By Lewis Freeman, Executive Director, Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance and Daniel Shaffer, ABRA Geospatial Consultant
Among the lessons learned from the recent fight against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project were the limitations that regulatory agencies often have in conducting in-depth analysis of a project’s impacts, particularly when multiple projects would produce cumulative impacts. Also, the complexity of many projects creates challenges for members of the public wishing to comment and participate as stakeholders in decision-making processes. Specifically, we learned:
- Developers are prone to take short-cuts in assessing environmental impacts and underestimating the real consequences of a project. Often this is done to expedite a project, sometimes under the guise of supporting the public good.
- Regulatory agencies often lack the capability to provide the depth of analysis to which a project should be subjected. Further, agencies are sometimes disinclined and/or unable to evaluate projects as to their cumulative environmental impacts.
- Political pressures on agencies can lead to hasty and incomplete evaluations of a proposed project, thus undermining the legitimacy of agency assessments and resulting in potential legal vulnerabilities for permits.
- The complexity of many projects creates challenges for interested members of the public who wish to comment and participate as stakeholders in decision-making processes. Better analytical tools are needed to help the public’s understanding of a project’s impacts and facilitate their commenting.
- Relevant information is too frequently not available to the public, thus complicating its ability to evaluate a project’s impact on the environment and affected communities.
In late August, 2020, Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance announced a new program to address these and other deficiencies of the permitting and regulatory processes that govern projects in the central Appalachian region: The Conservation Hub
ABRA’s Conservation Hub program promotes responsible resource management by providing data-focused tools that enhance a project’s transparency, strengthen its accountability to regulatory agencies and facilitate public participation in its evaluation process. The Hub is a regional information and mapping portal, tailored to specific projects in the central Appalachian Highlands region of Virginia and West Virginia encompassing 52 counties (26 in VA and 26 in WV, see map below). The program will also serve as an information resource on the natural resources and character of the region. Projects beyond the region will be considered on a case by case basis.
How the Conservation Hub works
The Conservation Hub is an outgrowth of the mapping system developed for ABRA’s Construction Surveillance Initiative (CSI), a program that was created to monitor construction activity of the now-cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Note: The CSI program will continue operating until restoration of the ACP route has been completed.)
The Hub website, accessible from the ABRA homepage (www.abralliance.org), will create a network of regional project information and geographical data, map-based tools and narratives, regulatory information and instructions on how to leverage the whole.
From the Hub homepage a user can choose from a list of highlighted projects under study or informative maps and narratives about specific plant and animal species, conservation initiatives, etc. Each Hub Project or narrative has its own webpage dedicated to describing that activity and any issues or concerns brought by that project’s sponsor, as well as links to related regulatory documents and any sensitive species that may be affected. A Hub project will typically also have an online map or a Story Map that includes both geographical data and narrative media.
On the Hub homepage, the user will also find direct links to geographic data categories and a search bar that will allow them to browse all the data hosted by the Hub. Some data that are accessed from outside parties will also appear here. A searchable data catalog describing information hosted or accessed by the Hub will also be available. This will allow the user to directly view and download data to analyze offline or share with partners. Any of the data layers maintained by the Hub can also be added to a project map or to a thematic (or even blank) map of choice. In addition, users may upload their own data or provide links to online sources with which they are familiar.
Regulatory information relevant to individual development projects will be accessible from the description page and from related data layers in their respective web maps. A searchable catalog of state and federal regulations relevant to all projects will be built up as projects require them.
Specific issues of concern, such as stream sedimentation, landslide risk, changes in forest core habitat, etc. will be described in a searchable “glossary” of sorts. This glossary will also be built up over time as required by Hub Projects.
A “What’s New” section will highlight new or upcoming projects, news stories, events, etc.
Finally, a section containing training materials and online training events (only, for now) is also found on the Hub homepage. This resource will allow Hub users to quickly get up to speed on the many tools now at their disposal and effectively leverage the insights they provide.
What type of projects are suitable for the Hub and how are they chosen?
ABRA has undertaken some trial projects as the Hub program has been developed. They include:
- Greenbriar Southeast – A proposed project involving timber harvesting in a portion of the Monongahela National Forest located in Pocahontas County, WV. A mapping system is being developed to assist concerned conservation groups to evaluate the project’s impact on watersheds and animal and plant species.
- Rocky Forge Wind Farm – A proposed ridge-top wind farm in Botetourt County, VA. A mapping system has been developed to aide local conservation groups to monitor the project’s impact on water quality and plant and animal species.
- Corridor H – A highway project in northern West Virginia. The Hub is providing analytical tools that help assess the impact of a portion of the project on endangered species in Tucker County, WV.
- Shenandoah Rail Trail Partnership – Public, private, and non-profit groups in Rockingham and Shenandoah Counties, Virginia are examining converting an unused railroad into a 38.5-mile pedestrian and bike trail. The Hub has provided aerial drone videography to this partnership and is exploring the creation of a mapping system to help promote the project.
- The Candy Darter – The first of the Hub’s Informative Maps & Stories, the Candy Darter map and description page focus on this brightly-colored fish that was recently placed on the Endangered Species List. As an indicator species, dependent on clean, cool water, gravel and cobble stream beds, and predominantly forested watersheds, the Candy Darter’s struggle to survive paints a sobering picture of the health, and cumulative loss, of high-quality aquatic habitat across the central Appalachian Highlands. This habitat is under threat by projects such as the Mountain Valley Pipeline and, potentially, dozens of U.S. Forest Service projects, only some of which require detailed analysis before approval.
Who can propose a project for the Conservation Hub?
ABRA member organizations, including West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and allied conservation groups are encouraged to propose projects for which they believe the Hub could be helpful in evaluating. Hub projects are chosen in consultation with the Hub Advisory Committee, which includes three-members of the WVHC Board. ABRA staff will focus on assembling the technical details of a Hub project. A sponsoring organization of a project, such as WVHC, would provide much of the following: narrative text; relevant studies and geographical data; regulatory information and agency staff contacts; and other information necessary to assure the Hub project is as comprehensive as possible and to facilitate the creation of a project description page and various map-based tools. Building a Hub project is a collaborative effort.
For further information on the Conservation Hub or to propose a possible Hub project, contact one of us – Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org or Lew at email@example.com – or our colleague Ben Cunningham at firstname.lastname@example.org.