This past June I made the decision to leave Alaska and return to my hometown of Chesapeake, Virginia. After picking a departure date and booking a plane ticket, I realized this would leave me with the later half of the summer before I really needed to buckle down and find a job. One month later I was pulling into the Konnarock Trail Crew base camp in Sugar Grove, Virginia. I had volunteered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy four years prior, and felt compelled to do so again since my plans to hike the AT in 2017 fell through (an entirely different story). If I couldn’t hike it, why not spend a week working on it?
The area for the week I ended up on was a future relocated section of the AT on Sinking Creek Mountain, near Giles County, VA. The surrounding town also happens to be an area that would be affected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a proposed natural gas pipeline running a total of 303 miles from West Virginia to Virginia. If you drive in any direction from the site we were camping on for the weekend, you’ll see countless signs discouraging the pipeline project. We were told that we might encounter locals who, possibly thinking we were surveyors, might be upset with us (this did not happen, and every person I met that week was wonderful).
Perhaps it was my physical distance from Virginia or my shifted focus to Alaskan small town politics that delayed me from properly researching the pipeline proposal, but when I found myself in the center of an affected area I was immediately angry. Working with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy added fuel to fire, with constant campaigns being blasted from their social media platforms using buzzwords like “devastate” to really hammer in concerns about the pipeline. I was angry about the recent big push for public lands in Utah, but the lack of information about something that was going to damage one of the United State’s most popular and beloved long-distance trails. I sent emails to my representatives, reposted the ATC’s tool for easily contacting them, and huffed about it over the course of the day.
What I found when scrolling through comments on the ATC’s Facebook and Instagram posts about the pipeline was different than what I expected. The majority of commenters were not upset about the pipeline, and most users noted that there are many other pipelines that cross the A.T. already, none of which are really noticeable or distracting unless you know they are there. The most common argument supporting the pipeline is that it will bring more accessible, cheaper resources to parts of Virginia. The second is that it will create jobs. According to the MVP website, the project would add $369 million dollars in gross regional product and generate over 4,000 jobs in Virginia. The website also cites perks like property tax benefits and for Giles county, the studied area closest to Sinking Creek Mountain, commercial use of the natural gas at the Celanese Plant. Facebook users point out that the ATC’s reasoning behind opposing the pipeline is weak, and that no beautiful views will be sacrificed. A good portion of me wanted to buy into this, accepting it as a part of the economic course of the country and understanding that maybe the AT wont be forever and that sometimes things just have to happen. Thinking about holding off on sending those anti-pipeline emails?
Let’s think things through:
Recently in Utah at the Outdoor Retailer Show, a few thousand or so people marched to the state capitol to express their support for public land preservation. For those who haven’t been paying attention: under the country’s new administration there has been an effort to review national monuments that are protected under the Antiquities Act for benefit of companies to generate more jobs and income. It’s a familiar tune – beautiful land that people have enjoyed for outdoor recreation gets reevaluated for financial gain. Though the AT isn’t a national monument, it is absolutely an asset to outdoor recreation and education on the eastern side of the US. So why aren’t more people still angry about this?
Putting a pipeline through the AT doesn’t mean that the trail will be ruined. I know this, the ATC knows this, and the agencies funding the MVP know this. Claiming that we should halt the pipeline because it will be a sore sight in beautiful scenery doesn’t resonate with many people. The AT is over 2,100 miles long and counting (thanks to some new Sinking Creek switchbacks), and there are plenty of scenic views in every state to makeup for a few ruined views. However, as part of a larger conversation about preserving the land we love, we should be fighting against the Mountain Valley Pipeline. As a Virginia native, I cherished two parts of the east coast: the beach and the mountains. We may not have awe-inspiring arches, but we do have the wild ponies of Mount Rodgers, the beautiful sunrise fog below grassy mountain peaks and a large variety of flora and fauna that never cease to amaze me. I am intent on keeping these areas protected from this pipeline and any projects that set precedent for developing AT land (it has been noted that allowing the pipeline would lower the standards for protecting natural areas around the AT).
If that isn’t enough to convince you, let’s take another look at some important information about the MVP. The Roanoke Times cites an assessment by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation that accuses the FERC of underestimating the environmental impact of the project by a whopping 300%. The article goes into more detail about the forest damage the pipeline would cause, and the negative long-term effects that tree fragmentation has on an ecosystem. The MVP is not the only proposed pipeline for the east coast, either. Though the pipeline may cause “minimal effects” on its own, it combines with many others to create a larger force. NPR digs deeper into natural gas pipelines and who exactly they benefit (think: FERC employees leaving to work in the industry), but also points out the other side of environmental damage caused by pipelines: greenhouse gases. “But some scientists warn that the rush to more fully tap the rich Marcellus and Utica shales is bad for a dangerously warming planet, extending the country’s fossil-fuel habit by half a century. Industry consultants say there isn’t even enough demand in the United States for all the gas that would come from this boost in production,” says the article.
So wait – there isn’t even a demand for this natural gas? If you take another look at the projected economic growth in Giles County, it claims that it would only benefit 27% of residential properties if they used the gas that the pipeline brings. If you remember, they cited that a commercial property, the Celanese plant, would be able to utilize the pipeline. However, the Celanese plant recently laid off 27 workers because of a low demand for the product they are producing. Though they did switch to natural gas beginning in 2013, they also built about 16 miles worth of natural gas pipeline to supply it. The plant also received a civil charge against it for wastewater discharges into the New River. Is this commercial plant with a pre-existing natural gas supply worth tearing through land and forest? In another area where the MVP claims economic prosperity, Franklin County, landowners are being sued by the company to have their land surveyed. Residents express concern about losing already limited water access to their land, a crucial resource in Virginia for farming and raising cattle. In Montgomery County, local government and citizens sent a letter to the Department of Environmental Quality asking for a reconsideration of the permit that would allow the MVP to cross waterways. Though a survey claims that 62% of Virginians support the Mountain Valley Pipeline, it seems that residents in the affected areas may disagree.
I encourage you to look at both viewpoints concerning the Mountain Valley Pipeline project. I also encourage you to think about your hiking trips, east coast or not, and your appreciation of designated areas for outdoor exploration, recreation and education. Look at the trees next time you go into the woods. On my week of trail crew, I saw the second-largest Keffer Oak on the Appalachian Trail, an amazing line of Hemlock trees, and ate fresh blackberries growing along the trail. I wouldn’t want to see any of that disappear.
You can find the ATC’s tool for contacting your representative here.