Area environmental groups hoping for boost from Biden executive order

Appalachian Conservation Corps trail work in progress. Photo courtesy of the ACC.

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

Even as the details for implementing President Joe Biden’s executive order establishing a Civilian Climate Corps are still being hammered out, crews from the Appalachian Conservation Corps (ACC) are out planting trees in the Rappahannock watershed. Zach Foster, founder and director of the Harrisonburg-based ACC, said the group’s work exemplifies what the newly created national effort is trying to achieve.

“They’re out there planting bare root tree seedlings primarily with private landowners who agreed to conservation easements. The whole initiative is basically improving the watershed of the Rappahannock River and making it a more resilient ecosystem,” Foster said.  

Foster founded the ACC in 2016 to create new opportunities for people to break into conservation work, which he felt were scarce in the Shenandoah Valley. Workers receive weekly stipends and education awards, as the ACC works with Americorps. They range in age from high school students as young as 16 to Veterans of Recent Foreign Wars members as old as 35.

“Our bread and butter right now is kind of a mix between forest improvement and trail work, for the most part,” Foster said. “I think we all do our work from a place of personal passion, but [these skillsets] are very transferable to a wide variety of careers. My goal is to basically create a pipeline for folks that meets them where they’re at, and then provides off-ramps to their next steps.”

The ACC primarily works in Virginia and surrounding states, with offices in Harrisonburg and Beckley, W. Va.

By the end of April, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is expected to deliver a strategy plan for the climate corps to the White House’s National Climate Task Force. Intended to create jobs, provide career development and meet climate and conservation goals, the program is modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps, a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

“If anything, it’s a validation of the work we’ve already been doing. I think it creates a language, a framework, and an understanding for folks to be able to talk about this to see the work and to kind of imagine what a future two years, five years, or 10 years out could look like,” Foster said.

He predicts that they won’t see any federal funding from this initiative in the first year, but thinks that could be the case by 2023. The ACC could also benefit from increased funding for Americorps. 

“I think this is hopefully going to create kind of a perfect storm where we’re having these new opportunities to tie into project work that’s going to have a really great impact on communities and landscapes,” Foster said.  

Appalachian Conservation Corps trail work in progress. Photo courtesy of the ACC.

The recent executive order also calls for more environmentally sustainable infrastructure – a need advocated by the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition, said Executive Director Kyle Lawrence. 

“Big picture – it’s important that to remember that transportation in many areas, generally in Virginia, often accounts for close to half our carbon emissions. We still have to think about how to make our communities more walkable and bikeable so that we can easily replace car trips as part of daily life, and we’re excited to see what comes out of holistic solutions to this,” Lawrence said.  

He cited the shared-use path planned for downtown Harrisonburg as an example of a local project benefiting from federal funding. Although those types of projects are generally funded at the state level, Lawrence said he hopes the order means more involvement from the federal government in creating paths for biking and walking.  

“That’s an important piece for me – make it so that smaller areas like here can really get going on some of these projects because right now the federal parts are relatively small,” Lawrence said.  

Lawrence is optimistic that those projects could be on the way in the not-too-distant future, especially with support from the Biden administration.  

“We’re [also] excited to see the interest in electric bicycles and potential federal funding for bike share programs which might make that type of infrastructure a reality in our community someday,” he said.

Regardless whether initiatives like these eventually come to fruition through the Civilian Climate Corps, Foster said there’s plenty of immediate need to address climate change. An example is a spruce restoration project in West Virginia that the group will take on on later this year.  

“If [the forest] is there and stable, it’s actually very resilient to climate change and actually brings down temperature in that ecosystem. But if climate change [makes] temperatures increase and humidity decreases, you can’t get that forest to establish itself, and so it’s like if we don’t do it now, it just won’t happen,” Foster said.  

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