Congressman Griffith's Weekly E-Newsletter 8.26.19

Caring for the National Forests

Monday, August 26, 2019 | Kevin Baird (202-225-3861)

National forests protect some of our great natural treasures, across the United States and locally in Virginia’s Ninth Congressional District.

The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, which cover 1,664,110 acres in Virginia and span much of the Ninth District, provide outlets for recreation, camping, and enjoyment of plant and animal life. Both locals and tourists partake of their splendor.

Unfortunately, I have heard consistent complaints over the years that some of the rules governing the national forests interfere with the enjoyment of them.

The recreational sites, roads, and trails in the forests all need upkeep, which falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. They have trouble maintaining some of the locations in our District, citing resource constraints. I understand these constraints, yet there is a tremendous resource at hand that has not been drawn upon as much as it could be: the time and effort of very skilled Southwest Virginians.

For example, the Fenwick Mines Day Use Area in Craig County has been threatened with closure due in part to maintenance problems, even though the Craig County Administrator has offered to find people with the skills to fix rooves and take care of other maintenance items.

Federal rules about volunteers hold back the people who want to help. Volunteers are most often prohibited from working on Forest Service facilities unless an employee directly supervises them. Further, the Forest Service would have to pay those volunteers worker’s compensation insurance.

It is disheartening to think that bureaucratic inflexibility coming from Washington prevents us from enjoying and caring for the lands in our backyards.

I am committed to fix the problem.

In Washington, I testified before the House Natural Resources Committee in June at a Member Day hearing, bringing the issue to the attention of the committee with jurisdiction over the Forest Service.

During the current district work period, I met with Forest Service officials from the George Washington and Jefferson forests. It was a productive discussion focused on figuring out how to make sure the people who want to volunteer in our national forests can do so.

One outcome may be legislation. I am studying the possibility of introducing a bill to clarify rules for different types of volunteers. It may be appropriate to require a full-time volunteer to clear multiple bureaucratic hurdles, but someone intending to volunteer only occasionally shouldn’t be subject to the same extensive process.

I am confident we can find a way for Southwest Virginians to take a more active part in caring for the national forests. In some parts of the district, the Forest Service has already cooperated with local governments and other partners.

The City of Norton has worked with the Forest Service on memoranda of understanding and agreement, formal documents recognizing the relationship between them, so the city can handle maintenance and upkeep on the trails that intersect and loop around the city.

As one example, a park area was having issues with its water system, so the Forest Service contacted Norton and one of the city’s work crews addressed the problem.

Municipalities are not the only possible partners. In Lee County, the Spearhead Trails organization went to work so that the Cave Springs Recreational Area could reopen.

A group in Grayson County works to keep horse trails under Forest Service jurisdiction clear. The Friends of Mount Rogers help to maintain Mount Rogers’ trails and support interpretative sites for visitors.

In Southwest Virginia, we all have a stake in the national forests. The beautiful scenery is an economic draw as well as an asset for ecology. Maintaining recreational areas in the forests will keep them available for people from our region and others to use and in the process patronize local businesses.

When talking about how Southwest Virginians are ready to do our part, I often retell a story about the Volvo truck plant in Dublin. The facility wanted a test road for customers, but the corporate office in Sweden ruled that it would be cost-prohibitive. The employees at the plant, some of whom had engineering and farming backgrounds, then stepped up. Building upon an idea from the plant’s suggestion box and with approval from management, they organized the construction of the road, bringing in the heavy equipment and laying the surface, all for under $100,000.

We have the skills, the knowledge, and the will to keep our national forests great. All we need are rules that let us do so.

If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office.  You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.

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