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Governor Uses Loophole to Hide Documents in Responses to FOIAs on Air and Water Boards, Meeting with Dominion

In response to requests for documents about meetings and deliberations that may relate to Dominion Energy’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Governor’s office has supplied some records but has withheld other, crucial information. When faced with a choice between open government and concealment, Governor Northam made the wrong choice, relying on state law provisions that allow, but do not require, him to shield certain public information from the people of Virginia.

We are disappointed that the Governor has refused to release all the records we requested. The result is, while we have acquired some information, those documents do not answer vital questions that many Virginians are asking:

Did Governor Northam manipulate the process for Air Board appointments to influence the upcoming decision on Dominion’s proposed Buckingham compressor station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP)?

Did Governor Northam discuss the ACP and Air Board appointments in a private meeting with Dominion officials on November 19, when a public furor over the changes in Air Board membership was raging?

As we stated in our FOIA requests, while we anticipated that the administration may claim the exemptions provided in the statute, we hoped they would choose to let the public see the records.

Statements from the Northam administration about the Air Board personnel changes have been met with widespread public skepticism (See: Northam’s struggle to explain air board move suggests it’s exactly what it appears to be, Virginia Mercury, December 5; Ugly episode:’ Northam allies slam his decision to alter board before Dominion vote, Washington Post, November 27; Northam can seek independent voices, or mere rubber stamps, for his boards, Virginian-Pilot, November 23). If assertions provided by administration spokespersons are true, the Governor could only benefit from a full public airing of the records. His hesitancy to do so can only contribute to Virginian’s doubts and taint the regulatory process for the ACP.

Here’s what Wild Virginia did receive via emails from the Governor’s office late on December 6th:

Air and Water Board Member Removals/Appointments
The email responding to the FOIA request can be found here The administration states that “the Office is withholding five documents pursuant to Virginia Code Section 2.2-3705.7(2).” This Code section allows for withholding of records deemed to be “working papers” in the possession of the Governor’s office.

At this link is a document combining a series of emails and other correspondence to (and between) government officials regarding both Air and Water Board membership. Many of the records include recommendations from various parties for members of both Boards, applications and resumes from candidates, and correspondence with members of the news media.

It is notable that there are emails from late October through November 7, 2018 where administration officials mention plans to discuss Air and Water Board appointments, indicating that these processes had begun before the Air Board’s November 9 meeting. However, there is a gap in the correspondence within the Governor’s office followed, abruptly, by letters from the Governor dated November 16, 2018 asking the Secretary of the Commonwealth to prepare commissions for the prospective appointees. The key factor, the advice and reasoning followed in making these decisions, is entirely missing.

Excluded Information 
Again, the excluded information could possibly answer some of the questions to which the public demands answers. The bottom line is that we still don’t know whether the Governor’s actions were influenced by concerns that the dismissed Air Board members, Ms. Rubin and Mr. Bleicher, had expressed about DEQ’s proposed Air permit for the Buckingham compressor station.

The Meeting Between Governor Northam and Thomas Farrell
Thomas Farrell, Dominion’s president and CEO, met with the Governor on November 19, a fact that is known to the public only because citizens received a tip and filmed Farrell leaving the office. We and others wanted to know whether the Air Board and ACP were discussed at that meeting.  Again, the Governor’s office withheld two records under the “working papers” allowance (access Northam FOIA Farrell mtg. 12.6.18)

In emails setting up the meeting parties mention an initiative between Dominion and Smithfield addressing “a major methane containment proposal” as the stated purpose for the meeting. Given that the Governor’s office has cited this same reason for the meeting and that the project has now been widely publicized, if no other matters were discussed, we must wonder what those concealed records pertain to.

We believe the circumstances surrounding the Air Pollution Control Board appointments continue to create a question whether principles of due process have been breached for the Buckingham compressor station permit. We hoped the Governor would remove this cloud of doubt.

Wild Virginia calls on the Governor to correct this problem and we call on our members across Virginia and our allies to continue to call for Rubin and Bleicher to be allowed to vote at next week’s Air Board hearing. The people of Union Hill and all Virginian’s are depending on a fair process and this action can help ensure it.

Link to the Wild Virginia Press Release

Wild Virginia Seeks Public Records from the Governor on Pipeline Maneuvers

Wild Virginia sent letters to the office of Governor Ralph Northam on November 21, 2018 asking for records related to two vital issues in the State of Virginia’s actions to regulate the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipeline projects.

