Wild Virginia wildvirignia.org
What kinds of services from your organization can benefit small towns?
We do training and we do events in lots of communities, and we interact with a lot of local government folks. Traditionally we have done a lot of work in the national forest with management of the national forest. A lot of those cases, the local communities – which can be pretty heavily influenced by the forest near their boundaries or within their areas – are really interested in how those forest are managed. So we spend a lot of time talking to folks in various communities across western Virginia.
What are you working toward when you meet with towns?
Our focus is on trying to protect and improve natural areas. The big interest in a lot of communities is to maintain those areas for their citizens because they are valuable for things like recreation. But also they can be a focus of jobs and of commercial activities. I don’t know if we so much provide a direct service to local governments as that we are prepared to cooperate and collaborate and see how our interests can come together, when they can.
If there is a threat to a natural area that might affect tourism or recreation, isn’t it always David and Goliath, and don’t these small communities always lose?
No, they don’t always lose by any means. I think the David and Goliath analogy is true because it’s always an uphill fight, but you’ll remember David won that one. And that happens once in a while. It’s hard to go into any kind of dispute like this believing that you know that you have the upper hand, but we are lucky to know we have laws, and we have some guidelines by which we are supposed to be protected. and we work hard to make those laws work. So when we believe we’re right on the law and on the science, we always feel like we have a chance to win, to protect people and the environment.
You’ve been involved in the pipeline issues. What have you learned about the ways in which large interests with lots of money come in and “subvert” local governments, if that’s not too strong a word?
Well, I think it’s accurate. Subversion is accurate in some cases, I’ll give you an example: in Buckingham County, Virginia, where Dominion Energy proposes to put a compressor station for their pipeline. A compressor station is a pretty intense, large industrial activity that is associated with the pipeline where they compress the gas to make sure they have the pressure to move it through the pipe efficiently. In this community, there is a historic African-American community, there are low income folks, there’s a heavy concentration of elderly and young, and they feel like it’s a big threat to them. They turned to their local government for basically zoning activities, approval that the company needed at this facility. Frankly it appears that the local boards of supervisors members, a lot of them had a lot of behind-the-scenes meetings with the companies. We believe that they got, and I’m not accusing anybody of anything illegal here, but they got a lot of persuasion, a lot of inducement to go along with what the company wanted versus what the local community wanted. You know this was, again, placing an industrial facility in an area that’s not zoned for that; it’s more residential and agricultural. So there should have been no presumption that the company could do what it wanted there, and yet that seemed to be the way the local government approached it; that they had to justify if they wouldn’t go along with the company versus the other way. So citizens there felt let down, very much so. There are other communities where the local government, a county or city government, have really stood up for their interests and the interests of their citizens. One example of that is Roanoke County and Roanoke City who are very concerned about their water supplies being damaged by the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Not only have they supported what their citizens are doing, but they have spent lots of money hiring consultants and attorneys to try to look out for their interest. But even for them it’s been an uphill battle.
What do you most wish that leaders in small towns knew that they don’t seem to know?
I think one thing is: Don’t be fooled by the promises of economic gain just because somebody wants to bring a big operation in to your locality. I don’t say that that’s not a valid concern. I don’t say that you can’t gain some from those activities. But you really have to think about all the other effects on citizens, on your tax base. For example, there are places where both of these pipelines in Virginia will pass through areas that really could be good places for new business, that are zoned that way – that are important for agriculture, important for recreation. The studies we’ve seen, frankly, the studies that our groups have commissioned, say that you’re going to lose a lot of property value in those areas, you’re going to lose the chance for local businesses to form in those areas. And, yeah, you’ll get some tax benefit from the pipeline or from the facility that’s coming in, but we don’t necessarily believe it’s going to balance out. The other thing is then you have individuals within your communities who are losing a lot, your property values can kind of plummet as soon as one of these activities is proposed – not necessarily having to wait until it’s completed or even approved. Obviously, local governments care about their citizens, and they should care about that effect on those folks. It’s going to affect whether people want to stay in rural areas or whether they’re going to move there. A lot of people are in those areas because they feel like they are avoiding a lot of the threats that they would face somewhere else. If your interests are not going to be protected as well as possible, in those areas, some people won’t stay there.