In fight against pipeline, mountain forest becomes a classroom camp
Dominion Energy wants to cut down trees for route
As Miracle Ridge rises toward its peak on Jack Mountain, the remnants of a wire fence divide the mountain between lower slopes where cows once pastured and a high, narrow spine of virgin forest.
The trees — mostly oak and hickory — aren’t as big as the massive sugar maples on the lower slopes, but they’re just as old, surviving hundreds of years on shallow, rocky soil in high winds.
Loggers haven’t touched this forest, nor have non-native plants invaded what Virginia’s Division of Natural Heritage has declared a conservation site of “very high significance.”
Now, the mountain ridge is becoming a classroom camp in the escalating battle over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would level the forest and more than 3,000 feet of ridgeline on its 600-mile path from the West Virginia shale fields to natural gas markets in southeastern Virginia and North Carolina.
“We anticipate people camping right where the pipeline is proposed,” said Bill Limpert, whose 120-acre property includes the mountainside he began calling Miracle Ridge after he and his wife, Lynn, purchased it nine years ago.
The Limperts have opened their land to an anti-pipeline encampment up to Sept. 9, about a week before a seasonal window opens for tree cutting to resume on the pipeline route planned by Dominion Energy and its partners.
They expect as many as 20 campers a day to visit their land near Bolar in Bath County near its boundary with Highland County in the Allegheny Mountains.
The camp is organized by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), an environmental organization that opposes the production of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the construction of pipelines through environmentally sensitive areas to transport the fossil fuel to markets.
The first to arrive was Sam Wright, a 22-year-old Charlottesville native who graduated this spring from Virginia Commonwealth University with a sociology degree and a cameraman’s eye for compelling stories about people in the path of a 42-inch, high-pressure gas pipeline.
Mr. Wright came here as the advance organizer for CCAN, which has hired him as a summer intern. He already knows the Limperts from his work on “Troubled Water: Voices from Bath,” a documentary produced in late 2016.
“It’s important for people to come and witness,” he said as the camp prepared to open.
Barb Adams, a longtime Richmond resident and activist who produced the documentary, understands the camp’s purpose and potential power.
“This is a great place to hear a lot of different stories about how people are affected” by the pipeline, said Ms. Adams, who visited last month to work with Mr. Wright on another project.
The encampment comes at a delicate time, as the 125-foot-wide construction corridor for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is clearly visible on mountain ridges in Highland along U.S. 220 between Warm Springs and Monterey in the Allegheny Highlands bordering West Virginia.
Dominion officials met with the Limperts, Natural Resources Secretary Matt Strickler and state biologists at the property last month to discuss ways to minimize harm to the most sensitive features.
“There were a number of ideas that came out of those discussions,” said Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby. “We are exploring those options in hopes of being able to resolve some of those issues.”
“We have not reached a resolution with the Limperts and the agencies, but we are working as hard as we can,” Mr. Ruby said. “And it is a priority for us.”
The Limperts’ land wasn’t in the path of the original pipeline route, but that changed two years ago when Dominion rerouted the project through part of Bath County in order to avoid the habitat of the endangered cow knob salamander in George Washington National Forest in Highland and the Cheat Mountain salamander in West Virginia.
The U.S. Forest Service had refused to issue a permit for the original route through two national forests.
In Southwest Virginia, the clearing of a construction corridor for the Mountain Valley Pipeline led to a prolonged confrontation this year on Bent Mountain in Roanoke County between Theresa “Red” Terry and pipeline crews supported by local and state law enforcement agencies.
Ms. Terry and her daughter, Minor, occupied stands high in the trees on property the pipeline developer had used eminent domain to seize for the project.
The Terrys eventually surrendered, but their stand, and similar acts of civil disobedience along the Mountain Valley route in Franklin County, sent a message not lost on Dominion and developers of the $5.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“We anticipate people camping right where the pipelines is proposed,” said Bill Limpert (center). He and his wife, Lynn, (right) opened their land to an anti-pipeline encampment up to Sept. 9, a week before tree cutting would begin.