First, we asked for any documents describing a private meeting between Thomas Ferrell, Dominion Energy’s CEO, the Governor, and DEQ Director David Paylor on November 19th. (See article in Blue Virginia),  We believe that while regulatory reviews of ACP are ongoing it is important that our State officials tell us exactly what their relations with the regulated parties are. That’s the principle behind the Freedom of Information Act – that the people know as much as possible about their government and its workings. As stated in the letter to Rita Davis, the Governor’s Counsel, “Governor Northam has repeatedly promised that regulatory processes will be fully transparent and fair.” And while we acknowledged that the Governor may be able shield these records from public view under exemptions in the law, our representatives may waive those exemptions and “[c]oncealment of the information requested in this letter will not be consistent with [the Governor’s] promises.”

Second, we requested records that would reveal the Governor’s process for deciding whether and when to remove members of the Air Pollution Control Board and the State Water Control Board.” The timing of dismissals of two members from each Board, especially the two Air Board members who had expressed concerns about the permit for ACP’s Buckingham compressor station, has raised serious questions as to whether the Governor has sought to influence what are supposed to be independent citizen Boards. All of these members’ terms had expired at the end of June this year and their sudden removals just weeks before the Air Board is to make a final decision on Buckingham air permit, raises serious questions. Was this action taken to influence the outcome of that vote? Can newly-named Air Board members possibly be adequately prepared to judge the complex issues involved by the time the Board meets on December 10? Will this action have a chilling effect on Board members who may question DEQ’s proposals in the future?

Full disclosure in regard to both issues we’ve addressed is necessary and we hope the Governor will live up to the ideals of open and honest government he has espoused. Stay tuned for news of his response to our requests.

Read the FOIA’s here

FOIA Request, Records Related to Meeting Between Governor Northam, Dominion Energy, and State Agencies

FOIA Request, Records Related to Dismissal and Appointment of Members of the Air Pollution Control Board and the State Water Control Board

Spending Time in the Path of a Proposed Pipeline

by Sierra Gladfelter

As we turn onto the dirt lane leading to Spruce Creek Camp-Out up the hill, we run into a small group of folks walking down the road. My husband and I have driven out to Nelson County to join the last of three weekend campouts in October organized by activists on land threatened by the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). We are invited to pull our car off the road and join the group on a nature hike led by Robert Jennings, a local naturalist and grassroots field specialist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. This is only one of the many talks, presentations, and tours of local properties that would be impacted by the proposed pipeline that are being offered by Nelson County residents and invited experts during the Spruce Creek Camp-Outs.

We pause every few meters walking along the land of Jill and Richard Averitt, who have been fighting the ACP that threatens to bisect their property for the past four years. Jennings kneels to pick up a seed, pulls our eyes up the long straight trunk of a tulip popular tree, and passes around a birch twig, inviting us to scrape off the fragrant bark with a thumbnail. “Rootbeer!” someone exclaims. The adults are as full of wonder as the kids. The woods are alive with so
many gifts if only we pause to appreciate them. Having someone like Jennings along can help to slow us down and bring more meaning to our interactions. It also makes what is at stake here strikingly clear.

The main campsite at Spruce Creek, a large tent surrounded by benches, grills and trees.
The main campsite at Spruce Creek. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter

As we reach Spruce Creek, I realize this walk has been a pilgrimage for many here. The sun is setting and the last light filtering through the forest sparkles on the water. Standing on the banks of this native trout stream, I can make out a faint line of orange flagging ribbon running through the trees. This is the proposed-path of the ACP, where—if built—it will tear through this small piece of the Rockfish Valley on its 600-mile path from the Utica and Marcellus gas
fields of West Virginia to its terminus in eastern North Carolina. As I listen to the deafening stream, so full of energy in its rush from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the sea, it is hard to imagine this beauty being broken. And yet, this is the fragility of the world in which we live. All of it requires our protection.

On our climb back to Camp to set up tents and prepare for an evening of educational talks and communion with other campers, landowner Jill Averitt points out a string of hand-painted prayer flags dancing in the trees. Made by past campers and volunteers, the ever-lengthening line is strung across the proposed pipeline’s ‘right-of-way’ through the heart of their property. I think about the contractors’ orange ribbon also strung through these trees. The woods, for the moment, are silent holding these competing dreams in their swaying arms.

Prayer flags attached on a string, tied to trees at the campsite along the proposed pipeline route.
Prayer flags at the campsite. Photo by Sierra Gladfelter

After setting up our tents in the trees around a meadow, we congregate in its center for dinner. Mike Tabony, a retired tug boat captain from New Orleans turned local climate activist, gives a
humbling presentation on the state of climate science. He is self-trained, the most inspiring kind of citizen scientist, who after living through Hurricane Katrina, gave up flying, buying new cars, and has lived a simple life since sharing his knowledge of global warming with others and inspiring them to action.

