By Dan Shaffer
In August of last year, shortly after the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance (ABRA) announced the launch of a new program: the Conservation Hub. Building on the experience and success of the Compliance Surveillance Initiative, or CSI, a monitoring and enforcement program that targeted the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Conservation Hub is a regional information and mapping portal focused on the Central Appalachian Highlands region of West Virginia and Virginia.
The Conservation Hub will become a major initiative for the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance in the future. The Hub program’s objective is to promote responsible resource management by providing data-focused tools that enhance a project’s transparency, strengthen its accountability to permitting and regulatory agencies and facilitate public participation in the evaluation process. The program is designed to significantly enhance the capabilities of environmental, conservation and citizen groups to assess impacts of projects in the greater Central Appalachian Highlands region and to help assure that the overall environmental integrity of the region is maintained.
With the Hub, ABRA provides a set of tools that will give conservation groups, the general public, and even regulatory agencies an unprecedented look at the scale and scope of development and land management projects. The Conservation Hub provides a one-stop-shop for environmental and regulatory data, a platform for analysis and messaging and thus a means of levelling the playing field for those focused on conservation. Our goal is to enable those actors to participate in the process of ensuring that projects are reasonable, equitable and sustainable, wherever possible.
Conservation Hub’s geographic area of interest covers what has been termed the Central Appalachian Highlands, in West Virginia and Virginia. The specific focus area consists of 26 counties in West Virginia and 26 counties in Virginia. Projects outside of the focus area will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Like the CSI Program, the Conservation Hub is built around online maps and data. The Hub also leans heavily on the work of both federal and state agencies and regulators, who provide a wealth of geographic data to the public.
Over the last ten months, the Conservation Hub has made significant progress, both visibly and behind the scenes. The initial four projects have expanded to seven, covering issues ranging from opposition to gold mining in Buckingham County, VA to forest land management practices in the Monongahela National Forest. One supports efforts to create a Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area in Virginia. Another describes risks to the survival of the endangered Candy Darter, a colorful fish under threat in WV and VA. Four more projects are in development and one existing project may be expanded to address an emerging threat to the northern Shenandoah Valley. Over the coming months additional changes will occur:
• Some cosmetic changes to the Hub site, its project web pages and project related online maps.
• New tools will be made available, such as a site-wide, searchable data catalog, that will aid the use of the online maps; the ability to utilize crowd-sourced data, such as that from water monitoring programs.
• The launch of the National Forest Integrity Project (NFIP) 3
A significant new portion of the Conservation Hub, the National Forest Integrity Project is a monitoring program created to track proposed and ongoing projects in the three National Forests that are located within the Central Appalachian Highlands (Monongahela in West Virginia and George Washington and Jefferson in Virginia). These three National Forests are defining components of the Central Appalachian Highlands region. Information about National Forest Service projects is often not readily available to the public and, indeed, sometimes is withheld by the agency.
The National Forest Integrity Project will be the first effort of its kind in the nation to monitor Forest Service projects. It is a much-needed program that will enhance public understanding of projects that affect not only the forests but the land and communities surrounding them. Also, the NFIP will be instrumental in identifying National Forest Service projects that might compromise the critical role that the National Forests have in carbon sequestration, an important part of fighting climate change. Two United States Forest Sersvice projects are currently active on the Hub. Several more will come online in the next few weeks, prior to the launch of the NFIP.
The Conservation Hub has already proven useful to project sponsors in affecting change. A Hub page and online map aided ABRA-affiliated groups opposing a prospective Gold Mine in Buckingham County, VA. These groups succeeded in securing legislation requiring the study of industrial-scale gold mining in Virginia and whether it can be done safely and legally. Two Forest Service projects have been delayed for unspecified reasons after repeated requests for data and transparency by hub project sponsors.
For those of you who have already seen and used the Hub, please note that its web address has recently changed. The new URL is: https://conservation-abra.hub.arcgis.com/
Any bookmarks you may have will need to be replaced or updated. Otherwise, everything should function as it did before.
Those with concerns about additional Forest Service projects and other development activities are welcomed to request their inclusion on the Hub or the NFIP. Decisions regarding project development and inclusion are made by an Advisory Committee that meets monthly. For more information on the Conservation Hub, or the National Forest Integrity Project, please contact Dan Shaffer firstname.lastname@example.org.