It’s been a long time comin’

The old Sam Cook song trolls through my head. The surface meaning is appreciable, so avoid looking for anything deeper in the words to follow. I’ve always been more of an Otis Redding guy anyway. How’s that for a lede.

So here’s the post that I’ve owed myself (and the other two of you that might read this—hi mom) for a few months now. The irony in all of this is that I’ve actually spent more time writing, just not here. The blog has been relegated to the backseat of late. I recently completed a course through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, a sort of breakneck review of the western canon of nature writers and a workshop for our own forays in the field. It was wonderful and I’m sorry to have seen it end.

But there have been other excursions, adventures had. A few in service of a freelance piece I’m finishing up and hope to see in print soon. As with most things worth doing, creating this stuff takes time, and that’s a precious commodity these days. I’ve been out to George Washington National Forest, to the Blue Ridge, to the Shenandoah Valley. Solo and with the family. Returned to the Farm a few times. The backyard and running afield.

I’ve realized something in the midst of it all, and even in the act of writing it down it seems too obvious, too self-evident. It’s this notion that the line between nature writing—writing about nature—and writing in defense of nature isn’t always clear-cut. Depends on your definition I s’pose. But these days I often find myself questioning whether that line exists at all.

It can be an unsettling space to occupy, nonetheless, something like those huge rooms in elementary school with the linoleum tiles and the big, flimsy walls that would fold out like an accordion to split the space in two. You could play basketball on one side while lunch was served on the other, then wheel the big wall back, look around, and find yourself in one space, same floor, same hospital-teal, same thick edged murals of happy children and dancing vegetables.

The genre isn’t chocked with pure environmentalists—”greenies” as my former teacher calls them—but probably a good mix of the heady and hardy, an odd bunch, just as likely to be out in the woods with a gun or a fly rod as they are with a notebook.

I probably fall into both camps, so I’m open to my views being dismissed from either angle. I’d also like to think that, despite my master of nothing status, I might offer a unique perspective into all of this.

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I never wanted to turn this site into a soapbox (otherwise I would have created a Facebook account). Most forms of social media have become too vitriolic lately, too partisan. I can’t say it’s good for anyone’s health, but a steady dose of echoes and insults results in one hell of a morning headache. The last several months have seemed especially crude, worse in hard-boiled opinion and with more fear-mongering than local news. Throw in a heart-palpitation while you’re at it.

So while I’m all worked up, here it is, a bit of the stuff I’ve got going through my veins, at a little higher than normal pressure. And I think the time has come, whether through guilt, activism, or an honest-to-god fear of the future, to talk openly about them.

Two recent issues come to mind. The first is the Dakota Access Pipeline. The second is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (where you may find me from time to time), you’re probably familiar with the first. Unless, you live in or near the central Appalachians, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of the second.

I honestly believe we’ll look back on Dakota Access, on what was accomplished out at Standing Rock, and see it as an inflection point, a change in the momentum, or the acceleration rather, of the dark forces that are re-shaping our future in the name of commerce or progress or even freedom. Even as many as of us tread here, bobbing in the wake of November’s election and wondering how the in the hell those checks and balances are supposed to perform as designed when the gap between government and corporate interests grows imperceptibly small. Things should have been getting easier for entities like Energy Transfer Partners; the skids should have been greased. And we’ve just thrown some sand in the way. Well, good for us. But it’s a big, damned machine and we’re gonna need a lot more sand.

I was continually frustrated at the lack of news coverage of DAPL. Not until the final standoff in those shortened days before Christmas did it really make national headlines, long after the temperatures out there had fallen below freezing, after the combined population of the camps exceeded 10,000. Unfortunately, the election and much of the fallout that followed, including the unceasing, inane tweets by our president-elect, kept to the top of the news cycle like a slick of oil floating on the surface of the ocean.

Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline is actually a complicated issue, one that may be difficult for non-natives (like myself) to fully grasp. What began as yet another trouncing on the sovereign rights of a people too used to getting kicked around by the powers that be became much more over time. You may assign the cause of your choice, most of them legitimate, but #noDAPL was and is far more than just another front in the ongoing environmental fight.

I ran across this article and wish it could be read by anyone with an opinion on Standing Rock, regardless of his or her stance.

For as much as we disparage the ecological implications of the Dakota Access Pipeline—and they are legion—we must not forget that the protest began as a gathering of American Indians in opposition to what they saw as another clear infringement of their rights. In the months that followed, their movement was joined by thousands, most rotating in and out as they were able. But the Dakota and Lakota people will remain on those hills long after all of the other protesters have gone home.

