days.

Students can still see evidence of coals influence at ETSU. Many are the descendants of coal miners and know they may have to leave the area to find meaningful employment. Fossil fuels are not sustainable. Coal seams run out; oil wells dry up, and fracking sometimes does more harm than good.

There is another way forward to save the coal towns and cities of Southern Appalachia. The local municipalities are catching on. The outdoor recreation industry has experienced an uptick in Johnson City for the last five years. Prototype statistics released by the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) provides evidence for approving future projects.

An act passed in 2016 by the Obama Administration tasked the agency with finding out how much of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product is related to outdoor recreation The initial findings released in February are staggering. The BEA ranks outdoor recreation economy at 2 percent of the GDP. This places the industry higher than oil and fossil fuel extraction.

These statistics support the philosophy to keep the mountaintops in place is more economically profitable than blowing them up. The people of Southern Appalachia now have an opportunity to move forward with sustainable jobs that will last as long as the mountains do.

This will take pressure from future generations to allow land use. Historically, many advocacy groups have known the profitability of outdoor recreation groups have released statistics that nearly double the value of the outdoor recreation economy, but these have been regarded as biased and not proportional to reality.

Stewards have kept the gates locked to wilderness areas and national parks to recreational users. Most have allowed hiking trials but the use has stopped there. The new generations of land stewards are facing funding issues for parks and recreational areas fearing that some may have to be closed or “harvested” for their resources.

These prototype statistics give evidence for an argument of long-term sustainability. The city council of Johnson City has realized this. New bike parks, trails, facilities and many other projects are underway in the region.

ETSU has a Campus Recreation Department that incorporates Outdoor Adventure. This is to facilitate students the rich opportunity to explore nature here at an affordable price. East Tennessee is jumping on the outdoor recreation tourism bandwagon and benefiting big from it. The full statistical and data findings will be released later in 2018. These will show just how much Johnson City and ETSU could benefit.