Grayson County: Protector of Nature
By Dave Roberts
Since the Battle of the Peace Pentagon has been won, I thought this would be a good time to give Omnibus readers, especially those from distant parts of the country or overseas, a better idea of where it will sit, perched on a steep hillside in Grayson County, Virginia, overlooking the New River near the little town of Independence in an area rich in natural and human history.
Laura recounts the saga of the struggle to build the interfaith center here, guest writer William Smith reveals the ancient origins of the river that flows by below it, and our first interns share their insights about the founding of the town and some of the spiritual issues that will be explored by the Unitarian Universalist Community the building will house.
When Laura was just a wee lass in Maryland, another mighty struggle took place here over APCo's proposed dam on the New River: a conflict pitting those who wanted to preserve this special place and way of life against those who would have sacrificed it for what they viewed as progress. Had this earlier battle not been fought and won against overwhelming odds, the New River Valley we know and love today would not exist.
Almost 10% of Grayson County and 3% - 4% of adjoining Ashe and Alleghany counties in North Carolina would be underwater. That would include all the prime river-bottom farmland along 44 miles of the Newís main stem, plus 27 miles of the South Fork and 23 miles of the North Fork. Entire towns, including nearby Mouth of Wilson, would have disappeared, forcing the relocation of an estimated 2,700 people, 893 homes, hundreds of family farms, 10 industrial employers, 23 commercial facilities, 12 cemeteries, and 5 post offices. The Agricultural Extension Service estimated the resulting annual loss of crop and livestock sales at $13.5 million (in early-1970s dollars).
What was seemingly destined to cause all this destruction was the Blue Ridge Project (BRP), a pair of dams proposed in 1965 by the Appalachian Power Company (APCo) for a pumped-storage facility. Water would be pumped from the lower to the upper reservoir during periods of low demand for power and then released through turbines to create more electricity at times of peak demand. Sounds efficient, almost like recycling water to produce more energy, right? But nooooo! In reality, only about three fourths of the electricity used to pump the water could be recovered. The project would consume more power than it produced in order to have extra capacity during peak usage periods. Furthermore, that power would be transmitted through APCo's parent company, American Electric Power, to be used in major industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest, not in the area that would be devastated by its production.
Even so, the initial proposal aroused little local opposition because of its comparatively modest size. Its 210-foot high upper dam would create a reservoir of 16,600 acres, and its 90-foot lower dam would create a mere 2,850-acre reservoir. But that was before the Department of the Interior (DOI) proposed enlarging the reservoirs to allow for huge releases of water to dilute pollution downstream (remember, the New flows south to north) in the industrial areas of West Virginia. After hearings held in 1967, the Federal Power Commission (FPC) asked APCo to submit a revised plan to meet the new objective.
The resulting Modified Blue Ridge Project vastly increased the size of the dams. The upper dam would be 300 feet high and 1,500 feet long; the lower one, 236 feet high and 2,000 feet long, inundating a total of 27,900 acres in Grayson County and 14,200 in the two North Carolina counties. That wasn't the only problem. The massive drawdowns required to flush the polluted lower New River would have caused drastic changes in water levels and created huge mud flats around the lakes, reducing their recreational potential. Opponents began organizing to resist the nation's largest power system and two federal agencies -- not unlike David facing three Goliaths at once.
Lorne Campbell, a Grayson county attorney and president of the local chapter of the Izaak Walton League, joined with attorneys Floyd Crouse of Sparta and later Sidney Gambill of Ashe County to form the Upper New River Valley Association (UNRVA). New federal laws provided the stones that their legal skills enabled them to sling at the three giants. During hearings on the modified plan in 1969, local opponents received support from the State of North Carolina and the Commonwealth of Virginia in arguing against the massive drawdowns as an out-of-state transfer of natural resources. The FPC Goliath licensed the project but did limit the size of the drawdowns. The two states filed exceptions to the decision, and the FPC heard additional oral arguments in early 1970. The original decision was overturned in April, and more hearings were held. The passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that year provided more ammunition for opponents: environmental impact statements.
In February 1971, the UNRVA held a special meeting at Oak Hill Academy, which faced the loss of almost half its campus to the project, and the Grayson County Supervisors authorized Campbell to appear at the hearings as associate to Commonwealth's Attorney Paul X Bolt to oppose "certain features of the project." Dr. B. J. Friend headed a large group from the Providence District of Grayson who opposed what Campbell termed "the devastation which will be brought about by the lower dam."
