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Never Call Retreat: Thoughts on Wild Virginia’s Recent Atlantic Coast Pipeline Field Tour

By: William H. Funk

The View from Shenandoah Mountain

Last Sunday morning a group of eight Wild Virginia members took a little walk along the icy crest of Shenandoah Mountain in the George Washington National Forest. The sun was dazzling, the sky the deep gemlike pellucid blue that comes with the low humidity and temperatures of earliest spring. We hiked up a snowy logging road, just across Highway 250 from the historic Confederate Breastworks, accompanied through the stillness by the occasional guttural squawk of ravens spiraling about the void above us.

Chugging up the snow and slush, skidding back downhill every time we walked over ice patches, we talked of many things but chiefly one, the reason we were there in the first place: the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion’s imperialistic land seizure is planned for this very place, a 42-inch-wide metal tube in the middle of a permanent 75-foot-wide clearcut that would carry natural gas, gouged by fracking from shale deposits deep beneath the industrializing Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, hundreds of miles to the Chesapeake Bay and to southern North Carolina. Along the way it would permanently deface the largest intact forestland remaining in the eastern United States.

As we topped the ridgeline we were greeting by an idyllic panorama of snow- laden trees and limestone escarpments stretching westward for miles and miles, interspersed here and there by the historic pastures and farmhouses of rural Highland County, Virginia’s matchless “Little Switzerland.” Silence reigned as we breathed deeply of the sharp clean air and absorbed the vista before us; only four hours from the boiling hive of the nation’s capitol, we could as easily have been in Alaska. The one feeling I recall from that moment was of an aching sense of responsibility, of an unconditional refusal to have this paradisiacal panorama stripped for all time from my friends and me.

What’s at Stake?

There are plenty of logical reasons to oppose the pipeline, all of them empirically listed by Wild Virginia:

-The fragile woodlands around Signal Corps Knob and Shenandoah Mountain would be permanently defaced, split in half and forever fragmented.

– The proposed route would negatively impact federally designated wilderness and potential wilderness areas, permanently removing the latter from achieving a wilderness designation.

– Many rare species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act such as the Cow Knob salamander are barely hanging on to existence as it is, and the pipeline would only accelerate their path to oblivion.

– The George Washington National Forest is a regional treasure for camping, hiking, climbing, hunting and fishing, with some of the best habitat for native brook trout left in the East.

-The Forest contains invaluable headwaters for rivers that supply millions of downstream communities with drinking water; pipeline leakage and contamination, streamside erosion and resulting sedimentation, and the permanent destruction of riparian habitat would inevitably occur both during construction and maintenance of the pipeline.

– Among the shifting routes that Dominion has announced (their blasé, lordly decree unveiling the pipeline proposal last spring was surely the most inept rollout since the Affordable Care Act), the pipeline would pass near Georgia Camp, a Civil War site that has not been fully surveyed and which may well contain priceless historical artifacts.

– The pipeline would be a permanent threat and burden to the health and safety of the people, towns, cities, farms, historic sites, critical wildlife habitat and water supplies along its path.

Condemning Public Land for Private Profit

Dominion—an apt name given the company’s hubristic policies—has sued nearly 100 Virginia landowners for “permission” to trespass on their property to survey potential routes, a brazen tactic fully endorsed by a conservative Virginia legislature that allegedly prides itself on championing landowners and private property rights, demonstrating that “conservative” and “conservation” can spring from the same word yet be miles apart when a multi-billion dollar extractive industry comes knocking. Even our self-proclaimed environmentalist governor, an old-time liberal hack of the Clintonian mindset with regard to political expediency, was an early supporter of Dominion’s machinations, proving yet again that in politics money trumps absolutely everything. The Shenandoah Valley, magnificently placed between protected public lands on either side of its bucolic countryside, has been known for centuries as one of the most lovely, productive and historic regions of the United States. The pipeline would permanently deface a national treasure by industrializing this magnificent forest and some of the most fruitful farmland on earth.

Let them run their silly pipeline along an interstate or a railroad, existing industrial pathways that would be more easily serviced and monitored than a route hacked through forests and family farms. Let Dominion charge its consumers—including, inescapably in this monopolistic industry, myself—a few extra bucks per month if the company’s shareholders are unwilling to do the right thing themselves. Better yet, Dominion should throw their ALC money at promoting and providing renewable energy for Virginia and North Carolina and keep as much of our carbon resources as we can in the ground and out of the air.

Those of us who care deeply about this irreplaceable forest named for the father of our country will never accede to the belligerent seizure of private property and public assets that this pipeline would entail.


