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Virginia Senators push for new National Scenic Area on Shenandoah Mountain

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A map showing the proposed new National Scenic Area

Virginia's U S. Senators introduced a bill last week that would create a 92,000 acre National Scenic Area within the George Washington National Forest. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[sound of light breeze, distant stream]

Spring is just starting to creep up Reddish Knob on the northwestern edge of Augusta County. At the peak, deer glide over patches of lingering snow, while moss and grasses send up shoots along Briery Branch.

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Randi B. Hagi
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Lynn Cameron standing by the Briery Branch reservoir.

LYNN CAMERON: We're already seeing some wildflowers coming up. Coltsfoot, I've seen some Spring Beauties, I've seen some Hepatica … within the next month we're going to see a lot more.

Lynn Cameron is a wilderness advocate who co-founded the grassroots group Friends of Shenandoah Mountain. I met up with her at the Briery Branch reservoir to talk about the Shenandoah Mountain Act that was introduced in the Senate last week. If it passes, a swath of land stretching from route 33 to 250 along the state's western border will all become a National Scenic Area.

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Randi B. Hagi
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Moss at the base of the mountain sending up tiny sporophytes.

CAMERON: This whole bill is really important because it protects a really outstanding natural area. One of the largest expanses of pretty much un-roaded National Forest land in the eastern United States. The area has tremendous biodiversity. It has some plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth, and it's just wonderful that the area can gain this kind of permanent protection while supporting recreational uses at the same time.

The designation would also protect the watersheds that local residents rely on for drinking water. That's one of the reasons that the governing bodies of Harrisonburg, Staunton, and Rockingham and Augusta counties have all pledged their support for the proposal in the last few years.

And, as senator Tim Kaine pointed out in a press conference on Tuesday -

TIM KAINE: … they view the tourism potential of this 92,000 acre National Scenic Area as so significant that it'll be strong for the local economy.

He visited the area over the weekend for a celebratory hike with Cameron and other advocates.

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Randi B. Hagi
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Briery Branch is one of many streams in the proposed National Scenic Area that contribute to local residents' water supply.

KAINE: We did about a five mile hike on the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, which is a trail that dates back to 1915, along the mountain ridge that is the dividing line between Augusta and Highland counties and it was absolutely beautiful. We weren't bargaining on snow – we thought we were getting 60 degree weather and we ended up getting snow instead!

While the area is already part of the George Washington National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service can permit commercial uses on National Forest land, such as timber sales and pipeline construction. Those things are not allowed in National Scenic Areas, though.

KAINE: It would take National Forest land and kind of boost up the protection level of the land by including Wilderness Areas, which is a very pristine designation of much national forest acreage.

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Randi B. Hagi
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The view southwest from Reddish Knob peers down the proposed National Scenic Area's western border.

The proposal would expand one wilderness area – Ramsey's Draft – and create three new ones, in which no mechanical transport, including bicycles, would be allowed. Cameron said that, of all the compromises that had to be made among stakeholders, from hikers to bear hunters to botanists, some of the most difficult ones had to be forged between the staunch wilderness supporters and the mountain bikers.

CAMERON: Nobody got everything they wanted, but I believe everybody got most of what they wanted. So it's just an example of what people can do when they work together … The bill calls for a new trail to be developed along Tilghman Road from Wild Oak parking to Wolf Ridge, so I think that's a real strong benefit to the mountain bike community. It also adjusts the western edge of Ramsey's Draft wilderness to open up Shenandoah Mountain Trail to multiple uses, so that's also a real benefit.

Now that Senators Kaine and Warner have taken up the cause, it's more or less out of Cameron's hands.

CAMERON: It just feels wonderful to have a bill introduced in the Senate. We've been building support for this Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area proposal for 18 years, and we have made presentations to local groups, we've reached out to businesses, we've just done so much grassroots support building, and I feel like this is really an important milestone in our campaign.

The Shenandoah Mountain Act has been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. A representative from Kaine's office said they hope there will be a committee hearing and vote on the bill soon, but they don't know when that might be.