There have been many avenues to support the cause, however you see it; here is one that I chose. Even as the protests have all but fallen out of the news cycle, the legal battles waged as a result will be long and arduous. Hundreds of protestors were derided, arrested, and assaulted for exercising their first amendment rights. We’ve grown a lot since Selma, but we’ve still got a long way to go, it seems.

Only a few days ago, the new chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was sworn in, himself a North Dakota senator who was outspoken in his disdain for the protests. Coupled with the recent nominations for Secretary of State, Secretary of Energy, and head of the EPA, it seems we’ve found ourselves trapped in some strange paradox where facts are partisan, where hyperbole is literal, and where high-minded discourse is eclipsed by playground invective in 140-character segments.

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But let me back up a bit and redirect to the second issue that I mentioned—the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In short, it’s a newly proposed natural gas pipeline slated to be built, owned, and operated by a partnership of energy companies led by Dominion Resources, and meant to connect gas reserves in West Virginia to destinations here in Virginia and North Carolina along a 600-mile route snaking through all three states. There are a lot of issues posed by this thing, and the way Dominion has gone about the planning, surveying, and multiple certificate applications seems to suggest they’re trying to do the least amount of work possible to make it happen.

Interstate pipelines are no small feat. And the process for getting them implemented is long and complicated – for a reason. Several federal and state agencies are required to provide input or sign off on the pipeline before the first tree is felled, namely the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Forest Service (if crossing National Forest land), the National Park Service (if crossing National Park land), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (if crossing major waterways), the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, state Departments of Environmental Quality, Protection, or Conservation, Divisions of Natural Resources, etc.

But let’s be clear, unlike Dakota Access or even Keystone XL, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is supposed to carry compressed natural gas. Fracked gas, actually. Drillers have been extracting this hard to reach methane in earnest, even while natural gas prices have fallen so low that the gas costs more to produce than it does to sell at current market rates. It seems silly but that’s the game being played right now, and projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline are just part of the long-ball strategy.

The problem, at least with the pipeline, is the collateral damage, much of it conspicuously missing from the cost-benefit analyses and spreadsheets used to justify the need for projects like these. Even the Environmental Impact Statements issued by the FERC are woefully inadequate in fully addressing the… wait for it… impact to the environment. But I’m not talking about this in some abstract sense. Here, the threat is as real as can be imagined, and those of us living in or near the pipeline’s path need not cast our imaginations far.

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The mountains through which the pipeline’s path would cut are in our backyard, as are the rivers that run between them, the streams that connect the two, unbroken swaths of core forest, a number of endangered or threatened species, karst, limestone, sinkholes. All of it in the path of a 600-mile strip of bare earth, a 75 ft wide clearcut, 125 ft wide construction corridor, and several hundred acres of cleared land and access roads.

The pipeline’s route will bisect Monongahela and George Washington National Forests as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail, for which it will need the explicit permission of both the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. The remainder of the route, all but about 21 miles of it, would then pass through privately owned land, for which Dominion will need the permission of the land-owner. If refused, the land could then be seized through eminent domain. What’s worse, at least in Virginia, the company actually enjoys the “right” to enter private property to survey long before any permits are issued to begin construction.

Let me reiterate—it’s for fracked gas. Anything that encourages the continued use of that method of extraction, in my view, should be left to the annuls of the 20th century. It has no place in the future energy policy of this country. Even here in Virginia, where Governor McAuliffe insisted that the U.S. Forest Service ban drilling in the National Forest, he continues to voice his support for the ACP which, ironically, transports gas fracked outside of Virginia’s borders to power plants here in our state and in North Carolina.

The frustration is mounting, and it’s coming from multiple angles. There are clear environmental concerns, there are land rights concerns, and there are concerns that our government agencies are failing to regulate these massive pipeline projects in light of the obvious issues.

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With regard to the ACP and the MVP, it is my sincere hope that both projects and others like them will garner some national attention in the coming months and undergo the level of scrutiny that each deserves, not just by the public at large, because in a lot of ways we’re already doing that, but by the agencies that are chartered by the public to protect the resources—the land, the water, the wildlife—and the rights of private citizens. Until now, so many of them have failed to do so.

If this curdles the blood even a little, I encourage you, humble reader, to check the following links for more information. Because if there’s anything that Standing Rock has taught us, it’s that our government and the corporations it colludes with can no longer ignore a frustrated and informed populace.

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