Restoring the Wild

Ernie Reed, Wild Virginia Conservation Director

The Lower Cowpasture Restoration Project is the largest project ever conceived in the George Washington National Forest.  It spans over 77,000 acres and would take place over a span of 10 years. Most of the project area lies north and east of Covington and Clifton Forge and spans parts of Allegheny, Bath and Rockbridge Counties. The initial project overview includes over 3,700 acres of logging of various intensities and scales, and the burning of 11,500 acres.  It also includes some possible extreme streambank stabilization near I-64, possible stream impoundment modifications in Simpson Creek and Wilson Creek, some road reconstruction north of Douthat State Park, some invasive plant removal and a new trail system in Rich Hole Wilderness.  All of this begs the question:  just what is being restored here?

It has been said that when Europeans first explored the Central Appalachians that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Coastline to the Mississippi throughout a contiguous canopy without ever touching the ground.  There is no doubt that wolves, cougars and other large predators populated the Lower Cowpasture watershed.  Large populations of Passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) and Carolina parakeets (Conuropsis carolinensis) resided here. Large populations of freshwater mussels resided in higher order streams of the Lower Cowpasture and native trout were abundant. The American bison (Bison bison) was extirpated due to over hunting, with the last being killed in the early 1800s. The last gray wolf (Canis lupus) in Virginia, for which bounties were paid, was killed around 1900. Also hunted to extinction were the eastern elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis) and the eastern cougar (Felis concolor couguar). Believed extinct since the 1930s, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officially declared the eastern cougar extinct in 2011.

Even the name Lower Cowpasture refers to the tiniest sliver of time that followed a millennium dominated by large trees, contiguous forests and prolific wetlands and watercourses.  When European settlement cleared and burned watershed lowlands for cattle grazing, they may have mimicked some of the actions that Native Americans had implemented as they lived in harmony with the landscape.  But resource extraction for distant markets was unknown to native peoples. Settlers began to live and profit off the land instead of with the land. Species were eventually hunted to extinction and widespread logging and burning virtually spared nothing. It is noteworthy that Lower Cowpasture is named for its use by settlers by species they introduced to the area, not for any ecological characteristics of the forests that preceeded their arrival.

The forest need not be restored to any loggers, forester’s or hunter’s  snapshot that may have existed at some point in time within the last century and a half.  Our forests do not need to be restored, they need to be rewilded.

We all need to look beyond the relatively narrow cowpasture nature of the landscape.  We certainly need to extend beyond the last century that has been characterized by a forest recovering from massive desecrations. And we should do so in both directions. We should be giving full reign to natural succession and natural processes that maximize the potential of the forest to produce widespread mature forests.  These forests, and their variety and distribution of natural disturbances throughout including naturally-occurring fire, windthrow, ice storms, flooding, mortality, insect predation and decomposition produce a diversity of habitat that maximizes plant and animal diversity.  They produce pure, cold water streams and warmer more diverse wetlands that reduce erosion, mitigate flooding and maximize the storage of surface and ground water.  And mature forests maximize carbon storage to provide true resiliency and mitigation to slow climate change which otherwise poses forest changes that would significantly reduce the vital ecosystem services to the project area, region, state, nation and planet.

So what would rewilding our forests entail?  Taking down fences, closing unnecessary roads, removing culverts and recontouring rutted drainages.  Removing stream impoundments and dams that impede upstream spawning and downstream migration.  Bringing back food webs and trophic functions that have been so radically simplified.  Reestablishing top predators like wolves and cougars and keystone species that create diverse habitats and opportunities for many other species.  And large expanses of old growth forests.

The Lower Cowpasture was once boasted a series of dynamic wetlands and that dynamism creates diverse micro and macro habitats for all manner of freshwater fish and wildlife.  Increasing the populations of beavers, natures great engineers, would go far to make this again a reality.

American Chestnuts that once were the dominant canopy species in Virginia’s forests can now be successfully reintroduced and because they are shade tolerant, do not need clearcuts to be reestablished throughout the forest.  Their nuts quickly become food for wildlife and promise more chestnuts extending their range and numbers.

One of the great concepts that needs to be restored to our forests is one intrinsic to the native peoples that populated the area before the European invasion and that is the concept of sacrifice.  Native peoples made sacrifices and restrained their actions communally in order that their culture and their childrens’ children’s children would be cared for for “seven generations.”  They saw great value in restricting their actions, taking only what they absolutely needed for survival from the environment and left the rest to its own natural processes.  No one can predict the needs of the future, but if we are to take our cues from the “best available science” ,then we know how important our intact forests are to our future.