As the night gets colder, we circle round the fire. Friends and neighbors from Nelson County share stories of their own fights against the proposed pipeline, the court battles they’ve weathered and Congressional hearings they’ve testified at, the stress and sense of loss they’ve suffered, and the fight they’ve supported and are still supporting their friends through. One couple has driven up from Hampton Roads, where their own community is struggling to organize in opposition to a spur of the ACP that is already on its way into the ground. They are here for leadership and inspiration, coming from a community where so many folks, too down on their luck to fight Dominion Energy, have taken a check and gotten out. Fresh to the fight and the full complexity of how pipelines are built and resisted, my husband and I simply listen and take it all in.

Campers at Spruce Creek surrounding a table with historical artifacts.
Campers at Spruce Creek. Photo by Jill Averitt

To be invited so intimately into peoples’ lives and personal struggles feels like such a gift. I do not yet know what I can do to help, but for the moment just gathering and being present seems important. Although some consider it to be a done deal, this fight is far from over, and even if the ACP goes in the ground, folks all along its path will be standing by their land, protecting what they can, and reporting issues that will impact all of us who live downstream.

For more information on how you can get involved from wherever you are, get in touch with the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance and check out the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, which is rewriting the books on how citizens do science and resist projects such as this. Wild Virginia and many other organizations are continuing to fight the pipelines as hard as we can.

Oregon Wild’s New Report Shows Importance of Forest Conservation

Morgan Kurst, University of Virginia

Forest Conservation as Climate Protection

The recent report Forest Defense is Climate Defense from Oregon Wild links the practice of logging forests with greenhouse carbon emissions. According to the report,  logging old-growth forests releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, and planting new trees after logging still creates “carbon debt.” It takes decades for the new trees to store the same amount of carbon that the old trees did. In other words, “planting trees” isn’t a sufficient forest conservation strategy. To solve this climate issue, Oregon Wild recommends two strategies:

  1. Modernizing logging laws with climate-smart practices.
  2. Permanently protecting remaining old-growth forests and encouraging forest restoration on public lands.

The graphic below depicts the fate of carbon during forest logging. After a tree is logged, the stump only retains 15% of the initial carbon storage.

Where do we come in?

Wild Virginia believes our forests should be managed to provide clean drinking water, clean air, wilderness, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities for the public. We teamed up with some of our partner groups in our recent Stand 4 Forests campaign to address forest conservation. The campaign argues that the US must immediately scale up forest protection, restore degraded forests, reduce consumption, and transition to clean, renewable energy before it is too late. Recommendations include:

  1. Expanding permanently protected lands and protect public lands from commercial logging and other harmful activities.
  2. Reducing emissions from the forestry sector and expanding the US forest carbon sink as a major climate strategy.
  3. Investing in forest protection as a resiliency and adaptation strategy for communities vulnerable to pollution and climate change.

It’s always exciting to discover different groups coming to a consensus on a solution. We know we are on the right track, so what’s the next step in guaranteeing forest conservation? How are we going to save our wild spaces and protect our climate?

You can help today by endorsing our Stand 4 Forests campaign and voting on November 6th for candidates who support our forests.

Forest Service proposes two new rules, comment period ends soon

Comment period ends October 15, 2018

On September 13, 2018, the United States Forest Service published two advanced notices of proposed rulemakings (referred to as ANPRMs). The notices aim to streamline regulations regarding the exploration and development of oil, gas, and locatable minerals in national forests and grasslands. Locatable minerals are recognized as a mineral by the scientific community and make the the land more valuable for mining than for agriculture. Examples include gold, silver, limestone and copper.

A 30-day public comment period regarding the implementation of existing regulations and these new proposed rules ends October 15.

The two proposals, 36 CFR 228 Subpart A: Locatable Minerals, and 36 CFR 228 Subpart E: Oil and Gas Resources, are trying to expedite the Forest Service review process of projects in order to speed up development and benefit those who are trying to develop land instead of those who are trying to protect it. Speeding up the review process hurts the quality of environmental reviews and the ability of the public to submit comments. Activities related to excavating locatable minerals, oil or gas require a thorough environmental review.

In recent years, the Forest Service has experienced issues with staffing and funding because they have diverted so much of their budget to fighting wildfires. Thus, it is extremely important for experts and citizens to have appropriate time to weigh in on potential Forest Service projects.

What you can do:

The Forest Service must not be allowed to abdicate its responsibility of protecting our national forests and grasslands. Please make a public comment today to ensure our wild areas are given priority over energy developers.

