Legislation to enlarge two wilderness areas in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest is on its way to the U.S. Senate, thanks to Rep. Abigail Spanberger and her allies.
On Friday—George Washington’s birthday—the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass Spanberger’s amendment to the Colorado Wilderness Act of 2021, itself a component of the larger Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act.
Spanberger & Company’s Virginia Wilderness Additions Act would add 5,600 acres to the national forest’s Rough Mountain and Rich Hole wilderness areas in Southwest Virginia’s Bath County.
The Central Virginia lawmaker’s amendment clarified that the wilderness areas would receive the strongest level of federal protection while remaining open to public recreation, a spokesperson said.
On Friday morning, Spanberger rose on the House floor to speak in support of her amendment to House Resolution 803, the Colorado bill.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen the renewed importance of having safe and accessible public lands for our families and communities,” she said. “As a proud Virginian, I know that Virginia’s public lands not only provide opportunities for recreation and reflection, but they are a key part of our tourism industry and our overall economy.”
The forest’s Rough Mountain and Rich Hole wilderness areas “offer outstanding scenic views, rare and endangered plants, ages-old hardwood forests, and a dense population of black bears,” Spanberger said.
The Virginia Wilderness Additions Act would keep the two areas open to recreation “while also protecting their wildlife, natural resources, and trails for generations to come,” said the Democrat, who represents Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.
Spanberger’s effort was supported by Reps. Elaine Luria, D-2nd, and Donald McEachin, D-4th.
“There have been efforts since 2014 to rectify this issue, but this effort is finally gaining some traction,” the Spanberger aide told the Culpeper Star-Exponent. Spanberger and Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia have worked together on the issue.
Now, the House bill goes to the Senate for consideration.
In January 2020, in the prior session of Congress, the Senate passed the Virginia Wilderness Additions Act introduced by Kaine and Warner.
The U.S. Forest Service recommended the two wilderness additions—1,000 acres to Rough Mountain and 4,600 acres to Rich Hole—in 2014. Its proposal was endorsed by the George Washington National Forest Stakeholder Collaborative, a group of forest users that worked for years to reach consensus on acceptable sites in the 1.1 million-acre forest for wilderness, trails, timber harvests and other uses.
The proposal was folded into the initial 2018 Farm Bill, but did not make it into the final legislation. The Forest Service is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The biggest forest preserve in the East, George Washington National Forest in western Virginia and West Virginia is a favorite spot for hikers, campers, fishermen, hunters and horsemen.
Its public lands are a haven for bears, songbirds, native brook trout and other wildlife, as well as the source of clean drinking water and economic benefits for dozens of communities, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.
On Friday afternoon, the SELC applauded the latest news, tweeting, “It’s a good day for hikers, hunters, campers, & paddlers, as the House of Representatives just approved #wilderness protection for 5,600 acres of national forest in VA! Thank you @RepSpanberger @RepMcEachin & @RepElaineLuria for supporting local efforts to get this done!”
In 2014, the SELC, Virginia Wilderness Committee and local organizations cheered the forest plan’s recommendation to designate 27,000 acres of new or expanded wilderness areas and 70,000 acres of scenic area in the Shenandoah National Scenic Area.
The latter notion would protect much of Shenandoah Mountain, which lies between State Routes 250 and 33 in Virginia. It has one of the most significant concentrations of roadless wildlands in the Southern Appalachians, according to the Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, a regional alliance of local businesses, civic organizations, student groups, churches and conservation groups.
On Saturday afternoon, the Sierra Club expressed its appreciation to Spanberger and McEachin for adding the Virginia lands to the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act.
“We’re really excited to have that area protected,” said Athan Manuel, director of the club’s public lands program. “... We think it’s great that Congresswoman Spanberger and Mr. McEachin were able to get that in there this week. ... It’s a beautiful area that we’re happy to see protected.”
McEachin also folded in his Great Dismal Swamp Act, which would preserve the southeastern Virginia swamp’s history and stories for the nation.
The Colorado wilderness bill amended by Spanberger and McEachin became the centerpiece of the larger act, which combines eight previously approved measures to protect public lands and waters in Arizona, Colorado, California and Washington, Manuel said.
“This bill that just passed has almost 3 million acres of protected lands,” he said. So it’s pretty significant when you look at how many acres and how many special places are going to be protected for all Americans to enjoy. It’s a win-win-win from our perspective, passing this public lands bill this past week.”
The act is part of the Sierra Club’s “30 x 30 Conservation Agenda,” which seeks to preserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and water mass by 2030 to help meet the challenge of climate change and provide space for wildlife and communities to thrive.
American biologist and writer E.O. Wilson came up with the concept to save animals and plants by giving them more room they’ll need to adapt to climate change, Manuel said.
“We need to protect more areas as public lands to give habitat and species that flexibility,” he said. “The thinking is, from a scientific perspective, that if you protect 30 percent by 2030, it would get us on the right path to building some climate resilience for these public lands.”
Launched a couple of years ago, the 30x30 conservation target became part of President Biden’s executive order on climate change, Manuel said.