How green is our valley: Diverse panel says partnerships make local environmental efforts work

In nine, short presentations, 5-7 minutes each with questions at the end, a diverse panel talked about how governments, businesses, towns and schools are tackling environmental challenges in the NRV. The audience was diverse too, coming from all ages and disciplines, including an eight-year-old boy named Forester. Several recognized his presence as hope for the future.

Liz Kirchner

At the Blacksburg Public Library last week, a forester, local mayors, sustainability and solid waste managers, a rooftop solar installer and a representative of Appalachian Power were brought together by the Sierra Club of the NRV to describe the environmental practices they are enacting to conserve resources in the context of a rapidly changing climate and an increase in environmental awareness.

The diverse panel spoke consistently about partnerships and collaborations, making do smartly with limited resources and working together to raise awareness.

“Sustainability is a team effort and it involves everybody,” Denny Cochrane, director of sustainability for Virginia Tech. “We need everybody to roll their sleeves up and work as a team.”

Many on the panel are working with others on the panel, describing the value of alliances in implementing green practices, weaving a green philosophy firmly into policy.

“The field of sustainability is kind of everything,” Carol Davis, director of sustainability for the Town of Blacksburg said, listing an ecology of green projects her office of two is tending. “Realistically, I cannot work on all thing full steam ahead. I focus on things: affordable housing, water quality, renewable energy, some state, federal and local policy issues, transportation, climate change and on and on.”

To devise projects she looks for partners to make those projects happen working with Dan McKeague of the District Ranger, Eastern Divide Ranger District, George Washington & Jefferson National Forests seated beside her at the table that evening to arrange land conservation and recreation on Brush Mountain.

Christiansburg Mayor Mike Barber spoke about environmental practices as fiscally responsibility of conservative resource use to repair past neglect, pushed by the greater environmental awareness of citizens.

“We have made great strides in our efforts to control our environmental footprint. We feel that by taking the time to up grade our facilities, not only are we saving money, but we’re reducing our dependence on electricity.”
Christiansburg, having for years failed to appreciate the importance of stormwater management and recycling now is working to reduce flooding in a town that sits on multiple streams and is more actively managing the waste stream he said.

“We are reducing run off into our streams and improving our water. Recycling has grown over the last year to 1,150 tons collected from curbside while reducing garbage collection by 300 tons. So many localities such as ours are trying to catch up from decades of a lack of attention to the environment. Our citizens are more aware of the consequences of lack of attention and are more demanding that we increase our efforts. To continue business as usual means we would be backing up and doing more harm.”

Radford Mayor David Horton echoed Christiansburg Mayor Barber’s message describing strategies towns use to save money and energy and the role of citizens in driving those strategies.

“I’d like to say ‘ditto’ to many of the things Mayor Barber talked about in his community,” Horton said, “because we’re doing a lot of the same things in Radford: improving public transit, dealing with a lot of changing over light bulbs and making things more sustainable.”

But Horton, who had spent years guiding the chairman of the Radford Beautification and Municipal Forestry Commission, emphasized preserving, protecting and propagating the natural environment.

“We have major spots of green and those have been intentionally maintained,” he said. :

As a 10 square mile, independent city, bounded by a river, Radford has to constantly think abou tland-use as the town grows.

“About 25 years ago, there was a suggestion, ‘It might be great to make a road from Main Street back to some of the neighborhoods through Wildwood Park’. That’s Connely’s Run, which is one of major streams corridors to the New River. But the citizens said no, we want to preserve the lungs of the city of Radford. And Pathways for Radford was developed to expand greenways increasing walkability. That kind of citizen action usually doesn’t take place until you’ve lost something. But for us, it happened to preserve things, before things were lost.”

But local governments often face barriers to significant policy change that confuse citizens. State level legislation is required to allow towns like Blacksburg to implement greener practices.

Town of Blacksburg’s Davis explained that Dillon Rule states, like Virginia, bar localities from enacting their own rules.

“I get five phone calls a week asking ‘Why doesn’t Blacksburg do X?  like have a stricter energy standards or ban plastic bags or straws or Styrofoam.’ The Dillon Rule says we can offer incentives, We can offer carrots, but not sticks,” she said.

The panel raised thought provoking questions from the audience.

Patrick Feucht of Baseline Solar Solutions, a rooftop solar company in Blacksburg, spoke about the business of putting solar panels on individual houses.

Although subsidies exist, less than 1 percent of energy is produced by solar in Blacksburg. The audience asked whether it would be more efficient to let Appalachian Power and its new alternative energy program provide power from renewable source from enormous, centralized solar farms.

“It costs me $0.43 a month to have a hundred percent renewable from Appalachian Power,” said an audience member.

Feucht said, “You know, I do run this business it’s my livelihood and it’s based on my beliefs, but I really just want to see us go to renewable energy. And if there’s a better, cheaper way to do it besides me going to your house and your house and your house and I’m out of a job, I’ll go find something else to do.”

At the beginning of the evening, Joe Scarpasi, chair of the Sierra Club in the NRV introduced the panel saying, “If you look at Town of Blacksburg’s website, at the Corporate Research Center, at Volvo, employers and realtors – the environmental attributes of this area is the key selling point part of the place-branding that really make this place special. And the people who live here really celebrate that.”

The panel reflected the work required to protect and manage this special place and the questions raised to navigate the best path into the future.