Congress bestows permanent protection for 9 special areas in Virginia’s mountain forests
Charlottesville, VA – With a 285 to 140 vote in the U.S. House today, Congress has officially passed a bill that permanently protects more than 53,000 acres of the Jefferson National Forest in the mountains of southwest Virginia – the largest wilderness bill in the Southern Appalachians in the last decade. The bill now goes to the White House where it is widely expected to be signed into law by President Obama soon.
The Virginia Ridge and Valley Act establishes six new wilderness areas, a wilderness study area and two new national scenic areas, and expands several existing wilderness areas in the publicly owned Jefferson National Forest. The bill was part of an omnibus public lands package that included dozens of other land-protection measures around the country, including a wilderness bill in West Virginia. The Senate passed the bill March 19 on a 77-20 vote.
“This is truly an historic day, a testament to the vision and diligence of thousands of Virginians who deeply value these lands as some of nature's finest work,” said David Carr, director of SELC's Public Lands Program. “As Virginians, we are all indebted to Sen. John Warner and Rep. Rick Boucher for their extraordinary leadership on securing this lasting legacy for the Commonwealth.”
The Virginia Ridge and Valley Act was first introduced in 2004 by then-Sen. Warner, and in the House by Rep. Rick Boucher – another staunch public lands champion whose district includes the Jefferson National Forest. Since that time, the proposal has sustained strong support from a wide array of local and state officials, businesses, faith organizations, tourism and recreation groups, conservation organizations and individuals (see below). Each of the proposed wilderness and scenic area designations was endorsed by either the U.S. Forest Service or the Board of Supervisors of the county in which the area is located.
The new Virginia areas brought into the national wilderness system today include:
- Garden Mountain, Hunting Camp Creek, and Lynn Camp Creek in Bland County;
- Brush Mountain in Montgomery County;
- Stone Mountain in Lee County;
- Raccoon Branch, Seng Mountain, and Bear Creek in Smyth County; and
- Brush Mountain East in Craig County.
“We are so grateful to Representative Boucher and his staff for believing in the value of setting aside the best of our public lands for permanent protection,” said Jim Murray, President of the Virginia Wilderness Committee, which helped coordinate the citizen supporters.
“People in Southwest Virginia have stuck by this bill all these years because they want to protect some of the most unspoiled and beautiful places in their region, and they look forward to one day welcoming visitors to enjoy these places as much as they do,” said Mark Miller, Virginia field organizer for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition.
Sen. Jim Webb has also supported the Virginia bill, as has Sen. Mark Warner as both Virginia governor and U.S. Senator, and current Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.
Congressionally designated wilderness is the highest form of environmental protection for federal lands. It prohibits all commercial logging and other resource extraction, and bans mechanized equipment and all road-building except in exceptional cases of public health and safety. Designated national scenic areas are similar to wilderness areas, but may allow for specific measures on a case-by-case basis; the two new scenic areas in Virginia will allow mountain bikes.
“This bill carries on the important American tradition of protecting our most special natural areas for future generations,” said SELC's Carr. “Virginians have long cherished the mountains for hiking, hunting, for clean water and beautiful vistas. This bill honors those values.”
“Mountain bikers couldn't be more pleased that we are helping protect a large area of the Jefferson National Forest and in a way that allows for our continued access to trails we have ridden for years,” said Rich Edwards, a Harrisonburg-based trail specialist with the International Mountain Bicycling Association. This bill is a great example of diverse stakeholders coming together early, working out their issues and crafting a bill that everyone can live with.”
Some of the supporters of the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act:
Virginia Tourism Corporation, Garden Club of Virginia and several local chapters, Appalachian Trail Conference, Mt. Rogers Outfitters, Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, Virginia Audubon Council, Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited, Committee on Stewardship of the Creation-Episcopal Diocese of Virginia,
Scenic America, International Mountain Bicycling Association
- In Virginia, just 177,214 acres are congressionally designated wilderness – less than 1% of the state.
- Demand for backcountry recreation is rising dramatically, putting increasing pressure on these lands. A U.S. Forest Service study in 1999 estimated a 171% increase nationally in the demand for wilderness recreation opportunities by 2050.
- The Virginia Ridge and Valley Act is the biggest wilderness bill in the Southern Appalachians in the last decade. The last largest bill was in 1984, also in Virginia, which protected 55,991 acres.