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Sen. Tim Kaine hikes near Staunton in support of proposed Shenandoah Mountain bill

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SHENANDOAH MOUNTAIN — A senator told some of his staff to take a hike, and then joined them.

U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats in Virginia, introduced the Shenandoah Mountain Act of 2022 on Wednesday. This proposed legislation would designate about 92,000 acres of the George Washington National Forest as the Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area with embedded Wilderness areas.

Four days later, on Saturday afternoon, Kaine took a snowy walk in the woods on Shenandoah Mountain to support his bill and learn more about the legislation he was helping launch. Kaine, members of his staff, as well as representatives from the Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, Virginia Wilderness Committee and the Southern Environmental Law Center gathered in the Confederate Breastworks parking area atop Shenandoah Mountain and hiked north for 2.4 miles on the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.

Kaine is no stranger to Virginia’s outdoors, but this area is particularly dear to him. While he has hiked this trail many times, it was on a November day many years ago that Kaine and his wife Anne trod the very same path while on their honeymoon. In the years since, he and Anne have enjoyed exploring the uncountable outdoor treasures that the Commonwealth has to offer.

National Scenic Areas, such as the one in his proposed legislation, are public lands established by Congress to add further protections to a place because of its scenic, historic, recreational and natural resources, while continuing to allow compatible uses such as outdoor recreation. The scenic area designation creates a special area within the larger national forest. Within that proposed new area, the forests, vistas and drinking water supplies would be preserved, while logging and industrial development such as gas drilling and pipelines would be prohibited. In the Shenandoah Mountain proposal, four embedded Wilderness areas — Skidmore Fork (Rockingham), Little River (Augusta), Lynn Hollow (Highland) and Bald Ridge Addition (as part of the current Ramseys Draft) would be created. All private land is excluded from the proposal and all current forest roads will remain open.

Virginia already has three National Scenic Areas: Mount Pleasant, Seng Mountain and Bear Creek National Scenic Areas.

After attending a couple of other morning events in western Virginia on Saturday, Kaine and his staff arrived slightly late after stopping at a hardware store in Clifton Forge to stock up on hats and gloves because of the unexpectedly cold and snowy early spring weather. Temperatures were in the lower 30s with wind gusts and periodic snow squalls making it feel much colder at times on the hike. Every now and then, however, the skies would break, blue skies would appear, and the mountain top views to the east and west opened up.

Before setting off on the hike, Lynn Cameron, co-chair of Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, and Mark Miller, executive director of the Virginia Wilderness Committee, talked to the group about the Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area proposal in general. They then spread a giant map across the hood of a car in order to help Kaine visualize details about different parcels of the proposed area and understand where boundary lines had been drawn and shifted as a result of years of collaboration with diverse special interest groups within the community.

Shenandoah Mountain creates the western wall of the southern Shenandoah Valley. Spreading across Augusta, Highland and Rockingham counties, it represents one of the largest expanses of wild lands in the Eastern United States and has one of the most diverse habitats of plants and animals in the western hemisphere. Some species here are found nowhere else on earth. Much of Shenandoah Mountain is in the George Washington National Forest. There is something for everyone within the forest: hiking, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, camping, horseback riding and other outdoor recreational opportunities. The forest also protects the drinking water supplies for Augusta and Rockingham counties as well as the cities of Staunton and Waynesboro, and all of the communities downstream.

The actual Shenandoah Mountain Act pertains to 92,000 acres of the national forest from Rt. 33 in Rockingham to Rt. 250 in Augusta and Highland. On Saturday, Kaine and the rest of the hiking entourage were standing at the southern end of the proposed area. If passed, the new area would protect the headwaters of the James and Shenandoah Rivers and include 150 miles of trails and 10 peaks above 4,000 feet.

The lines on the current map were created after countless hours of collaboration with members of the timber industry, hunters and anglers, mountain bikers and wilderness advocates, who historically have been at odds with each other on best uses within the national forest, but have joined forces on this proposal, officials said. Boundary lines have been tweaked, for instance, to reduce some wilderness areas, thereby allowing mountain bikers into areas that were previously off limits to them.

“National Scenic Areas strike a great balance between recreation and preservation,” Friends of Shenandoah Mountain co-chair Lynn Cameron said. “This unique designation ensures that hunters, hikers, anglers, mountain bikers, and many others will be able to continue to enjoy the exceptional landscapes for generations to come.”

Cameron and her colleagues have worked for 18 years to get bipartisan support for the bill. Along the way, they have picked up hearty endorsements from the counties of Augusta and Rockingham and the cities of Staunton and Harrisonburg. They also have garnered support from over 400 organizations, businesses, industries, faith groups, conservationists and individuals. Kaine said the diverse group that has come together in support of the proposed legislation is impressive.

After going over the specifics of the proposed scenic area, the small hiking group climbed up the stepping stones set into the hill to begin the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, one of the oldest trails within the George Washington National Forest. Of the 150 miles in the scenic area proposal, Kaine’s group would explore just 2.4 miles on Saturday — to the intersection of Jerrys Run Trail — and then return to the parking area via a small detour along the historic interpretive trail highlighting the Civil War breastworks above the parking lot.

Cameron led the hike with Kaine at her heels. The pair set a brisk pace, but paused frequently to point out natural wonders such as some early blooming wildflowers, green ferns draped over a rock face, a sign on a tree marking it as part of a forest health study and fluffy white snow pellets hanging like jewels in a spider’s web.

Kaine often took the lead on the trail, pointing out bits of nature and frequently asking questions of Cameron. As the hike neared its conclusion, he insisted upon a detour along the Confederate Breastworks interpretive trail that details the Civil War events that took place on top of the mountain in 1862.

The two-and-a-half hour hike ended where it started, atop Shenandoah Mountain in the Confederate Breastworks parking area.

On Wednesday, Kaine expressed support for the bill he was co-sponsoring.

“These challenging two years have underscored that getting out into nature is critical to our health and well-being,” he said. “The establishment of this National Scenic Area will help us share the gifts of Shenandoah Mountain and the George Washington National Forest with visitors from near and far, while also boosting our local economies, protecting drinking water sources, and preserving the wildlife that make this area so special.”

Saturday’s hike seemed to serve as an exclamation mark for those remarks. Before and after the hike Kaine had his staff explain the different potential avenues of advancement for the bill, with the best bet being to get it connected to the next public lands bill.

“Today we got to see the Shenandoah Mountain Trail in ways that a lot of people don’t get to see with the snow and the wind, but also the sunshine and the blue skies. There was a lot of good energy out there today so let’s take this out there and get it done,” Kaine said as he prepared for the push that would be needed in securing the bill’s passage in Congress.

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