By Anna Lawson
Lawson, a resident of Botetourt County, is a board member of the Valley Conservation Council, and a former trustee of the Virginia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Last week, the celebration of National Public Lands Day reminded many of us of the abundance of public land throughout Virginia, and in the Roanoke area in particular. Situated in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains (indeed, dubbing itself Virginia’s Blue Ridge), close by the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, the Roanoke Valley is surrounded by public lands, making it an outdoor enthusiast’s dream.
We have here the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail, an ever-expanding greenway system, and state parks and recreation areas that are the envy of communities across the United States. These assets are key, for instance, in the growing popularity of the annual Blue Ridge Marathon and will play a big role in the upcoming triathlon.
In recognition of the 26th annual National Public Lands Day, Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation hosted 35 service-based, volunteer activities at our state parks. Neither state nor national statistics are available yet for 2019, but the 2018 figures give a glimpse of the scope of the undertaking: 113,055 volunteers turned out at 1,176 sites across the country. This is for one day! Virginia statistics for 2018 volunteer hours in our state parks alone — a total of 248,811 hours — is the equivalent of 118 full time park employees. Year round, members of Appalachian Trail clubs from Maine to Georgia, river keepers and water monitors in riparian zones, and hosts of individuals and groups throughout the Commonwealth regularly pick up roadside and streambank trash, protecting viewsheds and wildlife.
Clearly, Virginians and visitors alike treasure our natural resources and understand their economic value, as well as their environmental value; however, volunteer commitment to protect these resources cannot do the whole job. Roughly 3.7 million acres of land across the state is currently managed for public benefit—3.7 million! While Virginia’s impressive array of natural resources is high, sustained economic investment in them has historically fallen short. In fact, a recent study commissioned by VIRGINIAforever found that our natural resource spending lags far behind our neighboring states and well below the national average.
We can and must do more to preserve and strengthen these resources. Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam made the bold commitment to triple Virginia’s spending on natural resources, going from 0.6% to 2% of the general fund.
When he announced this commitment during his welcome address to some 800 attendees at the 2018 Environment Virginia Symposium in Lexington, Gov. Northam first applauded the work of our conservation agencies given “the current inadequate level of funding.” He went on to commit to the absolutely necessary next step, the crucial increase in funding to protect Virginia’s unique assets.
Increasing funding to state agencies responsible for our conserving and enhancing our lands, waterways, and forests will enable Virginia to expand wildlife recovery efforts, protect the unique and most threatened natural areas, enforce environmental regulations that safeguard people and nature, better maintain trails, and improve access to public lands.
The 2020 budget process begins now — we need to support Governor Northam in making his 2% funding commitment a reality in our Commonwealth.