Smith started the exercise, saying he wanted to see someone elected to the White House who would care about working people in Appalachia. Everyone agreed.
Then, Sierra Club organizer Bill Price advocated "environmental protection and sustainability in the coalfields of Appalachia." Again, support was unanimous.
Finally, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Vice President Julian Martin threw down the gauntlet. He said his only real priority was to "end mountaintop removal."
"All of these other things are fine goals," Martin said, "but if we can't save the Appalachian mountains, the rest of the country better watch out."
Smith shocked most of the room. He declined to veto Martin's proposal.
"I don't think we have a problem with the concept of ending mountaintop removal," Smith said. "If he had said end mountaintop removal tomorrow, I think we would have had a problem with it."
Smith said the UMW would continue to support its members who are currently working on strip mines. The union is also actively trying to organize existing nonunion strip jobs, Smith said.
"If there were suddenly 5,000 UMW jobs in mountaintop removal instead of 500, there would be a political element within the union to deal with that," Smith said. "President Roberts and the union can't pick and choose which workers to represent and which not to represent."
'No, no and hell no'
In late 1998, the UMW's Roberts spoke out for tougher regulation of mountaintop removal when then-Gov. Cecil Underwood had a task force examine the issue.
Coalfield residents needed more protection from blasting, Roberts said. Mine operators should be forced to plan long-term economic development projects on land they flatten, he said.
But within months, the late U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II blocked a new permit for Arch Coal's Dal-Tex Mine in Logan County. About 400 UMW members would lose their jobs.
Roberts went on the offensive, blasting "environmental extremists" during a U.S. Senate hearing and leading a boisterous rally in front of the state Capitol.
"You can't say don't burn it in Washington and don't mine it in West Virginia and say you're not trying to take the jobs of every coal miner in the United States," Roberts shouted at the rally. "And I'm here to say no, no and hell no."
After Haden's decision was overturned, environmental group lawyers picked their targets more carefully. Later lawsuits were aimed at nonunion mines, frequently those operated by the UMW's long-standing adversary, Massey Energy.
But last year, a unionized mine in Logan County got caught up in another case pending before U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin. The UMW worried that more than 200 of its members would lose their jobs if Goodwin blocked a new permit for Magnum Coal's Guyan Surface Mine east of Logan.
Environmentalists dropped that part of their lawsuit when they learned the company had already buried a stream at the site, but not before the union and its backers hosted another high-profile rally that drew Gov. Joe Manchin as its featured speaker.
Smith said last week that his comments at the Appalachian Studies conference were, as much as anything, an effort to find some common ground. If he would have vetoed the proposed mountaintop removal ban, Smith said, the conversation would have ended right there.
"We were building an agenda for future discussions," Smith said. "We have always held the position that this issue is an important issue for all of the people who live in those communities, and it's important to talk about."