Rivers run through Richmond’s recognition

On a sultry day last week tailor-made for cooling off in the nearest river, Gov. Bob McDonnell declared the Jordan, Hughes, Russell Fork and Blackwater the latest additions to Virginia’s scenic rivers system.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the state’s Scenic Rivers Act.

Standing on the banks of the James in downtown Richmond on Friday (April 23), the governor told a crowd of scenic river supporters and members of the press that he had recently signed into law several General Assembly bills passed during the 2010 legislative session to add 81 miles of the four rivers to the system. There are now 28 designated river segments totaling more than 610 river miles.

Designation of six miles of the Jordan — all within Rappahannock County — was enabled by passage of a bill sponsored by Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-15th). Designation of 10 miles of the Hughes in Rappahannock, Madison and Culpeper counties was enabled by passage of a bill co-sponsored by Gilbert and Del. Edward T. Scott (R-30th).

This year also marked the designation of nine miles of the Russell Fork in Dickenson County and 56 miles of the Blackwater River in Isle of Wight and Surry counties, the last the largest single segment ever added to the state’s scenic rivers system.

All told, 2010 has been a banner year for Virginia’s rivers. This year, more river miles were designated as state scenic than at any other single time in the program’s history.

In his remarks, Gov. McDonnell thanked former Gov. Linwood Holton and former State Sen. FitzGerald Bemiss for guiding passage of the Virginia Scenic Rivers Act 40 years ago based on the shared belief that it was not only prudent to protect a precious natural resource but also, simply, “the right thing to do.”

While describing the newly designated rivers, Gov. McDonnell said he was more familiar with the Potomac (he grew up in the Tidewater), the Blackwater (in the Isle of Wight/Surry area), and the Russell Fork (a swift mountain stream in southwest Dickenson County) than with the Hughes and the Jordan. He stressed that despite anyone’s personal favorites, all of the state’s rivers are valuable, as they constitute “one of our most unique resources, contributing to Virginia’s economic vitality, beauty, and quality of life.”

The governor said he looks forward to working with citizens, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and the General Assembly to add even more river miles to the scenic rivers program.

Other speakers at the event included Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Doug Domenech, DCR Acting Director Russ Baxter, and Dick Gibbons, the longstanding chairman of the Virginia Scenic Rivers Advisory Board.

In recent years, DCR staff and the 15-member advisory board to the governor have worked to bring a record number of river miles into the system with support from conservation and natural resources organizations, including, on the local level, the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), the Blue Ridge Foothills Conservancy (BRFC), RappFLOW, and the Rappahannock County Conservation Alliance (RCCA).

The governor took note of and applauded the state scenic river designation process, which often begins at the grass-roots level with requests to DCR from local groups and/or individual citizens and local governments to evaluate a given river. At that point, with permission, including from riparian land holders, DCR staff (usually program administrator Lynn Crump) then travel the river by boat and on foot to evaluate its water quality, corridor development, recreational access, historic features, natural features, visual appeal, quality of fisheries, and the presence of unique habitat or species.

In the case of the Hughes and the Jordan, several local environmental and conservation groups were supportive of state scenic designation early on, including, predominately, RappFLOW and its co-founders Beverly and Hal Hunter.

Sometime after DCR briefed local citizens and supervisors on the state scenic river designation in 2007, Rappahannock’s supervisors subsequently gave their blessing to DCR evaluation of the two rivers as did Culpeper’s and Madison’s supervisors (in terms of the Hughes, as it traverses all three counties). Notices were sent out to all riparian land holders. According to administrative staff for all three counties, no objections were received to plans for DCR’s evaluation.

In a statement for the Rappahannock News, Bev Hunter wrote that since its founding in 2002, RappFLOW “has envisioned all of our major streams designated as State Scenic . . . inspired by those who worked to achieve this status for the Rappahannock in the 1980s.”

Now the eastern side of the Blue Ridge has three major rivers in the state scenic system, and another, the Hazel, was recently evaluated for that status as well, with results expected within a month or so.

Hal Hunter, who has served as a point person for instigating DCR informational meetings on the scenic river (and roads) designation process and meaning of such designations, said his goal all along has been to make conservation easements more attractive. He noted, for example, that the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), which holds many easements across the state, awards bonus points to land that adjoins state-designated scenic rivers as well as state-designed scenic roads.

Hunter also noted that in its latest “Virginia Outdoors Plan,” DCR advocates scenic river evaluation of seven Rappahannock rivers, five of which currently remain outside the system — the Hazel, the Thornton, the Piney, the Covington and the Rush.