In 1986, Gibson moved back to his birthplace and childhood home on Kayford Mountain and found that coal companies had started mountaintop-removal mining on his family's land, threatening his family cemetery, which was "the final resting place for his ancestors stretching back to the 18th century," reports Mackenzie Mays of The Charleston Gazette. Gibson told the Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. in 1997 that the graveyard and a nearby community park that he built was "the last 54 acres the coal companies don't own. They own all the rest. I don't think the coal companies have the right to take everything."
Gibson was among the first Appalachian people to protest publicly against mountaintop mining and faced backlash from his community as a result, according to his daughter, Victoria, 24. He was shot at, run off the road by coal trucks and burned in effigy by those who disagreed with him, she told Ashley Craig of the Charleston Daily Mail. But he never stopped fighting to save his home and the homes of other from mountaintop removal.
"When my dad passed away you could still smell the mountain air on him," she said. "You could still see the dirt underneath his nails and the stains on his hands. He was working. He lived his life devoted to the mountain."
Gibson once said, "My mother gave me birth, but this land gave me life. Growing up here was an adventure every day. I played with my pet bobcat, my fox, my hawk. All of these things, the good Lord provided on this land, But just a stone's throw away, on that mountaintop-removal mining site, you couldn't find anything alive if you wanted to. It's bare rock, uninhabitable."
He refused to sell his land for mining, and instead put 50 acres on top of Kayford Mountain into a land trust, which means it is protected and can never be sold. He built cabins there, and the area has been the site of the annual Mountain Keeper Music Festival for the last 26 years. Gibson was founder and president of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, and was director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. He traveled the world speaking with families, communities, churches and university groups against mountaintop removal.
The Keeper of the Mountains Foundation released a statement about Gibson's passing, and Ward eulogizes him on his Coal Tattoo blog, here.