The Battle for Brush Mountain

Each morning I arise, walk to the bedroom window and gaze out across miles of undulating blue mountain ridges and the moody skies that illuminate the New River Valley. Some days all I see are cottony pillows of dense fog obscuring the land below. Other mornings I witness vibrant sunrises that splash an artist’s palette of color across the sky. I’ll often take a deep breath and contemplate the scene for a few moments. I’m unable to fully express my gratitude for the unexpected convergence of events that brought me to live at the top of Brush Mountain overlooking Blacksburg Virginia. As the sun slowly rises and spills rays across land and sky, I’m held in a state of disbelief at the beauty which has become my little piece of heaven.

David Seriff Using His Porch for a Classroom During a Recent Site Visit with Students from Virginia Tech
David Seriff Using His Porch for a Classroom During a Recent Site Visit with Students from Virginia Tech

Many mornings I walk out my front door under a canopy of mature chestnut oaks that tower over the house and I wander through a rich understory of dogwood, laurel, maple, pine, locust and an abundance of huckleberry. Gradually I’ll meander a couple hundred feet down a verdant moss-covered path that leads to the Brush Mountain Wilderness Trail aka Fire Road 188. This piece of mountain splendor in the Jefferson National Forest is an open secret; you can locate it on a map, but word of mouth primarily draws people to hike along the serene mountaintop.

The trail, a rugged fire road perched 1000 feet in elevation above Blacksburg, see-saws along the mountain ridgeline. Your land, the Jefferson National Forest, lies on the west side of the mountain. My property, and other private land, lay on the east side. Many mountains in this area were stripped bare by logging during the Great Depression, however in 1936 a group of our wise forefathers set boundaries here for the national forest which would protect tens of thousands of acres of these rugged mountains for future generations. This portion of the Wilderness Trail stretches about seven miles northward where it connects with the famous Appalachian Trail. It’s exciting to contemplate that one could walk out the front door of my home and hike on federally protected trails the all the way to Maine or Georgia.

As I stroll to the gated entrance of the fire road, I consider how few people recognize the unique topography that exists here. A curious process takes place when fierce summer thunderstorms cascade buckets of rain down on top of the mountain. Depending on exactly where that water lands it could eventually make its way into any one of three distant bodies of water. The eastside runoff, toward Blacksburg, flows into Tom’s Creek which works its way to the New River, then on to the Ohio, the Mississippi, and eventually all the way into the Gulf of Mexico. Nearby water that runs off the west side of the mountain trickles down into Craig’s Creek. This pristine mountain stream flows north to the James River which traverses Virginia and carries the water to the Chesapeake Bay. The third possibility, depending on the exact spot it hits, water spills down Brush Mountain to Mill Creek, on to the Roanoke River, which crosses into North Carolina, and eventually empties into the Albemarle Sound near the Outer Banks.

Both the national forest and the thickly wooded private land help protect this pristine watershed and rare mountain environment.

If you proceed on the trail, and gaze down the deep ravines on the left side, one encounters a section of the national forest designated as an Inventoried Roadless Area or IRA. According to the USDA Forest Service: “The 2001 Roadless Rule establishes prohibitions on road construction, and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands. The intent of the 2001 Roadless Rule is to provide lasting protection for inventoried roadless areas within the National Forest System in the context of multiple-use management.” This affords the rugged land and steep craggy coves on Brush Mountain a higher level of protection than other parts of the national forest, many of which are open to commercial and industrial use. The IRA limits drilling, logging, mining or other activity.

I find this mountain magical, especially in the ethereal hours of dawn and dusk. As I move slowly along, I notice that thunderstorms saturated the ground and puddles of muddy water line the path. The air is thick with humidity. As I survey both sides of the trail, I’m delighted to discover that overnight the wood fairies filled the forest floor with fantastical fungus of every size, shape and color. Delicate little toadstools shoot their heads skyward. Fist-sized mushrooms pop up out of the earth like teacups, now filled with rain. Little mushroom families sprout here and there. Brilliant white mushrooms practically glow with their presence while other varieties surreptitiously sprout and hide out in camouflage colors. Over there lies a stand of oyster mushrooms. They’re easy to identify because they look a lot like oyster shells. I stop for a minute to marvel at a rotting tree stump covered with shelves of brilliant orange bioluminescent fungus. Other species have emerged overnight that, to me, literally look like piles of crap. But who am I to judge the life of fungi?