Perhaps even more important is what rewilding of the landscape means to our own lives.  When we allow nature to do its own thing, our lives become part of those dynamic processes and we are rewarded with much more exciting and mysterious ecosystems to explore and discover, mountains to climb, and rivers to run.  Wildness enriches all of our lives and fills them with wonder, enchantment, and reverence, just what is necessary for us in a world that our actions might otherwise extinguish.





Fracking Explosion in West Virginia

Wild Virginia hosted a trip to see a hydrofracturing (fracking) site last spring in West Virginia.   We wanted to see the operations first-hand and talk to landowners directly impacted by the industry because this drilling is being considered for our George Washington National Forest.  We came back appalled by what we saw and learned from landowners. Recently,  the story in West Virginia took an even darker turn.

On July 7, 2013, in Doddridge County, West Virginia, several men were operating a hydrofracturing rig, the very rig we viewed on our visit, when two large tanks exploded in an enormous fireball of methane gas, severely burning five workers. Two of the men, Jason Mearns, 37, of Beverly, and Tommy Paxton, 45, of Walton, would later die from their horrific injuries.

The fracking site was closed for one month to give Denver-based Antero Resources Corperation an opportunity to submit a revised account of what caused the explosion.  (The first account was deemed insufficiently forthcoming by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.)

Fracking has become a massively profitable extractive industry.  Conveniently exempt from federal laws like the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts and the Safe Drinking Water Act, which were designed to protect the American people and their environment, fracking is a mechanized means of forcing natural gas from deep underground to the earth’s surface where it can be harvested, shipped and sold.

The process begins with the construction of heavy-duty roads to access the drill site and to accommodate the continuous caravans of massive industrial vehicles needed to supply the millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals, that when forced underground, split the stone below to release the gas. The fleet of tanker trucks runs continuously, on both private and public roads, regardless of previous traffic patterns and the habits of local populations. Two boys, ages 6 and 10, were crushed to death last spring when a fracking tanker overturned on their car near Clarksburg.

After “overburden,” such as forested wildlife habitat, is cleared away and destroyed, a towering drilling rig is erected and a hole is bored thousands of feet into the earth, down to the ancient seabed wherein is locked the natural gas,  a byproduct of eons of slow organic decay. To access the horizontal layering of the shale deposits, outlying drills are pushed out to the side of the main bore and then a tidal rush of water, mixed with a stew of dozens of chemicals ranging from hydrochloric acid (to induce fissures in the rock) to ethanol (a “surfactant”) to tetrakis hydroxymethyl-phosphonium sulfate (a poison to kill corrosive bacteria), is squeezed with enormous pressure down the pipes and made to shatter the surrounding rock, releasing the treasure buried therein.

The natural gas is then sucked from the fractured stone and withdrawn, along with the contaminated water, to the surface. The gas is collected for processing and sale while the toxic water, or “flowback,” must according to the EPA be “treated prior to discharge into surface water or underground injection… Treatment is typically performed by wastewater treatment facilities.” What treatment facilities that exist in the impoverished hills of Appalachia were designed to treat household waste, not industrial effluent, but as mentioned previously, fracking is not subject to federal statutes protecting public water supplies.

Today across Appalachia, stretches of verdant countryside are being turned into industrial wastelands to facilitate fracking, perennially aglow with floodlights and flare-offs, fortified with barbed wire and armed security personnel, and perennially serviced by gigantic machines whose labored grinding through the hills and hollows can go on for years, or until nothing else can be wrung from the earth.

West Virginia, whose official motto translates as “Mountain Men Will Always Be Free,” subscribes to “split estate” laws, relicts of medieval England that formerly reserved the mineral rights of all land, public and private, to the distant monarch. Today, these statutes are being used to deny ownership of subsurface resources to those mountain men who happen to dwell atop them, allowing outside interests to effectively assert a legal claim to the natural gas below thier lands and do whatever it takes above ground on their land, to reach them.

Hydraulic fracturing is currently being considered by the USFS in the George Washington National Forest.  We must not let this happen.   Please sign this petition calling on the Secretary of Agriculture to limit any and all plans for drilling in the GWNF.  Fracking is flatly dangerous to air, water and, as West Virginia has recently and painfully seen, to workers on the drill sites.  

Online Petition at

story courtesy of Bill Funk

Deep Run Ponds Outing – February 5, 2012

By: David Hannah
Posted: February 14, 2012

A brief snow shower welcomed the 17 people who spent a few hours walking and enjoying the Deep Run Ponds Natural Area Preserve in Rockingham County.  We visited 6 of the 8 sinkhole ponds, though only 1 of the 6 had standing water.  The large salamander egg masses there were an unexpected but welcome sight.  And our youngest trekker, 5 year old Dylan, was very glad to finally find water at one of the “ponds.”

