By Nick Proctor
Proctor is the project manager at the Community Design Assistance Center and adjunct professor in the Leadership and Social Change Residential College, both at Virginia Tech.
To conserve an environment is to conserve a community; to conserve a community is to conserve an environment. So, let’s collaborate with our communities! Our nation is in the midst of a development trend where customers, travelers, and residents alike deliberatively seek authentic, distinctive experiences, both cultural and natural. The economic impact of grassroots initiatives that highlight local assets is reaching levels never previously experienced. Community leaders and conservation professionals who work throughout Virginia have an obligation to understand the critical connection between the natural environment and local value systems by actively engaging the public.
Today, former extractive industries continue to compromise the economic and environmental legacy of countless communities. In deeper southwest Virginia, the Clinch River Valley Initiative (CRVI) was formed to mobilize a volunteer-based work group to strategically target environmental and social disparities within the region. The effort has since developed critical partnerships needed to revitalize local communities, increase the capacity of under-served communities, raise awareness of the Clinch River’s ecological significance, and ‘brand’ the region through innovative marketing campaigns. CRVI’s “success” can be neatly defined by: partnership development, community revitalization, awareness of ecological significance, and the creation of community support programs.
In a sparsely populated portion of the region, it is important that communities do not compete against each other but instead work collaboratively together. The funding pie is already small; work together to get a bigger piece of that pie. Partnership development has resulted in connections to funding opportunities as well as resource sharing such as technical assistance support and program insight. Some CRVI partners include the VA-DHCD, VA-DGIF, VA-State Parks, Dominion Energy, The Nature Conservancy, and VA State Parks.
Several communities along the Clinch and members of the CRVI have seen vast improvements to their downtown areas, each embracing the Clinch as a key ingredient to the region’s identity. The VA-DHCD has helped propel planning and revitalization efforts by removing blighting influences, such as dilapidated buildings, in countless downtowns. In the case of the Clinch River Valley, many of these dilapidated buildings are also in the flood way or flood zone and pose a particular environmental and human health risk during high flood events.
Community support programs
Ultimately, a grant is a short-lived success in the overall transformation of a community/region. The development of long-term community support programs provide the necessary sustenance over time that the small communities of the Clinch River Valley need. ‘Hometowns of the Clinch’ is a program aimed at long-term care and partnership continuation for participating communities. ‘Hometowns of the Clinch’ “is a designation program for all communities in the Clinch River Valley…The goal of the program is to strengthen community engagement and appearance to create a unified image for the region”. Hometowns of the Clinch could be compared to the coffee industry’s “Rainforest Alliance Certification” program, where the consumer can expect that a product (i.e. community) adheres to particular standard of operation (i.e. advocacy and support for the Clinch) and conveys to the consumer (i.e. visitor) that certain ecologically-centered values can be expected when visiting. The program encourages enrolled communities to take a proactive approach to improving themselves, adopting protective policies to enhance the Clinch, and create a welcoming experience to visitors through a rigorous action sheet.
Awareness of ecological significance
Once an industry corridor for logging, coal extraction, and power production, the Clinch has a colorful history of environmental contamination. Today, the Clinch is celebrated for its beauty and biodiversity, most notably for its high concentration of threatened and endangered freshwater fish and mussel species. Conservation work along the Clinch remains ongoing and needs our attention now more than ever. NPR and National Geographic have both recently published stories on the drastic die-off of mussel species in the Clinch watershed. Though an unfortunate reality, the stories have broadcasted the Clinch, its challenges, and the incredible people working to improve its vitality to a national and international audience.
The Clinch River Valley Initiative is an incredible conservation model that demonstrates that community revitalization can be a catalyst for on-going conservation efforts and redefine economic rigor in southwest Virginia. Leaders have increased their capacity by working together and have learned to expedite the redevelopment process by sharing program insights. Conservation and community revitalization efforts have garnered national attention and continue to gain momentum. At the end of the day, each revitalization strategy continuously celebrates the Clinch, its unique ecosystem, and its rich heritage that makes the region special. Come visit the Clinch in Southwest Virginia.