I have friends who know the proper names of these shrooms like omphalotus olearius, marcolepiota procera or chanterelles. They relish hunting the steep mountainside for those that are good to eat. They post pictures of their lucky finds on Facebook but keep secret the cove or nook where the best ones grow. I see them exchange tips on what varieties are best eaten raw, and how others are cooked using traditional recipes. With my limited knowledge, I’d be frightened to eat any wild mushrooms due to the many poisonous varieties. These newly emerged works of nature’s art won’t last long, so I’m content to enjoy the amazing show of colors and shapes that temporarily decorate the forest floor.

I intend a short hike this morning to the edge of the wilderness which lies about one mile ahead on the trail. There the IRA ends and a higher level of forest protection begins.  The United States Congress designated a total of 4,794 acres as the Brush Mountain Wilderness in 2009.

The wilderness designation affords it the highest level of protection; no trails, campsites or manmade intrusion whatsoever is allowed. In order to protect the wild creatures that live here, the plants, mammals, reptiles, and birds, the land will remain in its natural state in perpetuity. Wilderness designation protects pristine water sources on the mountainside as well.

Vibrant green knee-deep clusters of feathery leaves line the edge of the trail. Sadly, this is an invasive species called Japanese stiltgrass which spreads rapidly and chokes out native species. Ahead I spy a mother deer and her fawn foraging for acorns in the detritus while squirrels scold them from the trees above. Due to the lack of wild predators an overpopulation of deer decimates the forest undergrowth. In many places you can see the browse line where they nibble the understory to several feet up. All the locals lament how these deer will eat tulips, hostas, azaleas, and ravage whole gardens, anything apparently except the masses of green stiltgrass we’d love them to eat. The forest rangers open the fire road gate during hunting season and a steady line of pickups and jeeps often crawl along in the predawn hours toward favorite hunting spots. We’re lucky to have responsible hunters who thin the herd and fill their freezers with venison.

On a rare morning I might catch a glimpse of grey fox returning to his den after a night of scavenging in the valley below. On other occasions I’ve detected a bloated blacksnake coiled up digesting a mouse dinner, uninterested in moving even when I draw quite close. The forest life is prolific in both obvious and subtle ways. In order to fully appreciate this special place, one must quiet themselves and open their senses fully. Soon you notice the call of the barred owl that hoots from somewhere above, or the whippoorwill which bellows below in the distance.

Many things remain unseen to a hurried hiker. This lush temperate rain forest is rich with life. I walk by a 100-year-old oak that was twisted in half by a storm a few years ago. The giant gash exposed a massive honeycombed beehive hidden inside. I’d walked past the tree a hundred times and never noticed the vibrant activity concealed deep within. Brush Mountain lives!

Another unique aspect of the mountain is the material of which it is made. If you look at a map that includes the geological aspects, you’ll notice several groups of mountains in Southwest Virginia split by creeks or rivers below them. These elongated blue ridges with names like Poor, Paris, Prices and Sinking Creek Mountain tower above the valleys. It appears as if a giant hand clawed fingers into clay and molded these long ridges. As it turns out, those fingers were actually glaciers which carved out these mountains as they withdrew northward millennia ago. Much of the underlying geology here is called karst. This unsteady ground is riddled with underground streams, springs, caves, and sinkholes. On private land adjacent the trail delicious cool spring water emerges from the mountain to form small streams. Grottos and small caves dot the mountainside. Nearer the valley numerous sinkholes appear like giant dimples in the landscape. These sinkholes are formed when the ground has collapsed into the karst formations below.

Brush Mountain has unique rockfaces, and if you look closely enough, delightful rock “faces.” Many of the rocks in the boulder fields are covered with moss and lichens which provide facial features, or at least that’s how I experience them. One winks an eye at me while another shoots me a toothy grin. Others simply scowl as I walk by. The rockfaces are like whole rock families with moss features, fern bouffant, flower and vine adornments. Occasionally I wonder if boulders breed. In some locations the bigger ones appear to have birthed smaller ones which all nuzzle together. These families are not exactly what I would call cuddly, but they don’t seem to mind if I sometimes stretch out across them for a rest. One solitary boulder, not far off the trail, I call my wailing rock. At times I’ve found it perfect to ascend, hang my legs over the edge, and then wail in despair into the dense woods below. Other times, when my mood is bright, I’ve been inspired to bellow out a little diddy by songwriter Derrol Adams:

I wish I was a rock Sittin’ on a hill

Doin’ nuthin’ all day long but just a’sittin’ still I wouldn’t eat

And I wouldn’t sleep

And I wouldn’t even wash

I’d just sit there a thousand years and rest myself by gosh

As I follow the trail, I’m grateful for the mountain, this forest, these boulders. I’m thankful that they slow me down, separate me from my cellphone for a while and provide quiet space to breathe in the fresh mountain air. Ahhhhh.

