Coal country has always been home for Nathan Hall (MEM/MBA ’17), a ninth-generation native of Central Appalachia who recently completed a Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (FES), alongside an MBA from the Yale School of Management (SOM). Born and raised in rural eastern Kentucky, Hall followed an unconventional path and is now working to solve the environmental and financial crises of his homeland. He runs Reclaim Appalachia, a non-profit that aims to rehabilitate the region, where coal mining and mountaintop removal have had a strong impactrp.
In his youth, Hall didn’t see the appeal of his hometown—he wanted to escape as soon as possible. “I had to move away from the region to gain an appreciation. I realized that the green hills and hollers all around me represented a very unique topography and important biosphere, and the people themselves had many good qualities and were largely misunderstood,” Hall said.
After high school, Hall didn’t start college immediately. Instead, he moved three hours away eto the city of Louisville, which was culturally a world away. He had never really considered environmental consciousness before, but, he learned about a protest movement against mountaintop removal in Appalachia. Mountaintop removal is a form of coal mining that requires explosives to remove hundreds of feet of rock above the underlying coal, wreaking havoc on the topography of the landscape. While in Louisville, Hall worked a variety of manual labor jobs .and became involved in activism, such as helping open a community center and advocating for low-income minorities affected by chemical industry contamination. After a brief experience with the anti-mountaintop removal movement, he moved back home to eastern Kentucky to reconnect with his home region, eventually finding his way into underground coal mining. For six months, he worked underground as a belt shoveler and brattice builder, and began to think about alternatives to the “status quo.”
Hall eventually decided to continue his education and enroll at Berea College, a small liberal arts school in Kentucky that operates on a tuition-free, work-study basis. There, he created an independent major and learned about everything fromd biodiesel—fuels generated from living matter—to business management. He even worked on Berea’s farm for a few years and got his hands dirty with all aspects of agriculture. “That was the most impactful thing—the work-study experience, being on the farm and building the biodiesel systems,” Hall said.
Post-grad, Hall was awarded the Watson Fellowship, which funds a $25,000 travel grant for independent exploration abroads. Hall—who had never before traveled outside the US—went to ten different countries, from Wales to Romania, India, Thailand and beyond. He explored places environmentally similar to Appalachia, hoping to learn from the parallels and gain experience with projects that could be relevant to the region.
After taking a job with Green Forests Work reforesting strip-mined mountains throughout Appalachia, Hall felt like he needed a broader understanding of how to operate in a for-profit world. He made his way to Yale to complete his master’s degree, double-dipping in both FES and SOM. “I thought the Yale program offered the most flexibility and opportunity to combine areas that might not seem directly related, but where someone who has enough independent motivation can craft their own mix of classes,” Hall said. He reminisces about his time at Yale, having made great memories—even walking his dog in East Rock park. “At FES especially, there’s a tight-knit community of great folks with similar goals and interests,t” he said.
Hall is now president of Reclaim Appalachia, a social enterprise within the non-profit umbrella of Coalfield Development in West Virginia that focuses on both the people and the environment of the Central Appalachian region.aa. The economy has historically been heavily dependent on coal mining. “The coal industry has always been boom and bust and left the region with an unstable and undiversified economy,” Hall explained. Now that coal is on a long-term downward trend in global energy infrastructure, Hall is focusing on sustainable economic development on the large swaths of land left after surface mining. “On the one hand, there’s a need to bring back the native vegetation for a host of reasons, including water quality improvements and carbon sequestration,” he said. “However, reforestation alone cannot provide the near-term financial returns needed to create a new economic base.” The group wants to take advantage of the region’s plentiful water resources, semi-predictable weather, and unique characteristics of post-mining soils. Though it’s not possible to fully restore the ancient geology of the land, Hall and his team are working har