We are thrilled to announce that we are deepening our conservation work in Page and Warren counties by joining forces with long-time partner Scenic 340 Project. The nonprofit group, led by dedicated volunteers, made sure that the rural, redbud-lined 340 corridor was saved from a harmful widening proposed in 1999. They have also worked with neighboring landowners to conserve more than 2300 acres of private land, connecting the Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forest along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. Here is a note from our shared board member Christine Andreae:
In time – years, actually – we hammered out compromises and VDOT’s plan was limited to replacing four old bridges and their approaches. Once construction started, we had more time to focus on land preservation. At our last meeting, Green Team leader and attorney Tom Lockhart reported that to-date we have facilitated conservation easements on approximately 2,500 acres. This includes an 1,800-acre wildlife corridor in Overall that connects the Shenandoah National Park with the George Washington National Forest. A lot to be proud of. Still, the Sunday gathering felt bittersweet. It was as if we were attending a wedding and a funeral at the same time.
This last meeting was hosted by current President Paula Atwood at her dance studio in Overall, that, incidentally, would been demolished by a four-lane highway. She welcomed about 30 veteran supporters who “thanks to our long journey together, have bonded as dearest of friends.” Recalling the early days, she exclaimed, “We were so naïve!”
Indeed we were. We never expected our fight would take years. We learned the hard way that VDOT, at the time, did not seem interested in input from citizens. Treasurer Fred Andreae recalled how we had scraped together enough money to hire a nationally recognized road designer, the late Joe Passonneau, to come up with an alternative, more context-sensitive solution to VDOT’s proposed plan for Route 340. Joe was an architect, then in his 80s and still practicing. In 2000, he had received the Presidential Award for Design Excellence from then President Bill Clinton for designing an environmentally sensitive, innovative two-tiered highway through the scenic Glenwood Canyon in Colorado. When Joe presented his alternative plan to the VDOT engineers, many flocked up to him, afterwards, and asked for his autograph. But at our next meeting with VDOT (thankfully without Joe in attendance), the same engineers called his design incompetent and attacked him as a senile old man.
If we often drowned post-meeting despair in bourbon, we managed to keep burnout at bay – partly by taking turns at being president. After a particularly horrible meeting with VDOT during my own stint as president, I remember breaking down and blubbering, “I can’t do this any more!” Our neighbor Paul Otto gallantly stepped up and relieved me of the hot seat.
My favorite perseverance story stars Eileen Brennan Porter, an artist and graphic designer nicknamed “Little.” She is a gentle, frail-looking soul with a steely passion for protecting our environment. In 2003, Governor Mark Warner happened to hold a press conference at the new Bentonville state park and afterwards Little went up to him with a newspaper article detailing VDOT’s plan to “improve” a section Route 340 without holding public hearings. She gave him the article, then shook his hand and held on with a death-grip until she got all the way through her argument. To prevent anyone from breaking in and interrupting, board member Jim Guy stood behind her like an all-pro football tackle guarding his quarterback. “And guess what?” Little remembered. “It worked. Governor Warner stopped VDOT’s illegitimate preemptive move!”
As at a funeral, the many stories told and all the great food brought to Paula’s folding tables nourished both body and soul. As at a wedding, the promise of a fruitful union lifted our spirits with hope. Here’s a quote attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead. It gave me heart at the outset in 1999 and still seems apt in 2019:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.