About 2½ years ago, tree felling began at the entrance of Wintergreen to facilitate drilling underneath the mountains.
Remnants of felled trees are consumed by overgrowth in a roughly 120-foot-wide swath that climbs up the mountainside, concealing the make-ready work the Atlantic Coast Pipeline performed to pave the way for the pipeline in Nelson County.
But the pipeline never came. After years of construction, constant legal challenges, delays and inflating costs, ACP canceled the project in early July.
Dominion and Duke Energy had teamed up on the proposed 605-mile pipeline that would have traversed parts of West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, with 27 miles crossing through Nelson County where public opposition was fierce. Environmental preservation became one of many points of contention for pipeline opponents, and the county became the only locality ACP sued over the rights to the county’s floodplains.
Jay Roberts, executive director of the Wintergreen Property Owners Association, said letting the forest recover would help property owners move forward, but he does not believe bulldozing over the path or removing the trees is the right approach moving forward for the land.
“Nelson is moving on and going to be successful. Wintergreen is moving on, the forest is moving on,” Roberts said. “We just need to put this whole … struggle behind us.”
Roberts said he thinks the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should allow ACP to work with individual landowners to see how best to restore land that was disturbed for construction. This is reflected in a filing on the FERC docket Aug. 3 in response to ACP’s request for a time extension on the project; the property owners association does not object to the request and wants ACP to have more time to fix land disturbed for the route.
A statement posted to the ACP’s website says in the wake of the project’s cancellation, officials with the pipeline will work with landowners, FERC and other agencies to determine “the best path forward for all agreements and assets related to the project.”
Since ACP was unable to complete more work in Nelson County before pulling the plug on the controversial project, Joyce Burton, with Nelson County-based environmental group Friends of Nelson, said the county “dodged a bullet,” adding she is encouraged to see the recovery currently taking place.
“Mother Nature is resilient, and she does the best that she can to fix things,” Burton said. “It is heartening to see stuff growing back; it’s a bit of a reminder of our shame that we cut this stuff down, and it was a waste to have done that.”
About three months after the announcement of the cancellation of the natural gas pipeline that would have stretched more than 600 miles, with roughly 27 miles cutting through Nelson County, no official word has yet come from either ACP or FERC on plans for the restoration of those areas affected by the pipeline activities.
Tom Smith, director of operations with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, said forest fragmentation was one such environmental impact that could result from tree clearing.
Forest fragmentation occurs when a hole or line is cut through a patch of forest resulting in diminished environmental services, such as a loss of habitat or worsening water quality, Smith said.
In addition to the risks of invasive species taking over the areas once occupied by native vegetation, Smith said the process to remove felled trees from the Wintergreen slope potentially could exacerbate the damage to the land.
“Trees grow back pretty fast, so the forest is recovering; probably in 20 to 40 years there will be some fairly good-sized trees, and somebody new coming to the area won’t notice much of an impact from a visual perspective. With what happens with invasive species, that is difficult to speculate,” Smith said.
Roberts said he wants ACP officials to come a few times per year for a certain period of time to look for and cut back invasive species growing in the patch of land.
Tree felling was not exclusive to just Wintergreen, however. According to Burton, some landowners facing what they believed at the time was the inevitability of the pipeline made the choice to cut trees on their land themselves. Burton said this could have been for a number of reasons, but she believed it was mostly from trying to preemptively offset giving up part of their land.
In the areas that had been on the pipeline’s path, the threat of environmental damage extended beyond the removal of trees. Because of the project’s cancellation, opponents contend the threat for landslides in Nelson decreased, too.
A report released in 2017 commissioned by Friends of Nelson states the steep slopes in the county have long been susceptible to landslides, and ACP’s filings with FERC did not fully take into account the potentially dangerous conditions the project posed to Nelson County’s slopes and residents.
The conclusion of the study performed by Blackburn Consulting Services said Dominion’s findings were based on regional data that did not accurately reflect the “site-specific risks within Nelson County or the effect that the proposed pipeline installation has on those residents.”
It also says the removal of existing trees to make way for construction of the ACP, pipeline installation and installation of ground cover would result in an overall decrease in the stabilizing effect tree roots have on soil.
Referencing the findings of the 2017 report, Ernie Reed, current Central District supervisor and former head of Friends of Nelson, said given the steep slope failures that have occurred in the county in the past, like that seen when Hurricane Camille devastated Nelson 51 years ago, the “potential for catastrophic environmental damage was real.”
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