In 1997, my family relocated to the Blue Ridge Mountain community of Nelson County from southside Virginia. I was a rising eighth-grader at the time, but still remember the drastic change in landscape with a sense of awe.

Gone were the lazy rows of tobacco leaves and sun-worn and warped drying shacks. Instead, hazy mountain ridges rose from pristine farmland, tall, exposed rock faces lined the winding country roads and rushing spring-fed streams tumbled over well-worn stones.

Though I wasn’t born there, Nelson County is home to me. It’s a truly beautiful, unique, rustic place full of some of the kindest and most genuine people you’ll ever meet.

Sadly, this place I call home has been under a constant shadow in the form of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would bisect hundreds of miles of privately held land across Virginia. Today, blue signs with “NO PIPELINE” in white lettering dot the same scenic landscape I fell in love with so many years ago, reflecting an ongoing battle for Nelson’s soul.

As proposed, the ACP would enter Nelson County under the Blue Ridge Parkway near Wintergreen and wind its way across the county, exiting near Wingina. But under a recent route alternative now going through the formal scoping process under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, this 42-inch pipeline would bisect Elk Hill, a second large conservation easement in Nelson County, bringing to 11 the number of Virginia Outdoors Foundation-protected tracts of land that would be disrupted for the gains of a for-profit corporation.

VOF, a political body of Virginia, recently voiced its objections to FERC on this latest route, noting that Elk Hill is on both the Virginia Landmarks Registry and National Register of Historic Places and is also a contributing property to the South Rockfish River Rural Historic District, established this summer.

Dominion has offered to swap other land to make up for infringing on Elk Hill and the Saunders tract near Wheelers Cove, as well as nine other easements in Augusta, Bath and Highland counties. But this offer is beside the point.

When a landowner voluntarily agrees to preserve his or her land in perpetuity through a conservation easement, they make a legally binding decision not to develop their property – a commitment to keep their land as-is to ensure its long-term integrity and preservation.

A pipeline route through any easement violates this commitment and runs counter to the very spirit in which the land was set aside for conservation. No matter how much land Dominion offers in return, their pipeline route will leave a permanent scar on the impacted properties, not to mention permanent access roads and other manmade infrastructure that will forever alter the landscape.

Statewide, VOF holds nearly 4,000 easements, amounting to 780,000 acres of conserved land. Of that total, 12,400 acres (49 easements) have been preserved in perpetuity in Nelson County alone.

Dominion’s actions threaten to undermine these efforts. If a landowner is interested in placing a conservation easement on their property only to see that a for-profit corporation can do what they want to with it when the opportunity arises, what kind of message does that send?

The downsides of this project are many: increased fossil fuel reliance for years to come (and the climate change impacts that come with it), the destruction and devastation of natural lands and habitat, and ongoing risk to local communities, businesses and homeowners. 

When you add to this list infringement on legally binding agreements intended to preserve Virginia’s unique and valuable open space, the arguments for moving forward with this project fall apart.

Synapse Energy Economics recently concluded our existing natural gas infrastructure is sufficient to handle current and future demand. It’s clear the ACP’s main purpose is to make it easier to get natural gas into the export market at Virginians’ expense.

We are at a turning point in the way we generate and distribute energy. Across the country, prices for renewable sources like wind and solar continue to fall while the economic, public health and public safety gains of advancing these technologies increase.

Virginia’s natural areas, farmland, and historical and cultural lands are irreplaceable and should not suffer for the advancement of a plan that will only deepen our reliance on a finite energy source and the for-profit monopoly that burns it.

Lee Francis is communications manager for the Virginia League of Conservation Voters and a 2002 graduate of Nelson County High School. Contact him at lfrancis@valcv.org

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