Virginia's Hallowed Ground

There is no more historic landscape in the United States of America, than the corridor of farms, fields and forests that run through the foothills and river valleys of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. These were the pivotal battlegrounds of the Civil War, bearing names of Thoroughfare Gap, Cedar Mountain, Brandy Station. A century and a half ago, these and many places between were the open-air arenas where the principles of this country were ultimately tested.

These hallowed grounds of Virginia also harbor a rich biological heritage. Upon the ancient mountain slopes and rocky outcrops grow unusual communities of plants. Beneath the hallowed grounds are caves and hideouts of a strange and astounding assortment of bats and crickets and salamanders, many of them never seen by anybody but the most dedicated naturalists. The waters of the piedmont’s wooded streams harbors a nationally ranked hotbed of native fish and mussel species.

Spanning nine counties between the Atlantic coastal plain and the Blue Ridge, the piedmont of northwestern Virginia is a vast private patchwork of rural lands bounded westward by the mountain woods of the ancient Appalachians, and eastward by the coastal plain increasingly dominated by the eastern megalopolis. These lands, to many long-standing family lines that for generations have called them home, are the natural and cultural heritage that defines them. And their preservation has become the mission of one powerful conservation group, the Piedmont Environmental Council.

The Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) is a talented team of professional conservationists feeding a network of dedicated citizens with information and strategies for saving the nature of the Virginia foothills. A grassroots coalition now 40 year old and 4000 members strong, PEC is standing up for the cultural survival of some of the nation’s most hallowed historical landscapes. These are lands under mounting pressure from the suburban sprawl of the Greater Washington, D.C. area, bringing burgeoning human populations and unprecedented societal and ecological strains to an area better accustomed to a slower and more reflective way of life. They are David to the Goliath of invading developers that would turn the piedmont’s bucolic farmland and forests into the McMansion suburbs and strip malls of Anywhere, USA. 

Old Lands, New Battles

In the early 1990’s came word of plans to replace a 140-acre swath of Virginia’s hallowed ground with an historical theme park—an idea that struck many of the piedmont as a ludicrous perversion of history itself. It was the supreme irony, in which the actual soil of one of the most famous campaigns in the Civil War, was to be dug up and replaced with a facsimile, complete with parking lots and roller coasters and—as the campaign was later exposed—a mega real-estate development scheme that would have swallowed another 3,000 acres of the Virginia countryside.

With the knowledge of what such a grand scheme would ultimately do to the rural character and economies it otherwise pretended to support, it became apparent that the primary benefactors of the theme park would be its out-of-state investors. When the affected citizenry voted on the issue, enlightened as it was by PEC’s analysis of the heavy traffic and unbearable load of taxes and environmental decay the master plan inevitably promised, the citizenry voted no.

PEC has since become a model for grassroots clout, with full-time specialists in communications and mapping and Geographic Information Systems, responding rapidly with information and visual confirmation and strategies to challenge short-sighted designs on the nature of their piedmont namesake. Its battles, of course, never end. When plans became known, for a 500-killivolt power line running 16 stories high through the heart of the Piedmont, PEC was ready. Within hours of hearing the plans, they had produced maps highlighting the line running through five rural historic districts, in some cases within 200 feet of national historic registers. The maps soon appeared on TV, as a backdrop to Congressional briefings. They illustrated in graphic detail the heedless wreckage the line would bring to the countryside, obliterating scores of historical properties and natural areas in its path.

Today that fight continues, as it does on any number of fronts throughout Virginia’s historical countryside. Those who now invade the Virginia piedmont with values founded on short-term profit, are meeting a force of citizens well-armed with the power of knowledge and a deeper sense of purpose. They are fighting for a way of life, a fight that resonates with their historical roots.

Maine Begins with Habitat


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