By Judy K. Dunscomb, Senior Conservation Scientist for The Nature Conservancy
When the “Virginia Is for Lovers” campaign was first created in 1968, it was to be a series of slogans highlighting what Virginians care about most. Among other passions, Virginia was for “history lovers” and “mountain lovers.” Nearly 50 years later, those passions are stronger than ever, but they are now threatened by proposed cuts to federal agencies and programs that protect western Virginia’s iconic natural assets — from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
Conservation has always been important to Virginians. The Constitution of Virginia expresses the state’s policy “to protect its atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction, for the benefit, enjoyment, and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.”
The protections and partnerships envisioned by the Constitution’s Article XI are now threatened by proposed cuts to the federal budget that support the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Agriculture — specifically the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the Forest Legacy Program, operations funding for the U.S. Forest Service, and the Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). These programs support all three of Virginia’s three major industries: agriculture, forestry and tourism and directly support Virginia’s people—helping unemployment while improving environmental quality.
The president’s proposed budget cuts 84 percent ($63 million) of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Since 1964, these dollars have supported recreation areas, trails and waterways providing public access for paddling, hiking, biking, hunting and fishing to all Americans. In Virginia, the LWCF has helped protect some of our most iconic places from the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Great Dismal Swamp. Finally, the LCWF safeguards rivers and clean water in western Virginia.
The proposed budget further reduces operations funding for the critical and critically underfunded Forest Service. Forest Service staffing numbers for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Virginia have dropped dramatically over the past 20 years — from 450 people in 1995 to 220 in 2015. Programs that support trails and facilities are proposed to be further cut by more than 80 percent and roads by 56 percent. These are programs that help Virginians and visitors access our national forests for recreation and to steward the land. Reduced funding for people and programs weakens our public infrastructure and thereby threatens the multi-million-dollar outdoor recreation and tourism industries that rely on public lands in the Roanoke region, Southwest Virginia and the Alleghany Highlands.
The president’s budget proposes eliminating the Forest Legacy Program completely. In partnership with states, this program supports efforts to work with willing sellers to conserve privately owned forest lands. These acquisitions stretch non-federal dollars and support long-term sustainable forestry while protecting other ecological, watershed and recreational values for local communities at risk of development or conversation to other uses. In Virginia, Forest Legacy has been used to protect properties like Big Woods and Dragon Run state forests.
Finally, the proposed budget eliminates the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), a vital Farm Bill program that leverages work and funding from partners across the country to maximize conservation impacts at the regional or watershed scale. In 2016, in partnership with five local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices, The Nature Conservancy was awarded a $4.5M RCPP grant for a five-year project that will target investment of agricultural best management practices across five counties in the Clinch River watershed. This grant will work to select practices that maximize benefits to rare species (mussels), water quality and local farmers in the Clinch Valley at a time when that region is working to open a new Clinch River State Park.
The public lands of Virginia’s mountains are the source of clean drinking water for millions of people in the eastern United States. They are a conveyor belt for climate adaptation and strongholds for biological diversity. Finally, they are economic engines for western Virginia, supplying well-paying jobs, matchless opportunities for recreation and opportunities for sustainable forestry. Nowhere is this opportunity more important than in the rural parts of our state where economic conditions have changed drastically.
Federal funding is critical to the ongoing protection Virginia’s favorite places. It is what makes Virginia’s partnerships with the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Agriculture possible. Continued funding will help preserve the history and outdoors that Virginians love. It is a safe and wise investment in the environment that sustains us. It is an investment in Virginia’s land, its people and its future.