Another Year, Another Full Plate

By Larry Thomas

January started the new year with a lot of activity. I believe you could say it came in like a lion. From the proposed pipelines, proposed logging in our state parks and the quarterly board meeting it has been very busy as well as disturbing.

First was a tour of the proposed ACP pipeline route through south eastern Highland County, Virginia. What an eye opener. Rick Webb, WVHC board member and Program Coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition led the tour to three problematic areas within the route. First, we traveled to a steep (almost perpendicular) ridge that will be crossed. I do not see how they will not cause significant environmental damage crossing that ridge and there is no way I would want to be operating the equipment going up or coming down that ridge. A water monitoring device has been placed in the stream below the crossing to monitor stream quality. Second, we traveled to a farm laden with karst features. Walking the survey line, we saw many violations of the protocol, to include the route going through the middle of a sinkhole. Last, we hiked up a ridge to get a view across the valley of a ridge where they will remove fifty feet of the ridge to get to a level to accommodate the right of way needed. Dominion has stated they will restore the original contour of the mountain when finished. I drove home shaking my head.

WVHC is a part of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC), which is now a part of the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance (ABRA). DPMC is an organization of citizen volunteers, conservation groups, and environmental scientists convened in response to Dominion’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline across the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests and the adjacent mountains and valleys. ABRA is a coalition of over 50 organizations in Virginia and West Virginia. On January 22, ABRA and DPMC launched a citizen initiative to monitor construction activities of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). The objective of the Pipeline Compliance Surveillance Initiative (Pipeline CSI) is to ensure strict application of environmental laws and regulations for the ACP.

“We strongly believe that the ACP is unneeded and cannot be built safely without causing permanent damage to the environment, particularly critical water resources,” stated Rick Webb of the DPMC, who is chairing the development of the new ABRA program. “We will continue to challenge the government decisions involving the project. But, with certain pre-construction activities already underway, citizen oversight is essential given the limited resources of government agencies that are responsible for regulating pipeline construction.”

Continuing, Webb said “the need for citizen oversight of pipeline construction has been made clear by observations of recent pipeline projects and ineffective government agency response to repeated violations and water resource harm. We have no reason to expect more from the agencies during construction of the ACP, if finally approved, given their failure to require submission of complete environmental plans prior to project approval. This deferral of critical review and analysis sets the stage for significant and long-term degradation of high-quality streams and groundwater supplies.”

The Pipeline CSI is gathering in-depth data and assessing the landscape the ACP is proposed to cross to fill in information gaps in official records. The effort will involve hundreds of volunteer observers in Virginia and West Virginia.  The program will include extensive water quality monitoring and aerial reconnaissance. Initial phases of the Pipeline CSI will focus on mountainous areas of the pipeline route, where ACP construction threatens water quality in the headwaters of some of the major watershed systems in the eastern United States. Results from the information gathered will be shared with regulatory agencies and the media.

Next was the announcement on December 17 by West Virginia Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher stating “Timbering activities will be increased on state park lands, with the goal of clearing old forest while producing revenue that can be pumped back into park improvements. Our state parks are exquisite but boy do they need some TLC,”

He estimated $40 million to $50 million could be raised through increased timbering in the forests surrounding state parks.

“If we’re really going to ramp up tourism, which is really a goal of this governor, we want to have a nice product when people come to visit. So, we need to fix up our state parks,”

“What’s the best way to do it? We’ve got tens of thousands of acres of forests on state parks that are some of the finest timber anywhere. On a very, very, very limited basis, we want to harvest some of those trees. It’s great for wildlife, it will improve the parks, and the beautiful thing about it is, all that money goes right back into the parks to fix up these lodges and cabins. I think it is a no-brainer. I think it makes great sense.”

That prompted twelve environmental groups to request a meeting with Secretary Thrasher to express our concerns with logging in the state parks and to suggest alternative sources of revenue to fund what we agreed are needed improvements to our state parks.

Several days later Senate Bill 270 to allow logging in West Virginia’s State Parks was introduced in the 2018 Legislative Session at the request of Governor Justice indicating our State Parks face a $50 million maintenance backlog. The Governor suggests that logging revenue would be used to secure a 20-year bond to pay for it. Next House Bill 4183 was also introduced in the House. Save Our State Parks, or SOS Parks, conservation groups across the state quickly united to oppose SB 270, HB 4183 and any commercial logging in West Virginia State Parks.

That action prompted Secretary Thrasher to request a second meeting. SOS Parks groups presented eight of their funding ideas to encourage Secretary Thrasher to withdraw the Governor’s logging bill, which has been met with stinging public criticism, including from within the Governor’s own party. Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt became the most prominent Republican to speak out against the bill.

The funding ideas include increasing the state park’s share of purchase card rebates and apportioning some state lottery proceeds to park capital projects. Another proposal is a modest surcharge on accommodations in the parks. The parks host 700,000 overnight guests each year. With the proposed bond focused on improving facilities, a small capital improvements surcharge could be added to fees or reservations at state park lodges, cabins, and campgrounds.

After a strong admonishment for our actions, we were disappointed when Secretary Thrasher stated that he is standing by the bill to allow commercial logging operations in the parks and that he would review our suggestions after the legislative session. Therefore, our strong opposition continues.

The Board met on January 21, discussing a full agenda of topics which John has discussed in this issue.  We want to thank everyone for your continued support.