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.
Virginia has five main geological regions, each differentiated by rock strata and elevation. The environmental character of these regions has led to differences in agricultural planning, energy resource availability, and workforce and industrial opportunities. First is the Tidewater area on the coast of Virginia and the southern Chesapeake Bay, both of which lie within the same coastal geological plane. There sand, silt, and clay have historically offered a constrained range of agricultural opportunities while creating other economic ones. Second is the Piedmont bioregion, defined geologically by igneous and metamorphic rock and cartographically with a diagonal swath bordered on the east by the Tidewater area and on the west by the rising Blue Ridge Mountains. The fall line of the James River in Richmond, where the higher elevation of the river breaks to its lower elevation, near-sea level, helps make the eastern edge of the geological region more visible.
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.
Nature has also acted to shape Virginia’s modern history in more explicit and immediate ways. The Chestnut Blight of the early twentieth century offers one example. Prior to the blight, southern Virginian mountain communities gathered and sold chestnuts, included them in their diet, and used them as animal feed. They also used the trees, as environmental scholar Ralph Lutts has noted, “in log houses and other structures, furniture, interior trim, musical instruments, coffins, and cooperage, and also for shingles, mine timbers, railroad ties, telephone poles, and fence posts and rails.” Beginning in 1904, the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica spread within eastern forests, damaging the American Chestnut’s health, ultimately decimating more than 3.5 billion trees, removing important habitats for wildlife populations (for example, bear, squirrel, and turkey), and leading to economic disaster within the communities that relied on them.
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
Not only has nonhuman nature shaped history, but Virginians also have significantly shaped their environments. Demographically, the state’s human population grew from about 1.8 million in 1900 to 7.1 million in 2000, increasing ecological impacts in the process. The state’s slow shift from an agrarian to a semi-industrial state came to fruition over the twentieth century. The total number of farms decreased from about 20 million acres (and 168,000 farms) in 1900 to 8.2 million acres (and 41,000 farms) by the 1990s, matching a pattern reflected across the nation. Land use shifted toward the industrial, commercial, suburban, and recreational. Even so, agriculture continued to play an important environmental role—in ways promoting the health of the land, such as a resurgence in local, organic farms later in the century, and in ways more damaging, such as the increasing problem of fertilizer and animal waste runoff into the Chesapeake watershed.
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 and Skyline Drive, two conservation-era projects, exemplify how Virginians shaped the health and new access to and awareness of the mountain bioregion in the modern era. The Blue Ridge Parkway (1935) originates near Waynesboro and travels south to the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. In total, 217 of the parkway’s 469 miles course through Virginia. In the other direction, Skyline Drive (1939) extends the path northward through Shenandoah National Park (1935). This system of roads made the slopes of Virginia’s eastern Appalachian range more accessible to a rising automotive culture and, in the decades to follow, also put new demands on the habitats through which the roadways cut and the surrounding recreational areas those roadways made possible. By 2000, for example, Shenandoah National Park was one of the most polluted in the country, with the Environmental Protection Agency giving daily Ozone Alert warnings to tourists.
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.
The 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail, one-quarter of which wends its way through Virginia, provides another example of changing means of interaction between culture and nature. Benton MacKaye proposed the trail in 1921 to offer access to wilderness areas as a respite from the pace and structure of urban life. Representing a common early-twentieth-century perspective on the differences between wilderness and cities through that vision, the trail was completed in 1937. The hiking trail continues to represent a nonautomotive example of how Virginians and visitors came to experience, and thus value, the landscape in new ways.
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.
Virginians steadily expanded their energy infrastructure, drawing on natural resources in new ways to supplement the long-vibrant coal-fired facilities of the southern Appalachian region. The Appalachian Electric Power Company dammed the New River near Radford in 1939, creating the 4,500-acre Claytor Lake to generate hydroelectricity. The company also created the 20,000-acre Smith Mountain Lake in 1963 near Lynchburg by damming the Roanoke River for the same purpose. The Virginia Electric and Power Company (later Dominion Power) dammed the North Anna River in Louisa County (beginning in 1968) to provide cooling water for the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station. The facilities helped meet growing energy demands from an increasing population and energy-intensive economic system. At the same time, changes in river temperatures and flow patterns as well as natural flooding episodes caused by the damming led to decreasing fisheries, irrigation practices, and wildlife populations reliant on those waters. The dams thus offer an example of Virginians’ beneficial and destructive effects: human-made lakes were used for suburban development, tourist economies, and energy consumption demands—sometimes all three at once—while affecting fisheries, wildlife habitats, and water ecosystem health.
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.
Suburban development, in part aided by the Interstate Highway System, likewise offered new means to meet population and consumption demands by altering the nonhuman environment. The growth of Northern Virginia as a vast suburban area began with a rise in government infrastructure around Washington, D.C., during and after World War II. On the coast, military bases helped spur growth in the Tidewater area, as did an increasing beach tourism industry. Richmond’s suburban development, following, in part, new chemical and industrial opportunities to its south, contributed to the same trend of population growth and dispersion. Energy demands from such population and consumption increases led to growing demands on land and water resources. These patterns were reflected to varying degrees across the state.
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.
The increasing political attention to problems caused earlier in the century offers a final example of Virginians reflecting and shaping cultural beliefs about nature. The creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 represents attention to environmental issues at the national level. Within Virginia, numerous agencies followed the EPA’s lead, while many nongovernmental organizations focused on local causes, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Piedmont to the mountains of southwestern Virginia. The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay (1971), a regional nonprofit organization aimed at the coastal bioregion and Chesapeake watershed, was founded, the organization notes, to build and foster partnerships “to protect and to restore the Bay and its rivers.” As examples based in the Piedmont and Shenandoah bioregions and watersheds, environmentally minded citizens founded Friends of the Shenandoah River (1989) and Virginia Save Our Streams (1989), to provide community- and citizen-based support for local habitats. In an example shaped by the context of Virginia’s modern environmental history, Appalachian Sustainable Development was founded in Abingdon (1995) to promote local agricultural systems and to redevelop lands once dominated by tobacco culture. In the Appalachians, nonprofit organizations like the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and Mountain Justice (both founded early in the 2000s) helped bring greater public visibility to environmentally and culturally destructive mining practices like MTR.
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.