For comments regarding locatable minerals: 

  • Electronically: Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter FS-2018-0052, which is the docket number for this Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. In the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, click on the Notice link to locate this document. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”
  • By hard copy: Submit by U.S. mail to: USDA-Forest Service. Attn: Director—MGM Staff, 1617 Cole Boulevard, Building 17, Lakewood, CO 80401.

For comments regarding oil and gas:

  • Electronically: Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov/​. In the Search box, enter FS-2018-0053 which is the docket number for this Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. In the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, click on the Notice link to locate this document. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”
  • Mail: Address written comments to USDA-Forest Service. Attn: Director-MGM Staff, 1617 Cole Boulevard, Building 17, Lakewood, CO 80401.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Say NO to Dominion’s application to release air pollution

There is still time for you to tell the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board to deny Dominion’s application for a permit to release air pollution that will threaten the health and well-being of residents in the Union Hill neighborhood and beyond. The public comment period has been extended to September 21, 2018, so don’t wait – let your voice be heard.

Buckingham Compressor Station for the
Atlantic Coast Pipeline Air Quality Permit
Public Comment Period Ends 9/21/18
Submit your comments to:

DEQ, Piedmont Regional Office
Re: Buckingham Compressor Station

E-mail:
airdivision1@deq.virginia.gov

Mail:
Piedmont Regional Office
4949-A Cox Rd.
Glen Allen, VA 23060

Fax:
(804) 527-5106

What is the concern?

The draft permit prepared by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is woefully deficient, failing to provide the analyses and the levels of protection the law requires.

Dozens of people spoke at a public hearing on September 11th, most explaining technical and legal problems with the proposal and opposing issuance of the permit. Please add your voice to that strong message, to let the citizen members of the Air Board know you oppose this illegal and unethical proposal to victimize citizens for private profit.

What to say?

Even if you lack technical expertise, you can raise important issues the Board is legally-obligated to consider.

These include:

  • The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) is not needed to supply energy to the areas Dominion claims would be served and
  • DEQ has failed to properly consider whether the placement of the facility is appropriate or to acknowledge the violation of environmental justice principles.
Background

DEQ officials have stated that the Department and the Board lack authority to consider issues related to the need for the project and proper siting of the station.  State law explicitly contradicts this position. The State of Virginia not only has that authority, it has a solemn obligation to exercise it.

The Air Board, in approving permits, “shall consider facts and circumstances relevant to the reasonableness of the activity involved,” including:

  1. The character and degree of injury to, or interference with, safety, health, or the reasonable use of property which is caused or threatened to be caused;
  2. The social and economic value of the activity involved;
  3. The suitability of the activity to the area in which it is located; and
  4. The scientific and economic practicality of reducing or eliminating the discharge resulting from such activity.
    Code of Virginia § 10.1-1307.E.
No Need for the Pipeline and Compressor Station

A mountain of evidence proves that Dominion’s claims about the need for gas to be supplied by ACP are untrue. Importantly for this permit review, DEQ has refused to acknowledge this information or to incorporate it into its analysis of Dominion’s application for the air permit.

This deficiency is directly pertinent to the “reasonableness of the activity involved” and the “social and economic value of the activity involved,” which the Air Board must consider. Code of Virginia § 10.1-1307.E. Weighing against the lack of need for the project are the social and economic costs that will be imposed on the communities directly affected by the compressor station.

Unfair Targeting of Communities of Color and Impacts to Vulnerable Populations

The disproportionate impacts the compressor station would have on the African American community in and around Union Hill are clearly shown. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relied on incorrect and incomplete information about the local community to dismiss environmental justice and siting concerns. The Air Board must demand that DEQ provide and analyze correct data on these issues and must reject this permit unless and until the Department does so.

The Air Board is required to consider these facts in an analysis of the “character and degree of injury to, or interference with, safety, health, or the reasonable use of property which is caused or threatened to be caused” and the “suitability of the activity to the area in which it is located.” Code of Virginia § 10.1-1307.E. The Board must reject the draft permit prepared by DEQ and require that all pertinent siting considerations be investigated and analyzed before it considers the proposal further.

FERC relied on incorrect data from Dominion to conclude in its final environmental impact statement on the ACP that, on average, there are 29.6 people per square mile in the area surrounding the pipeline’s path in Buckingham—that number was provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. However, a survey of the community by Friends of Buckingham showed that FERC’s number was off by about 500 percent.

Even worse, FERC failed to acknowledge the certain impacts to the Union Hill community. As reported in a news article at Cville.com, Compressor anxiety: Historic African American community alleges environmental racism:

Members of the anti-pipeline group Friends of Buckingham went door-to-door to survey the Union Hill area. They spoke with 64 percent of the people living in the 99 households within that square mile, and of those 158 residents, 85 percent are African American.”