Chris Bowlen was her usual informative and welcoming self, leading everyone around the preserve while discussing many of the plants we saw.  (The bear scat that we saw in abundance was an added bonus.)   Gary Fleming, a vegetation ecologist with the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, which owns and manages the preserve, also added many interesting points about the plants and geology of the area.

We saw rosettes of the globally rare Virginia sneezeweed, and encountered many trees that are uncommon for this part of Virginia.  The trees included eastern cottonwood, bigtooth aspen, pitch pine, pin oak (which was abundant in the pond areas), and shingle oak.  The shingle oak was a surprise to everyone, as it was not known to occur in the preserve before the outing.

YIKES! Dominion Power Embraces Biomass Incineration in Southern Virginia

By: Ernie Reed
Posted: February 14, 2012

Virginia Electric Power is proposing to burn trees and other vegetation to generate large amounts of electricity at three of its power generating stations in Alta Vista, Hopewell and South Hampton, Virginia[1].  For the reasons stated below, this is a big step backwards in the direction that utilities should be moving – toward clean and truly renewable sources of energy.

All vegetation contains carbon and carbon is easily burned to create heat.  However, the carbon stored in the tissue of plants, when incinerated, results in the release of carbon dioxide.  The increasing presence of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere affects climate, threatening to push temperatures and sea level beyond points bearable to us, and to plants and animals without the adaptive mobility of humans.[2]

Trees and vegetation are the lungs of the earth.  More than a resource, they are a primary source of life-giving oxygen.  Trees, vegetation, and the soils they help create absorb and store carbon for the long term.  Standing forests store huge amounts of carbon.[3]  Conversely, land stripped of vegetation creates a carbon debt it cannot repay.[4]

The concept of the carbon neutrality of biomass incineration is a myth perpetrated by those who stand to profit from it.  Biomass incinerators like those in Alta Vista, Hopewell and South Hampton siphon off financial incentives from true renewables like small scale and offshore wind and solar energy.  [5]

Consider the following:

  • Because biomass has a lower heating value than fossil fuels, burning biomass emits more carbon dioxide than coal or natural gas per unit of energy produced. [6]
  • Biomass emits more nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) per unit of energy produced than coal and natural gas.[7]
  • Because of its low heat energy value and the volume of fuel required to keep the turbines turning, biomass has the highest fuel transportation cost and puts a greater demands on transportation infrastructure than fossil fuels.[8]
  • Biomass removal robs soils of essential decomposing vegetative matter and nutrients that make its use unsustainable.[9]
  • Due to the public health impacts to air quality from increased particulate, biomass incinerators are opposed by the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, the Academy of Family Physicians and Physicians for Social Responsibility.[10]

The savings created by reducing energy consumption are huge.  The costs of increasing energy supply are huge and growing bigger by the day.  If these incinerators are licensed, we will soon find that we can’t afford the cost of their fuel.  There is not nearly enough wood “waste” to fuel these incinerators even a fraction of the time.  Wood chips from Virginia and North Carolina are already shipped to Europe because that is where their greatest value lies. [11] These incinerators cannot be cost effective.   They are likely to remain offline most of the time and renewal portfolio standards may fail to be met.[12]

Dominion Power is glad to have the government pay for the changeover from coal to biomass.  It makes them look “green” and allows them to charge higher rates for their electricity.

The good news is that these three coal burners have been used only sporadically in the past few years because the electricity has not been needed and they are not cost effective.  No one has suffered while the plants have been offline.

Virginia Power now proposes to run these three incinerators 24/7.  Everyday people are finding ways to conserve, to do more with less and to tighten their energy budgets.  Dominion should follow that lead.

These three biomass plants are bad for the health and the wealth of all Virginians.  They are bad for our forests, for our agriculture and for our infrastructure.  They are bad for air, for climate and for the earth.  They should not be approved for operation using biomass as a fuel.


[1] VSCC Case # PUE-2011-00073, Virginia Electric and Power Co. – For approval and certification of proposed biomass conversion of Altavista Power Station under VA Code sections 56-580 D and 56-46.1 and for approval of a rate adjustment clause, designated as Rider B, under 56-585.1 A 6

[2] Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error (Searchinger, et. al.,Science Magazine, Oct 2009.)

