The Environmental Shaping of the State and Its Regions
Nonhuman environmental factors have shaped Virginia's history in ways both subtle and direct. A review of the state's bioregions reveals subtle examples of nature acting to shape Virginia's modern history. Those bioregions, both the subsurface geological features and surface-level watersheds, overlap within the political boundaries of the state.
Third is the Blue Ridge and, fourth, the Shenandoah Valley—an area sometimes referred to as the breadbasket of the state. The fifth zone, the Appalachian Highlands, includes mountains to the west, parts of which are sometimes referred to as the Highlands. While the Shenandoah Valley has remained a rich agricultural zone in the northern half of the state, those western regions are defined as a bioregion of higher elevation, harsher soil content, and more distinct climatic seasons. The Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Shenandoah Valley's forested areas are generally of oak-hickory-pine coverage. Logging, however—using lumber for housing, fencing, furniture, and other construction ends—has left many older diversified hardwood forests replanted with monocropped pine. Wheat and grains have long been prominent in the Shenandoah Valley, in contrast to the tobacco dominance in the Piedmont. Sedimentary rocks such as limestone, sandstone, and shale comprise this fourth region, as they do the fifth, the Appalachian Highlands. This coal-rich, mountainous region is shared by the mountaineering culture of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and West Virginia.
The state is also a set of watersheds, the most dominant of which is the Chesapeake Bay system. Within their drainage basins, for instance, the four major Virginia rivers defining the Chesapeake Bay watershed—the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James—provide habitats for native animals, trees, and assorted plant life, while supplying water for various human uses including drinking, irrigation, and transportation. Although coastal fisheries in the Atlantic and estuary marine populations in the Bay have offered economic opportunities for centuries, pollution has compromised the health of finfish and shellfish throughout the last century, as evident with decreasing sturgeon, shad, and menhaden populations. Additionally, since the Shenandoah River flows into the Potomac, Shenandoah Valley waterways also contribute to the Chesapeake watershed. Thus, logging, heavy industry, air pollution, fertilizer, and other river waste that compromise bird, mammal, and insect populations in the Appalachians contribute to ecosystem health across the entire state. Over the modern period, Virginia's cultural choices were shaped by these geological and watershed bioregions, with climate, soil, water, and energy possibilities constrained by the various regions' features.
Hurricane Camille in 1969 offers another example of nature shaping Virginia's modern history. Camille's landing in Virginia led to flash floods, extensive road damage, downed communication lines, damaged homes, more than a hundred deaths, millions of dollars in property losses, and the reconfiguring of state emergency response activities. The damage had been exacerbated by deforestation and increases in land clearage that made the floods worse than those in prior hurricanes.
How Virginians Have Shaped the Environment
These changes can be seen with examples from each third of the century. Within a broader national context of wilderness conservation and appreciation, the period from the 1900s to the 1930s saw the creation of state parks, auto parkways, and hiking trails within the state. Politically, the state created conservation-based agencies to manage natural resources, including the Department of Forestry (1914); the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (1916); and the State Commission on Conservation and Development (1926), which evolved into the Department of Conservation and Recreation in 1989.
Drives, Trails, and Interstates
The Blue Ridge Parkway was built as part of the depression-era New Deal with help from the Civilian Conservation Corps and Public Works Administration. The parkway provided placid mountainside vistas and idyllic roadside scenery, but also required displacement of small communities along its path (the Peaks of Otter community near Bedford, for example, and Eastern Cherokee lands in North Carolina) to facilitate the road's aesthetic appeal. In these examples combining transportation, tourism, and recreation purposes, humans reconfigured their relationship to the landscape and mountain views as they reconfigured the human populations living within them.
Power and Suburban Development
In the period roughly spanning the 1930s through the 1960s, Virginians dammed rivers for hydroelectric purposes, began an Interstate Highway System (I-81, I-64, and I-95), participated in the sharp post–World War II rise in suburban development, and expanded tourism opportunities to leverage the increasing cultural value of the natural environment. In this period, for example, the popularity of hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, beach-going, and sightseeing all increased dramatically.