The project began to receive national media attention when the New York Times ran a series of articles on the pollution dilution issue and Bill Moyers presented the documentary "A Requiem for Mouth of Wilson" on public television. The Winston-Salem Journal received a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of environmental issues that year, including the BRP.
Opponents of the revised project also received powerful support from attorney general Chauncey H. Browning, Jr., of West Virginia, who surprisingly condemned the plan designed to help his own state: "It is no solution to the problem of water pollution to select a portion of one stream which suffers from excessive and wanton industrial discharges in an area of a few miles and attempt to solve that problem by the massive rush of water through three states with its attendant destruction and disruption of land values and human, recreation, and ecological considerations." (Galax Gazette, April 20, 1971) His insistence on at-the-source control by the polluters themselves eventually prevailed after the passage of amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972.
After all the necessary impact statements had been prepared, the FPC held a third round of hearings in 1973. Newly elected North Carolina Governor James Holshouser, Jr., a Republican who grew up in nearby Boone, threw his influence strongly behind the opponents of the project and wrote the head of the FPC to tell him so. Another powerful North Carolina politician, Sen. Sam J. Ervin, Jr., had introduced the section of the Water Pollution Control Act requiring approval of FPC licenses by the EPA. Opponents of the project optimistically expected that it would be returned to its original size when the EPA ruled out the pollution dilution feature.
The FPC Goliath had been hit hard but refused to topple. In January, 1974, the FPC deleted the water quality storage provision but recommended a license that enlarged the flood storage component and threw in some extra storage capacity allegedly to improve fishing and recreation in the lower valley. Different reasoning, same plan. The opponents were outraged.
However, they already had a backup plan using different legal ammunition: the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. In the summer of 1973, Gambill had suggested an effort to have Congress study designation of the New as a national wild and scenic river. In a bipartisan effort, Ervin, a Democrat, and N.C. Rep. Wilmer Mizell, a Republican, had introduced identical Senate and House bills to do so. By March of 1974, the North Carolina General Assembly had declared 4.5 miles from the confluence of the North and South Forks to the Virginia border as a state scenic river, which could help the cause in Congress. In May, the bills were reintroduced in Congress, this time with the additional support of N. C. Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican.
There was intense debate in the Senate. Despite opposition from both Virginia Senators, William Scott and Harry F. Byrd, the study was approved 49-19. At this point, the FPC decided to impose a deadline on Congress by granting APCo the license but delaying implementation until January 2, 1975. If Congress had not acted by then, construction would proceed.
Rep. Mizell read the House of Representatives a report by the Fish and Wildlife Service listing a number of endangered species that could be threatened by the BRP, but the Rules Committee still refused to allow the bill to reach the floor. Gov. Holshouser helped persuade House Speaker Carl Albert to suspend the rules and allow a floor vote, but passage under those conditions required a two-thirds majority. William C. Wampler, the Virginia representative whose district included Grayson County, called for rejection of the bill, which passed by an insufficient majority, 196 to 181. The Congressional effort was dead until the new Congress convened the following year, by which time APCo could be condemning the remaining land and beginning construction. Only one slim chance remained.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act had an alternative method of adding a river to the national system: a state governor could apply directly to the Secretary of the Interior for inclusion of a state designated river on the national list. But would there be time? Thomas J. Schoenbaum, an environmental law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, had prepared a brief that might delay construction long enough. The state of North Carolina filed a motion with the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., which had jurisdiction to review FPC licenses, asking for a stay of the effective license date. At the same time, the state and a number of property owners filed a motion to enjoin in the Federal District Court in Greensboro, questioning the FPC decision regarding the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Judge Eugene B. Gordon warned APCo representatives that if they built a dam before he made his decision, it would have to be torn down.
The strategy worked. Construction was delayed until the new session of Congress, when Sen. Helms and new Democratic Congressman Steve Neal, who had replaced Mizell, introduced the scenic river study bills again. Another intense local effort began as the power company encouraged the formation of scenic river opposition groups using the slogan "Dam the Scenic" while supporters of the bill handed out bumper stickers saying "The New River Like It Is." On July 26, 1975, scenic river supporters held a "Festival of the New" that attracted 3,000 people. Political efforts continued too, as the N. C. General Assembly passed a bill to lengthen the section of the South Fork designated as a state scenic river, making the total 26.5 miles.