[3] Luyssaert, S., Detlef Schulze, E. Borner, A., Knohl, A., Hessenmoller, D., Law, B.E., Ciais, P., & Grace, J. Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks. Nature Vol 455|11 September 2008; Zhou, G., Liu, S., Li, Z., Zhnag, D., Tang, Z, Zhou, C., Yan, J., Mo, J. Old-Growth Forests Can Accumulate Carbon in Soils. Science Vol 314, 1 December 2006.

[4] Depro, B.M., Murray, B.C., Alig, R.J., Shanks, A. Public land, timber harvests, and climate mitigation: Quantifying carbon sequestration potential on U.S. public timberlands. Forest Ecology & Management 255(2008) 1122-1134; Davis, S. C., Hessl, A., Scott, C.J., Adams, M.B., Thomas, R.B. Forest carbon sequestration changes in response to timber harvest. Forest Ecology & Management 258 (2009) 2101-2109; Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study,   Prepared for: Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Department of Energy Resources by the Manomet Center for Conservation Science, June, 2010.

[5] Biomass Electricity: Clean Energy Subsidies for a Dirty Industry–The case for ending taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies that harm public health, environment, climate, and forests, Sheehan, M., Chirillo, Schlossberg, j., Sammons, W., Leonard, M and the Energy Justice Network,  Biomass Accountability Project, June 2011.

[6] (ibid., Manomet)

[7] (ibid., Manomet)

[8] (ibid., Manomet)

[9] Nunery, J.S. & Keeton, W.S. Forest carbon storage in the northeastern United States: Net effects of harvesting frequency, post-harvest retention, and wood products. Forest Ecology & Management (2010) In Press.

February 2012 Volunteer Spotlight: Bette Dzamba

Bette has loved hiking for as long as she can remember. She became a Wild Virginia hike leader in order to share the fun of spending time “playing outside” with others. She believes that the more people spend time in wild places like the George Washington National Forest the more they will feel the value of such places and know the importance of protecting them.

In the winter of 2010 Bette and her partner David Sellers spent three months living in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park as volunteers for the Yellowstone Association Institute. They supported field seminars that the Institute holds at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Closer to home they are the trail maintainers for the Wildcat Ridge trail in Shenandoah National park.

Bette is a Virginia Master Naturalist, certified in wilderness first aid, and has recently become a Leave No Trace trainer.

She works in the Cell Biology Department at UVA studying the behavior of cells in early development using frog embryos as a model system.


Non-Native Invasive Plants – Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness

During the growing season of 2010, Wild Virginia conducted a survey for non-native invasive plants (NNIP) in the Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness Area of the George Washington National Forest (GWNF). Two field workers traversed approximately 29 miles of trails and streams within the wilderness area. Three other areas were also surveyed: Mountain House picnic and trailhead area, Confederate Breastworks parking and trailhead area, and the Sexton Cabin area of Jerry’s Run Trail.

The July 2011 Press Release announcing completion of the study may be viewed here.  The 8 page Project Report is also available for viewing. An Informational Brochure was also created, and can be viewed in either an 8 Panel format or 2 Sided format.

NNIP are a threat to biological diversity, capable of displacing native plants, altering natural communities, degrading or eliminating some types of wildlife habitat, and sometimes posing a threat to rare plants. Designated wilderness and other types of natural areas are not immune to NNIP. Few areas in the GWNF though, and none of the six wilderness areas, had been formally surveyed for the presence of NNIP before this project.

We collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service in planning the project, and are very grateful to the National Forest Foundation, the Agua Fund, and an anonymous foundation for funding the work. Some of the project results are described below. Please refer to the Project Report for full details, including maps and tables.

Five NNIP were observed in Ramsey’s Draft. In order of abundance, they are: Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), coltsfoot (Tussilaga farfara), bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), and autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).

Several other NNIP were observed at one or more of the other areas surveyed – Mountain House, Confederate Breastworks, and Sexton Cabin. They include garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), spotted knapweed (Centaurea biebersteinii), wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius), crown vetch (Coronilla varia), ladysthumb (Polygonum persicaria), and motherwort (Leonorus cardiaca). It is likely that other NNIP occur in the area as well but were not observed during the survey.

The lower (southern) section of Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness, nearest the Mountain House picnic area and US Route 250, was the most heavily impacted area that we surveyed.

We conducted work days in March of 2011 and 2012, with tremendous volunteer effort from the Green Team at Mary Baldwin College. A small patch of garlic mustard along Ramsey’s Draft was worked on, manually pulling all the plants seen. Removing plants prior to seed formation is often important in control efforts.

Please educate yourself and others in ways to minimize the impacts of NNIP. And please support Wild Virginia in our efforts to protect the GWNF from threats of all kinds.