“The FERC report didn’t mention Union Hill, where a third of the residents are descendants of the freedmen community that was once enslaved there, and where there are freedmen cemeteries and unmarked slave burials on the site where Dominion wants to build its compressor station, according to Yogaville resident and cultural anthropologist Lakshmi Fjord.”

DEQ has also failed to account for the fact that these areas have unusually large percentages of elderly people and children, both of which are especially sensitive to the kinds of air pollutants the compressor station would emit.

Recently, Governor Northam’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (ACEJ) found evidence that ACP would have “disproportionate impacts for people of color and for low-income populations due to gas infrastructure expansion.”

Based on that and other findings, the ACEJ recommended the “Governor direct DEQ to suspend the permitting decision for the air permit for the Buckingham compressor station pending further review of the station’s impacts on the health and the quality of life of those living in close proximity.” See ACEJ letter, dated August 16, 2018, at Environmental Justice Review of Virginia’s Gas Infrastructure. The ACEJ also recommended Governor Northam convene an Emergency Task Force on Environmental Justice in Gas Infrastructure. See article about the ACEJ’s action at Governor’s Advisory Council Call for Moratorium on Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines, Global Justice Ecology Project, August 29, 2018.

Where to Learn More?
Questions?

Wild Virginia
info@wildvirginia.org
434-971-1553

Wildlife Corridors and Habitat Connectivity

by Allie Lowy

“Is the deer crossing the road, or is the road crossing the forest?” – Freequill

Αn insurance company analyst, Master Naturalist, Department of Transportation employee, and conservation biologist walk into a bar. What do they have in common? 

Now that I have your attention, it was not a bar, but, rather, the meeting room of a public library —  and, on July 17, I found myself in that very room.The four were gathered as part of the Virginia Safe Wildlife Corridors Collaborative (VSWCC) — a nascent group formed to reduce animal-vehicle collisions on roads and provide safe passages for wildlife. Bringing together groups like the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Highway Loss Data Institute, and conservation groups like the Wildlands Network and Wild Virginia, VSWCC takes a multi-stakeholder approach to a complex, multi-disciplinary issue in road ecology.

Who is the Collaborative?

The Collaborative includes an analyst from Highway Loss Data Institute, who provides insurance companies with crash data; a conservation biologist from William & Mary, who does GIS mapping of animal habitat near interstates; a veterinarian from the Wildlife Center, which cleans up the carnage from crashes; an employee of VDOT — who researches animal passageways and measures to mitigate wildlife crashes; and Wild Virginia Director Misty Boos.  Also involved are members of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which releases statewide Wildlife Action Plans to determine the species of greatest conservation need in Virginia; the coordinator of the Virginia Master Naturalists Program, which provides training in ecology, animal and plant identification, and the scientific method; and a member of the Wildlands Network, which works to promote habitat connectivity, the Collaborative’s bigger-picture goal.

A map of core habitats (green) and corridors between them (yellow) in Virginia, from the Wildlands Network.

Connectivity

In the modern age, animal core habitats have become increasingly fragmented. Due to human construction, land mammals move two to three times less than they used to, which means a limited ability to mate, feed, and migrate. Coupled with the fact that fragmentation reduces species richness and nutrient cycling, and climate change forces relocation, the threat of species extinction looms more ominously.

A widely-accepted connectivity strategy that supports species migrations is building wildlife corridors. Corridors can vary in shape, scope, and the species on which they focus, but they all seek to connect protected areas of habitat. Currently, only half of protected habitats around the world are connected.

As stated on the Wildlands Network website: “Connecting wildlife habitats is critical to conserving biodiversity in the face of climate change, which will increasingly trigger geographical shifts for wildlife populations, plant communities, and ecological processes.”

The Wildlands Network spearheaded the Eastern Wildway Initiative, which seeks to create a continuous unobstructed stretch of wildlife habitat along the East Coast, from Quebec to the Gulf of Mexico. This wildway would contain some of the country’s most beloved wild places, from the Adirondacks to the Shenandoah Valley to the Great Smoky Mountains and Everglades National Park. The region harbors a wide range of climates, eco-regions and enormous biodiversity–in fact, the southeastern U.S. is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Wild Virginia is working to contribute to the Eastern Wildway as they work to improve habitat connectivity in Virginia.

A mother bear and her cubs look over I-64. Photo credit: Bridget Donaldson of VDOT.