Gordon finally decided that he had no jurisdiction to rule on the validity of the state's application for national scenic river status. That would have to be determined by the Court of Appeals in Washington. In case that court decided it lacked jurisdiction too, Schoenbaum and others decided to appeal Gordon's decision in the Richmond, Virginia, Court of Appeals, which agreed to a delay until the Washington court made up its mind.
In September, 1975, one of the Goliaths switched sides. Acting Secretary of the Interior D. Kent Frizzell wrote Gov. Holshouser to tell him the DOI would support the scenic river application, and he also began preparation of the department's environmental impact statement.
Oral arguments before the Washington Court of Appeals began in October. In November, newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Thomas S. Kleppe began circulating North Carolina's scenic river application to other agencies. Media coverage of the issue intensified again, with articles in more than 150 newspapers and magazines nationwide. Dan Rather featured it on CBS news. Even Presidential politics intervened on the side of the BRP opponents when California Governor Ronald Reagan, campaigning for the Republican nomination, announced in Greensboro that he favored the scenic river bill. Not to be outdone, President Gerald Ford decided to support it too and ordered Kleppe to prepare the final impact statements. They were completed on March 12, 1976, and Kleppe said he would sign the order designating the New as a national scenic river immediately, but legal deadlines required him to wait thirty days. Things seemed to be moving along swimmingly until March 24, when the Court of Appeals decided to revoke the stay order and allow the FPC to declare the license effective immediately. However, the FPC did not receive a mandate from the court before the waiting period expired and Kleppe formally added the New River to the DOI's list of national scenic rivers.
How would this uncertainty be resolved? Opponents of the BRP decided to present the issue to Congress again. Sen. Helms and Rep. Neal introduced bills to designate the 26.5-mile stretch of the New as a national scenic river and block the BRP. The House sent the bill to the subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation, which was chaired by another western North Carolina Congressman, Roy Taylor. During a hearing on the bill, American Electric Power's general counsel said coal-fired alternatives to the project would cost over $500 million more to build and threatened to sue the United States for that amount if the dams could not be constructed. That threat from the Power Goliath backfired bigtime.
Ervin, who had retired from the Senate the previous fall, says in the Foreword of Schoenbaum's The New River Controversy that he sent a newspaper clipping about this testimony to every senator, along with a letter urging them to pass the scenic river bill "without delay, and thus prevent these power companies from destroying the second oldest river on earth for the pecuniary benefit of corporations which attempt to intimidate the Congress of the United States." Most of them followed his advice. Although the Virginia senators again tried to organize opposition, the final vote was 69 to 16. The House Rules Committee allowed a floor vote this time, and the tally there was 311 to 73. The Power Goliath had fallen; only the funeral remained.
That occurred on September 11, 1976, when President Ford signed its death certificate into law. Afterward, he said: "When a decision has to be made between energy production and environmental protection, you must ask what is the will of the people involved. It is clear in this case the people wanted the New River like it is."
I am glad they did. Their success left us far more than the free-flowing river itself: the inspiration to fight against overwhelming odds with the knowledge that we just might prevail.
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Independent Spirit Remains as Times Change
By Daniel Bedsaul
By simply looking up, it is easy to forget the sharp chill of the February evening. The faithful sun continues to paint the sky with humble colors of pastel even after disappearing behind the local school. In the distance, an iconic structure rests. Illuminated by the last rays of light from the day, the building that once represented government and authority now looks gentle. Its four cylindrical towers stretch up, as if trying to touch the sun-kissed clouds before they fade away. The billowing echo of a nearing diesel truck and occasional soft humming of other passing vehicles keep the streets from seeming completely hushed. This small town of less than a thousand inhabitants quietly bears a strong name: Independence.
Since the first European immigrants spilled into the region to lead independent lives on the frontier, the archaic folds that characterize the Appalachian Mountains have played host to many settlements. For some of those lucky enough to have survived the test of time, original names and founders have long been forgotten. Established in 1850, the town of Independence is still fairly young in comparison to some other Southwest Virginia towns. When the eastern half of Grayson County was formed into Carroll in 1842, arguments over where the new county seat would be located seemed irreconcilable. How the matter was finally resolved depends on whom you ask.