Coal mining, part of the story of energy production and consumption, is a prime example of Virginians shaping and altering their environment in a direct and ecologically significant way. Although the size of the mining industry in Virginia peaked early in the century, new techniques for acquiring coal, new means for organizing the human labor to do so, and new understanding of the environmental consequences of these activities have grown considerably over the last hundred years. Strip mining (or open-cut mining), in which companies performed machine-intensive surface stripping practices to access coal rather than mining in shafts underground, became more common after World War II (1939–1945). While the process made coal more easily available, it accelerated old forest growth removal, aided species extinction, and damaged watersheds by depositing overburden (the earth removed from the surface) into streambeds and river valleys. Beyond mid-century and then accelerating in the 1990s, mining companies increasingly practiced mountaintop removal (MTR), a more environmentally insidious form of surface mining whereby companies use massive machinery and toxic explosives to destroy the tops of mountains to provide access to the coal underneath. The mountains of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia continue to bear the brunt of MTR, though its practice is part of a longer historical trajectory of which the coalfields of southern Virginia's Appalachia have long been a part.
While trends in the expansion of industrial development and suburbanization continued throughout the century, the last third, the 1970s through 2000, saw Virginia follow national patterns of environmental action. Citizens organized to respond to industrial pollution, chemical pesticide and fertilizer spills, and losses in biodiversity and habitat acreage incurred by earlier activity.
All told, Virginia has been subject to nature's action over its modern period while the nonhuman environment has been altered to reflect new cultural perceptions of those environments and new cultural goals within them.
1900 - The population of Virginia is about 1.8 million people. There are about 20 million acres of farmland and 168,000 farms in the state.
1904 - The Chestnut Blight begins when the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica spreads within eastern forests, damaging the American Chestnut's health, ultimately decimating more than 3.5 billion trees, removing important habitats for wildlife populations, and leading to economic disaster within the communities that rely on them.
1914 - The commonwealth of Virginia creates conservation-based agencies to manage natural resources, including the Department of Forestry.
1916 - Virginia establishes the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
1926 - Virginia's General Assembly creates the Commission on Conservation and Development, and Harry F. Byrd names his good friend William E. Carson as the agency's first chairman.
1935 - Construction on the Blue Ridge Parkway begins as part of the depression-era New Deal with help from the Civilian Conservation Corps and Public Works Administration. The parkway provides placid mountainside vistas and idyllic roadside scenery, but also requires displacement of small communities along its path.
1937 - The 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail, one-quarter of which wends its way through Virginia, is completed.
1939 - Skyline Drive, the road that extends through Shenandoah National Park, is completed.
1939 - The Appalachian Electric Power Company dams the New River near Radford, creating the 4,500-acre Claytor Lake to generate hydroelectricity.
1963 - The Appalachian Electric Power Company creates the 20,000-acre Smith Mountain Lake by damming the Roanoke River to generate hydroelectricity.
1968 - The Virginia Electric and Power Company (later Dominion Power) begins damming the North Anna River in Louisa County to provide cooling water for the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station.
August 19–20, 1969 - Hurricane Camille lands in Virginia. The storm's unexpected arrival leads to flash floods, extensive road damage, downed communication lines, damaged homes, more than a hundred deaths, millions of dollars in property losses, and the reconfiguring of state emergency response activities.
1971 - The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, a regional nonprofit organization aimed at the coastal bioregion and Chesapeake watershed, is founded to build and foster partnerships "to protect and to restore the Bay and its rivers."
1989 - In the Piedmont and Shenandoah bioregions and watersheds, environmentally minded citizens found Friends of the Shenandoah River and Virginia Save Our Streams, respectively, to provide community- and citizen-based support for local habitats.
1995 - Appalachian Sustainable Development is founded in Abingdon to promote local agricultural systems and to redevelop lands once dominated by tobacco culture.
2000 - The human population of Virginia is about 7.1 million. There are 8.2 million acres and 41,000 farms by the 1990s.
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First published: November 6, 2008 | Last modified: January 8, 2009