Large Animal Crashes

The group’s primary concern is human safety, which is threatened by vehicle crashes with large animals like deer and bear. VDOT tracks bear and deer carcass data, and VDOT’s Bridget Donaldson has used this data to pinpoint hotspots for deer and bear crossings. According to Donaldson, deer make up 1 in 6 animal-vehicle collisions in Virginia, which puts the state in the top ten for deer-vehicle collisions nationally.

VDOT has begun building fencing to funnel animals into existing underpasses beneath large highways. On Interstate 64, 8 foot-high fencing now guides animals to a box culvert beneath the roadway and a bridge spanning a river. Cameras installed at the site show animals coming up to the fence, and turning around to find another way around, rather than crossing the interstate. It’s estimated that this is reducing crashes at a cost savings of $300,000 per stretch of fencing. The fencing includes jump outs: sections of fencing angled at the top to allow deer to pass one way — out of the road — but not the other. Recently, VSWCC has installed cameras in Buffalo Creek and Cedar Creek, which will be continuously monitored during November, deer breeding season.

A box culvert under I-64. Photo credit: Bridget Donaldson of VDOT.

At this point, you might be asking: why did the bear cross the road? But, in all seriousness, what is the biological impetus for large animals moving around so much? When mating, large-scale movement is crucial for genetic exchange and enhancing genetic diversity. Otherwise, inbreeding within the same area can hurt a species, reducing the biological fitness of a population.

Animals are naturally accustomed to moving around not only when mating, but when searching for food. Bear, whose food is scarce during winter months, must eat large amounts of food during the summer to survive, so they move constantly move to find it.

In the effort to reduce large-animal collisions, the Collaborative hopes Virginia will follow in the footsteps of other admirable states. In Montana, a 56-mile stretch of highway boasts 41 overpasses and underpasses for animals like deer, bear, coyotes, and bobcats. In Wyoming, underpasses for moose and elk and overpass bridges for pronghorn have reduced collisions tremendously. In Southern California, biologists have erected underpasses for the threatened desert tortoise, which long-tailed weasels and foxes have also benefited from. In Washington, squirrels cross over a major road on a narrow rope bridge between trees.

Outside of the U.S., the Netherlands has over 66 overpasses and ecoducts (wildlife bridges) to protect species like the endangered European badger, wild boar, and various species of deer. The Netherlands also boasts the longest wildlife overpass in the world, a half-mile long natural bridge which spans a railway line, park, roadway, and sports complex. In Australia, a bridge on Christmas Island helps 50 million red crabs migrate over a busy road.

Spotted salamander embryo emerging from egg in George Washington National Forest in Virginia. Photo credit: Steven David Johnson.

Small Mammals and Herps

VSWCC also has a Small Mammals and Herps Working Group. One animal the Collaborative focuses on is salamanders, whose core habitat is the vernal pool, a type of wetland generally devoid of fish. When breeding, salamanders must migrate back to their vernal pools, which often means crossing roads. To curtail salamander-vehicle collisions, the Collaborative is looking to use drift fencing to guide salamanders through plastic tubes under interstates. Other states — like Massachusetts and Vermont — have had success with similar projects.

A mass migration of salamanders in Charlottesville has led volunteers to block off roads to aid their crossing, during which the majority of salamanders normally die. Because of volunteer efforts in February, the development company owning the road (Polo Grounds Road) agreed to construct a salamander tunnel underneath it later this year.

Fortunately, researchers in Vermont have mapped vernal pools across the entire North East (and included Virginia), which has aided in this mission.

The Small Mammals Work Group is also considering possible efforts toward the eastern spotted skunk (which is very slow) and the northern flying squirrel (whose habitats are often fragmented). It is also looking at ways to improve habitat connectivity diamondback terrapins at sites near the Virginia coast.

Goals for the Future

Moving forward, the group looks to influence public policy by making animal-vehicle collisions a priority for state lawmakers. According to VSWCC, policy must protect both core habitats for animals and the “corridors” that enable safe passage between them.

In 2016, a Virginia congressman introduced the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act to the House of Representatives, which helped bring attention to the issue at the federal level. The Collaborative hopes to introduce a similar bill to the Virginia General Assembly in 2019.

VSWCC also hopes to follow other states’ lead in increasing opportunities for citizen science, creating systems for reporting animal crashes by taking photos, obtaining GPS coordinates, and collecting user data about animal carcasses on roads. The Collaborative’s next meeting is October 15. Hopefully, the Collaborative will soon have opportunities for volunteer involvement. In the meantime, keep your eye out for roadside critters on your daily commute!

