If you’ve ever been to the top of Reddish Knob, you’re already familiar with the stunning scenery on Shenandoah Mountain.
And that means people who want to keep it that way forever were thrilled with the recommendation in the new management plan for the George Washington National Forest to designate a Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area. But as WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports, Congress may have the final say.
The mountain is home to some of the least-fragmented forest habitat east of the Mississippi – and that’s just one of its distinctive features, says Lynn Cameron, co-chair of Friends of Shenandoah Mountain.
LYNN CAMERON: It has the headwaters of both the Potomac and James Rivers. It provides clean drinking water for Staunton and Harrisonburg and other towns and cities downstream.
Cameron’s group lobbied the forest service for the past several years to make this National Scenic Area recommendation.
CAMERON: It’s the home of 250 species of birds, special birds like warblers and vireos, whose habitat is declining. It also has special salamanders, like the Cow Knob Salamander and the Shenandoah Mountain Salamander, and both of these are found nowhere else on Earth. It has supreme recreational opportunities. People have been enjoying hunting and fishing in the area for decades, hiking, backpacking, camping, horseback riding, and more recently, it’s become one of the most popular places in the East for mountain biking.
Mountain biking adds a fascinating wrinkle to this story. For decades, Cameron and others had hoped to protect Shenandoah Mountain as a wilderness area. But because wilderness is a very restrictive designation that bans mountain biking, the mere mention of it has a tendency to make mountain bikers:
THOMAS JENKINS: Defensive. Definitely defensive at first, because wilderness was a bad word when it came to mountain biking.
Thomas Jenkins is a co-owner of Shenandoah Bicycle Company in Harrisonburg, a longtime bike advocate, and the other co-chair of Friends of Shenandoah Mountain. When the group formed more than a decade ago, Cameron also wondered if bikers and wilderness advocates could find common ground.
CAMERON: The two groups normally don’t work together and are at odds because wilderness does exclude mountain bikes. But when mountain biking became increasingly popular, we realized that we both cared about the area very deeply, and that if we worked together, we could achieve some level of protection.
In the end, Jenkins, Cameron and many others settled on a compromise that formed the basis of the forest service’s National Scenic Area recommendation. It calls for a nearly 90,000-acre National Scenic Area in western Rockingham and Augusta counties, open to things like hiking, biking, and use of existing roads like the one up to Reddish Knob. Within that area, the forest service also recommends a 6,100-acre expansion of the existing Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness and the creation of a new, 9,500-acre Little River Wilderness – both in northwestern Augusta County.
JENKINS: If the plan goes forward, there will be a loss of mountain bike-accessible trails due to wilderness expansion. At the same time, there is a game-changer of a wilderness boundary actually being moved to open up a trail that currently isn’t open to mountain bikes. That, on a national level, is something that we don’t know has happened before.
Give a little, gain a lot, they both say. While the current management plan sets nearly all the forest off-limits to natural gas development, for example, that policy will remain in effect only until a new plan is developed 10 or 15 years from now. Designation as a National Scenic Area, however, would permanently protect Shenandoah Mountain from almost any kind of development
CAMERON: It might not have as much wilderness as I would have liked, but the compromise is really a win-win, because it does have the most special places protected as wilderness, and it does keep almost all the trails open to mountain biking.
The compromise actually extends beyond mountain bike access; because Friends of Shenandoah Mountain has agreed to support increased logging and other forest clearing to provide better game habitat in areas adjacent to the recommended scenic area, hunting groups and the timber industry have also supported the plan. You’ll note the word “recommendation” has come up repeatedly. That’s because the forest service can’t actually designate a National Scenic Area or a wilderness. That requires Congressional approval. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine supports the forest service’s recommendation:
TIM KAINE: Virginia is so blessed to have these beautiful spaces and we want to preserve them for generations to come. I do think it’s important for the forest service to work in tandem with the local communities to make sure the designations make sense. But I think the forest service officials did a good job in striking a reasonable balance that can guide management activities in the forest for years to come, and I’m optimistic that we’re going to find a good accord on this scenic area and wilderness designation and then be able to move forward on that as well.
Senator Mark Warner has also released a statement in support of the idea, while Representative Bob Goodlatte, whose district includes nearly all the George Washington National Forest, said that he is still studying the plan and has no further comment at this time. Though Jenkins and Cameron view the forest service’s recommendation as a major step towards permanent protection of Shenandoah Mountain, they expect it to take years before Congress might approve a bill to that effect.
JENKINS: There’s a couple challenges ahead of us. I think one is obviously getting the right political climate and getting Congress on board. The other key thing is getting a bill that is written well and making sure during the whole process the bill does not change. So in some ways the work is just beginning.
And if it’s ever all said and done, what will that mean, exactly, for people who spend time on Shenandoah Mountain?
JENKINS: Ideally, to the average person out there, nothing will change. You’re a hunter, you’re a hiker, you’re a mountain biker, you’re an average outdoor enthusiast who’s currently using that area, for the most part, it will not change. And that is what we’re ultimately going for, is not to see a huge change of a national resource and a beautiful area as unique as Shenandoah Mountain.