Date of Award

Summer 8-18-2023

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Anthropology and Environmental Policy


Christine Beitl

Second Committee Member

Cindy Isenhour

Third Committee Member

Anne Knowles

Additional Committee Members

Jessica Leahy

Darren Ranco


This dissertation presents a multi-scalar analysis of access to land in rural West Virginia, where property relations are often overlapping, confused, and contested. Addressing calls to highlight communal modes of life in the liberal, capitalocentric worlds of the global north, I present evidence that challenges the dominance of normative assumptions such as individualism and private property in the rural United States by drawing attention to the shared cultural practices of those living in the Allegheny Highlands — a biodiverse physiographic region of Central Appalachia. The results are informed by ethnographic engagement with wild food and medicine gatherers, rural landowners, resource managers, and oil & gas industry representatives who all experienced changing patterns of access as a major natural gas pipeline in the Highlands was planned, partially constructed, and ultimately canceled. For this research, I used methods including semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and document analysis.

Given its complex property arrangements and its characterization as a ‘sacrifice zone,’ Central Appalachia is an opportune location to investigate changing patterns of access and relationships to the land in the Anthropocene. This dissertation is in conversation with scholarship that has documented the widespread enclosure of public and common space, and it provides insight into how people spatially and culturally navigate an array of enclosures, sometimes refusing to leave them even as they are wastelanded. In each chapter, I present historic and emerging challenges to participation in lifeways that involve the gathering of wild foods and medicines. These challenges manifest in public lands, where access is governed by an unsteady alliance of state and market, on private lands, where formal and informal access permissions are negotiated between landowners, and in de facto commons, where claims to access are conjured and inscribed by cultural practice. As a complimentary narrative to these enclosures, I present a critical review of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, as it was granted and denied access through the public lands, private properties, and commons of the Allegheny Highlands. Doing so, this dissertation demonstrates that many of the historical and ongoing enclosures that have restricted gatherers’ access to the Highlands — like rationalistic governing traditions and corporate absenteeism — actually eased the way for the pipeline, enabling developers’ access to hundreds of miles of right of way.

While pipelines, energy corridors, and other development projects might not always be an explicit attack on local users’ access, their externalities directly and indirectly effect social, ecological, and property relations and contribute to the “creeping enclosure” (Murray et al. 2010) of rural environments. Development projects such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline fit into and benefit from a longer history of dispossession that has left many areas of the rural United States if not people-less then neighbor-less. Throughout this dissertation and across property relations, I present the creep of enclosure alongside the creep of the commons as gatherers hurdle access barriers and adapt to changing political and ecological circumstances, ensuring the endurance of collective modes of life in thoroughly liberal worlds.

Available for download on Wednesday, October 09, 2024