Learn more here

Peakbagging for a Cause: Eric Gilchrist’s Conservation Journey

 by Allie Lowy

On Wednesday, June 11th — a beautiful, sunny morning — at the top of Reddish Knob, I had the rare pleasure of meeting Eric Gilchrist. At 64 years old, Eric has spent the past two months ascending mountains on a mission: climb every peak in the George Washington National Forest (GWNF) over 4,000 feet. Eric’s environmentalism is deeply motivated by his passion for the outdoor spaces by which he is surrounded, which he feels a preservationist instinct to protect. Thus, Eric has dedicated his “peakbagging” project to Wild Virginia, asking friends and family to pledge money, all of which will go toward the organization. Of the 32 peaks in the forest over 4,000 feet, Eric has climbed 13, and raised $1,500 along the way. (You can pledge your donation to support Eric’s peakbagging the GW here.)

Most climbs have elevation gains of between 1,000 and 2,500 feet. Some of his favorite peaks thus far have been Freezeland Flats in Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness and the Switzerland-esque high-mountain meadow of Cole Mountain. Undoubtedly, his least favorite was the poorly-named “Big Knob,” which was only accessible via a road torn up by four-wheel drive vehicles.

Wild Virginia member Ernie Reed and I met Eric at the top of Reddish Knob, one of the highest points in Virginia, and a region steeped in history. Atop Reddish Knob, in 1999, Bill Clinton famously demanded that then-chief of the Forest Service Mike Dombeck craft a policy to protect unroaded areas in our national forests. This gave way to the 2001 Roadless Rule: a groundbreaking policy calling for protection of 58.5 million acres of roadless area within the national forests.

Years ago, Eric and Ernie set out to find the “wildest” place in Virginia: the region that is farthest from a road on all sides, that could be designated as wilderness. What they found was in the heart of Little River Roadless Area, a 27.3 thousand acre region of potential wilderness of which Reddish Knob is a part.

After meeting at Reddish Knob, the three of us peak-bagged Bother Knob, which gave me both a hearty sense of admiration for the fitness of my two hiking companions and a collection of nasty bush-whacking cuts on my bare legs. (That 40 extra years of wisdom Ernie and Eric have on me is really starting to make itself known.)

Talking to Ernie for any brief period of time is like dipping your toes into an unending pool of environmental knowledge, soaking up bits of passion along the way, remembering why you’re outraged and why you care so much. On this trip, it was particularly interesting to pick his brain about the absurdity of fracking policy. (Fracking — drilling into the Earth to extract gas and oil from shale — has had disastrous water quality and human health impacts, but, in 2005, president George Bush’s congress made it exempt from the Clean Water Act, the Safe Water Drinking Act, and the Clean Air Act, in what was famously termed “the Halliburton Loophole!”)

For a snack at the summit, Eric brought us his famous homemade pancakes made from banana, egg, cinnamon, and rolled oats.

Eric’s Story

Born in Staunton, Eric is a Central Virginia native, but he cites some of his first, most precious memories as exploring the Grand Tetons during his childhood in Idaho. After moving to Western Pennsylvania, Eric attained a B.S. in Man-Environment Relations from Penn State and went on to pursue an MBA there. After a 20-year stint as an account executive for large computer companies in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Eric longed to nurture his environmentalist roots. Upon returning to Central Virginia, Eric began volunteering for various environmental nonprofits. In 2002, he joined the board of the Shenandoah Ecosystems Defense Group, which now holds the catchier, less verbose title: Wild Virginia. On the board in 2002, he met Ernie, now one of his best friends, and the rest is history. After 12 years on the board, Eric resigned in 2014. Aside from Wild Virginia, Eric has done energy efficiency work in Charlottesville and helped found the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP), a nonprofit that conducts energy assessments and helps homes convert to solar energy. Eric also helped found Appalachian Sustainable Development, an organization that contracts with loggers to make available sustainable, locally-sourced lumber.

In the past decade, Eric has taken his sustainability to a new level through his latest project: building a completely eco-friendly house. Eric spent five years building an 800 square-foot house made entirely from wood harvested from right off his property, in GWNF. The small, cozy house is designed with a number of features that make it energy-efficient: it has no interior doors or hallways; triple-pane windows; a heavily-insulated roof deck; a metal roof; and the house is oriented toward the south. With windows on the south side, they get solar gain during the winter — heat is stored in thermal mass during day and released into the house in the evening. In the next couple years, Eric hopes to go off the grid. The house boasts a tiny wood stove, cabinets made from local wood, and radiant floor heating heated by a domestic water heater. In essence, this means that Eric’s family gets hot water for bathing and cooking from the same power source that heats the floor. The house’s walls are 12 inches thick, which means more thermal mass, modulating the indoor temperatures more evenly, and for longer periods of time.

