Shenandoah Mountain Act of 2022 – Guest Post by Mark Miller, Virginia Wilderness Committee

Photo: Mark Miller
“Shenandoah Mountain Act of 2022” introduced by Sen. Kaine on March 23
Mark Miller, Virginia Wilderness Committee

Over thirty years ago the Virginia Wilderness Committee (VWC) under the leadership of Ernie Dickerman proposed protecting Shenandoah Mountain’s most outstanding places as Wilderness.

The Ramseys Draft had already been protected as Wilderness in 1984. However, the five Roadless Areas still needed permanent protection. Decades of work by the Virginia Wilderness Committee and Friends of Shenandoah Mountain finally paid off when Senator Tim Kaine introduced the Shenandoah Mountain Act of 2022 on March 23, with Senator Mark Warner as a cosponsor. Senate Bill 3911 includes our entire Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area (SMNSA) proposal with four embedded Wilderness areas totaling 28,000 acres, and Beech Lick Knob Wilderness, a separate 5,764-acre Wilderness in northwestern Rockingham County. All this protected land totals about 98,000 acres – a big chunk by Eastern standards.

The Mountain is a special place. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has identified Shenandoah Mountain as a biological hotspot. With ten peaks over four thousand feet, protecting Shenandoah Mountain would serve to mitigate climate change three ways. Permanently protecting Shenandoah Mountain will preserve one of the largest expanses of mostly unfragmented forest on the east coast including Little River, the largest Roadless Area in the east is important to prevent further forest fragmentation. Shenandoah Mountain is home to two endemic species found nowhere else in the world—the Cowknob Salamander and the Shenandoah Salamander. Permanently protecting the summits of Shenandoah Mountain will preserve the habitat these salamanders require to thrive in the face of climate change. Permanently protecting Shenandoah Mountain will insulate an important section of the Great Eastern Trail corridor. This corridor will assist in the northward migration of species as they adapt to a changing climate.

However, beyond these three important features, Shenandoah Mountain has nearly 100 miles of designated cold-water stream. These streams form the headwaters for the Potomac, Shenandoah, and James River. These streams are necessary for the survival of Brook trout. Around Lake Switzer, a man-made lake that supplies water for the city of Harrisonburg, there have been over 190 different birds sighted. The Shenandoah Mountain is home to over 30 species of wildflowers some of which are considered threatened and endangered. The forest on Shenandoah Mountain includes dry mesic oak and pine, cove hardwoods, northern hardwoods, and red spruce. It is an ecosystem without comparison in the eastern United States. Finally, there are over 20,000 acres of identified old growth communities on Shenandoah Mountain. Protecting the mountain permanently will protect this important habitat for perpetuity.

Ernie Dickerman himself was the inspiration for this Wilderness campaign. After Ernie died in 1998, Wilderness advocates, convened by Bart Koehler and Christina Wulf, gathered at the Dickerman farm in Buffalo Gap and hatched a plan to protect some of Virginia finest natural areas, with Shenandoah Mountain rising to the top of the list. There is no doubt Shenandoah Mountain is worthy of Wilderness protection, but we had some daunting obstacles to overcome.
Recognizing that Shenandoah Mountain had become a favorite destination for mountain biking, VWC began by reaching out to the mountain bike community to see if we could work together to develop a proposal that would respect their use and enjoyment of trails and still add some of the wildest and most remote areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System. This step took a leap of faith, but we met periodically for 3 years and hammered out hard compromises. In the end we developed a proposal in 2004 and formed Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, a coalition to advance the proposal, co-chaired by a VWC board member and a mountain bike leader. The secret to our success was to draw boundaries, keep most trails open to bike use, but protect the most remote, core wild areas as Wilderness. In addition, we made a slight boundary adjustment to the western edge of Ramseys Draft that opened a section of the SMT to multiple use. We managed to find the sweet spot where both sides got enough of what they wanted.

This joint proposal is an important accomplishment, but we needed to expand our support to gain political momentum. In 2010, during the GWNF Forest planning process, VWC reached out to stakeholders representing timber interests, game management, hunting, fishing, and recreation groups, and formed the GWNF Stakeholder Collaborative. Needless to say, this was a group of people who normally don’t see eye to eye, but thanks to participants who were respectful of other points of view, pragmatic, reasonable, and willing to compromise, we developed and signed a stakeholder agreement in 2011 that recommended a pared-down SMNSA with 4 embedded Wilderness areas plus Beech Lick Knob, and additions to Rough Mountain and Rich Hole Wilderness areas. Yes, the SMNSA was smaller, but it gained critical support of interests that ordinarily oppose any Wilderness. These recommendations for preservation were paired with support for an increase in timber management on appropriate locations across the GWNF. This agreement translates to more protection of special wild areas and more management of timber for wildlife – a win-win. Some would say that to compromise is to fail, but we believe that it’s better to get what we can and have broad support than end up with nothing at the end of a long campaign.

In addition to our work with the mountain bike community and the GWNF Stakeholder Collaborative, Friends of Shenandoah Mountain reached out to civic organizations, faith groups, and businesses for endorsements. This required giving scores of presentations to groups and going door to door to ask businesses to endorse. Our grassroots support work yielded over 400 endorsements.

When the Forest Service finalized its 2014 GWNF Land and Resources Management Plan, it recommended the stakeholder-compromise version of our proposal. That recommendation gave a huge boost to our effort. This was the first time that the planning staff on the forest had recommended an NSA.

With agreements in place with the mountain bike community and the GWNF stakeholders, a recommendation from the Forest Service, and strong support from a wide variety of businesses and organizations, we began to reach out to local governments. Keep in mind that all the counties in which the SMNSA is located had gone on record repeatedly as opposing Wilderness. Then something unexpected. Happened. Back around 2010, a natural gas company from Texas applied for a permit to frack on private land in Rockingham County. Gas companies began leasing natural gas rights on private land and in some parts of the national forest. This changed attitudes toward land protection. No longer did local elected officials feel that national forests were already protected enough. They saw what was happening in other states, like West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and didn’t want it to happen in the Shenandoah Valley, especially in national forest watersheds that served as municipal water sources for cities, towns, and communities. So, altogether, the strong support we had built and the fear of what could happen to our national forests persuaded Augusta and Rockingham Counties and Staunton and Harrisonburg to pass resolutions of support for the SMNSA, including the embedded Wilderness areas.

The growing tourism economy all across the Shenandoah Valley and the increasing need for outdoor recreation opportunities also fed into local governments changing their minds about Wilderness.

With all this support in place, we reached out to Senators Kaine and Warner and Congressman Cline and asked them to introduce legislation. We deeply appreciate that both of our Senators were moved to champion the legislation we had long hoped for. We can’t thank them enough.

We still have a way to go before the bill is passed by Congress and signed into law, but for now, let us celebrate and give thanks to all who helped us along in a thousand ways.