The town's own website contends that after months of disagreement, commissioners from nearby counties were summoned to settle the dispute. The final resolution placed the county seat in the middle of the region and named the new town after the group who had stood ìindependentî of both eastern and western influences. In Virginia Place Names: Derivations, Raus Hanson claims the group spoke out not for their own personal gain, but simply in opposition to the main groups: 'We're independent; we are not taking sides." (p. 97).
Today, Independence is home to a number of small, independently owned businesses, the county's largest middle and high schools, six protestant churches, an emerging Unitarian Universalist community, and The Oracle Institute, just minutes out of town. The concept of independence laid the foundations for the town nearly two hundred years ago and is now evolving toward spiritual enlightenment.
Daniel Bedsaul is a native of Grayson County, Virginia, and a student at Radford University. He also is serving as one of the first interns for The Oracle Institute.
Ecofeminism Seeks Restoration of Divine Harmony
By Crystal Mendenhall
The Introduction to Rosemary Radford Ruether's Gaia & God makes a profound statement concerning Ruether's position on the connection between humans, their beliefs about the Divine, and planet Earth. The awareness of this interconnectedness is becoming increasingly important as humanity begins to recognize the frightening global position we are currently facing. Ruether, correctly in my view, identifies Earth with the term "Gaia" as a living, breathing entity. Humanity is beginning to realize the magnitude of that concept, but we have much to learn about Gaia, and quite a large mess to rid "her" of. In Ruether's explanation of how our current planetary imbalance developed, she explains two terms -- ecology and feminism -- and combines them into ecofeminism, which provides a more complete definition of the solution so desperately needed to restore what she views as the long missing holy union between Gaia and God.
For centuries Christianity has given one absolute definition of "The Holy Trinity"; however, in attempting to develop an alternative view of the Holy Trinity, we must first understand how humanity (element one) interacts with nature or Gaia (element two). This can be found through the study of ecology. In nature we can observe the co-dependant relationship between plant and animal life. They form a rhythm or harmonic balance -- that is, until they are intruded upon by the "conquering" mentality of most human beings. We strip resources from Gaia with increasing speed, and we overpopulate the places animals used to call home so that species rapidly vanish. We may create earthquakes each time we extract natural gas and fuels like crude oil and coal. Our excessive and irresponsible use of automobiles and manufacturing facilities has caused holes in our precious ozone layer, which is unique to Earth and may be viewed as Gaia's protective garment, or robe. The most traumatic damage can be found in Gaia's hydrosphere. Pollution abounds, and we do not yet know the repercussions for many life forms that will result from our careless behavior. When I consider the adoring relationship between Gaia and the third element, God, I can not imagine that he would allow this abuse to continue much longer.
So where did we humans go wrong and how do we fix this clearly dysfunctional "love triangle" we are one third of? In my opinion, the first step should be a realistic overview of Gaiaís current status, followed by the acceptance of the fact that we have a massive problem on our hands. The next step should include an honest discussion of the planetary influence resulting from the unbalanced relationships between males and females. During the past century, women have begun different branches of feminism to deal with the unequal treatment of females by males; however, it is Ruether who most clearly defined the reaction to the impact of the masculine domination of both Gaia and females as ecofeminism. The ecofeminism movement goes directly to the heart of the issue by exposing the manner in which religious and social establishments have affected the way humanity interacts with Gaia, and by stressing the importance of restoring not only her union with the Creator, but also the intended equality between masculine and feminine. Ruether takes a virtually unheard of approach by clearly stating that the work done in these areas should contain no judgment toward our ancestors. Instead, we should evaluate the belief systems we currently have and then take steps to improve them in efforts to preserve the blessed home we all share. She makes a statement we should all keep in mind throughout our future efforts to re-establish Divine Harmony:
Some see the Jewish and Christian monotheistic God as a hostile concept that rationalizes alienation from and neglect of the earth. Gaia should replace God as our focus of worship. I agree with much of this critique, yet I believe that merely replacing a male transcendent deity with an immanent female one is an insufficient answer to the "god-problem." (Ruether, p. 4)
Ruether is right, in my opinion. Our past mistake of exclusively recognizing the male side of God would only be repeated in recognizing the female alone. Healing will only come when we are finally able to make the two one and view them as equal partners in Creation.
Crystal Mendenhall is a student at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and served as one of the first interns for The Oracle Institute.
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