Eric hopes to finish peak-bagging in October, after a brief interlude to vacation in Canada in August. What will Eric do next to save the planet? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I hope he cooks many more batches of healthy, homemade pancakes for those hard-working Wild Virginia interns.

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Wild Virginia Provides Access to Public Comments Submitted to Water Control Board

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, David Sligh of Wild Virginia and the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC) has acquired almost all of the comments citizens (around 10, 000 of them) submitted to State Water Control Board through the Virginia DEQ. Individuals and conservation groups explain why the Corps of Engineers’ blanket permit is not sufficiently protective of our state waters. DEQ has promised to supply the rest by today.

Here is a link to the documents: Comments to SWCB on NWP 12

Wild Virginia and DPMC are currently scouring the comments and will publish our summary of the whole body of information early next week. The vast majority we’ve seen so far are form emails and letters that contain no useful information the Board can use in making a decision whether to take new action. By contrast, the comments by landowners and technical experts contain much detailed, site-specific, and scientifically-based evidence of the dire threats to the thousands of waterbodies MVP and ACP propose to dig and blast through, under a lax Corps approval.

The Importance of Brook Trout Conservation

 by Allie Lowy

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

-Cormac McCarthy, the Road

Wild Virginia has long advocated for the protection of watersheds home to brook trout populations in George Washington National Forest (GWNF), which provide enormous ecological, cultural and economic benefits.

Background

The state fish of Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, brook trout are a species of fish native to eastern North America that has thrived in the Appalachian Mountains for millions of years. They inhabit clear, coldwater streams, primarily at high elevations. Brook trout require particularly clean water and cannot thrive in stream temperatures higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. A healthy stream can inhabit between 30 and 40 trout families.

Brook trout spawn during the fall, incubate during the winter, and hatch eggs in the early spring. The species prospers in closed-canopy forests, whose shade-cover regulates stream temperature. Since they require pristine habitats with high water quality conditions, an abundance of brook trout is indicative of a biologically robust watershed. For this reason, declining brook trout populations can serve as an early warning that the ecological health of an entire system is at risk.

When regions of forest were heavily clearcut in the early twentieth century, warming occured due to a lack of canopy cover, reducing brook trout populations. Because of their sensitivity to temperature changes, brook trout were largely replaced by rainbow and brown trout during this time. Brook trout populations have since declined extensively, for a variety of reasons (reduced water quality from runoff and acid rain, rising stream temperatures, and the like.)

Brook Trout & Climate Change

Currently, the livelihood of brook trout populations native to GWNF are threatened by anthropogenic climate change. Climate change is a long-term change in the statistics of weather, leading to irregularity in temperature and precipitation patterns. Both air temperature and precipitation are major drivers of stream temperature and flow, which determine population dynamics. For every degree Celsius that air temperature rises, water temperature rises eight tenths of a degree. Thus, the projected 4 degree Celsius rise in air temperature due to climate change would cause a 3.2 degree rise in stream temperatures.

Climate change is especially problematic for trout, because they require cold water habitats, which — due to human activity — are becoming increasingly rare and fragmented. Because of climate change, brook trout are shifting to higher elevation streams, with stream temperatures suitable for survival.

As climate change produces warmer winter temperatures, brook trout’s life cycle will be disrupted, as trout may emerge too early, when there is not sufficient food for survival.

One consequence of climate change for regions of GWNF and Shenandoah National Park (SNP) is high precipitation during the winter and early spring months. Longitudinal studies in SNP have found high winter/early spring precipitation to have strong negative effects on trout abundance, as flooding from extreme precipitation can threaten vulnerable eggs as they hatch. Additionally, high summer air temperatures — which will also increase with climate change — reduce trout abundance, and will force brook trout to either evolve or die off in the next two decades.

Another effect of climate change is acid rain: rainfall made acidic by atmospheric pollution and the burning of fossil fuels. In the Appalachian Mountains, acid rain has impacted between 60 and 80 percent of brook trout spawning habitat.

Solutions

So, at this point, you may be asking: what can we do to save the trout? According to fishery biologist Ben Letcher, some solutions including putting more shade-producing trees along river banks; adding logs into streams; and limiting the number of wells removing cold spring water from the watershed.

Ultimately, brook trout populations are severely hindered by logging, development, and conversion of forested lands to be used for agriculture. To reverse this trend, it is indispensable that we prioritize increases in canopy cover and late-successional forest habitat in order to stabilize temperatures, continually monitor water quality, reduce sediment loads in streams, and create opportunities for brook trout populations to thrive and expand their habitat.