Suddenly, a half-mile down the trail, something seems terribly out of place. Do you know how it feels when something is asunder, but you can’t quite put your finger on it? You sense that something is not quite right. You feel it before you see it, and the awareness makes you clench inside. As I ascend a rutted incline, carefully watching each step in the loose gravel, the uninterrupted forest has been splayed wide open ahead. Instead of the vertical tree trunks, I detect mammoth horizontal shapes. I emerge from the fresh green fauna and find myself in bright sunlight surrounded by a barren dystopian landscape. I look to my left, then to my right and cringe. It looks like a battle zone stretches down both sides of Brush Mountain.

The devastation of the mature woodlands here is not the result of an accident, nor forest fire, or woodland disease. It’s much worse than that. This destruction is a case of simple human greed. A massive industrial project, known as the Mountain Valley Pipeline, gouged a hideous 300-mile scar through pristine forest, field and mountain across West Virginia and Virginia. The rich forest has been stripped down to eroding piles of clay and rock in both the national forest, and the private land. As I survey the massive steel pipes stacked atop what had been deemed a specially protected place, it feels like a punch in the gut. More than once I’ve simply sat here and wept while I pondered the death of forest life caused by this unneeded project.

How could a massive pipeline be allowed to traverse an Inventoried Roadless Area and run directly adjacent to the Brush Mountain Wilderness? Why was a greedy business interest allowed to use the power of eminent domain to usurp citizen’s property rights? How could our government allow them to confiscate private land and destroy national forest property for selfish financial gain? I’m afraid I know the answer: we’re fighting a classic battle of ordinary citizens against the rich and powerful fossil fuel industry and the politicians who have been bought by them.

I remember the day when the Battle for Brush Mountain began in earnest when a 150-foot wide strip of this beautiful mountain was invaded and turned into a hellish wasteland in a matter of hours. Mighty oaks were felled by an army of men with whirring chain saws and the remains shoved aside by thunderous earth moving machines. The inhabitants that called this area home, bat, skink, rabbit, skunk and thousands of other creatures were either destroyed or chased off by the blitzkrieg attack. All plants and vegetation were ground to dust. Rockfaces were dynamited. Boulders pulverized. I still shake my head in sorrow when I think about it.

How did this atrocity come about? The project grew from a decade old revolution in fracking technology which led to a gold rush for methane gas. Eventually massive overproduction in the Marcellus shale fields of West Virginia proved a quandary for the producers. How could they get this gas to market? In a quest to compete with gulf coast producers EQT Corporation of Pittsburgh formed a subsidiary company in 2014. Mountain Valley Pipeline would connect the underutilized wells in West Virginia to an existing gas pipeline in central Virginia. They could then undersell the gulf producers and pump the gas to the Northeast, or possibly even export it for higher profits. This get-rich-quick scheme disregarded the realities entailed in building an enormous 42-inch high pressure gas line over some of the most rugged landscape on the east coast. They expected to put the pipeline in service by 2018 but a structure of such magnitude had never been built across such challenging mountainous and karst terrain. Meanwhile the gas market was extremely volatile, and renewable energy was beginning to cut into demand for gas. None of this seemed to bother the greedy investors who committed over three billion dollars to rush the construction as quickly as possible.

No project of this type is permitted without the blessing from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a governmental body whose appointed members are primarily made up of fossil fuel industry insiders. Is it any wonder they have a history of rubberstamping YES on almost all fossil fuel projects?

Mountain Valley Pipeline followed the rules. They submitted an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to FERC tracing their route through private property, public lands, burrowing under the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The EIS was criticized by government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency as sloppy, inaccurate and insufficient. A world-renowned expert on karst topography examined their plans and dubbed the path a “no-build zone” for such a project due to the unstable terrain it would traverse. Other experts soundly agreed. The steep mountain slopes were known for slippage and geological instability. The route would cross at least 500 known bodies of water. How could the builders accomplish this without major damage to pristine watersheds? It was beyond anyone’s guess.

Beginning in late 2014 FERC held the mandatory public “scoping” meetings to inform the public of MVP’s plans and receive feedback from citizens. These turned into raucous events with hundreds of people up in arms about their property rights being usurped. It didn’t take long to realize that citizen’s cries fell completely on deaf ears. Some landowners gladly accepted payments for the pipeline to cross their land while hundreds of others swore to battle this monstrosity every step of the way.

MVP tweaked the pipeline’s path, cleaned up the EIS, and the government agencies quickly agreed to allow the project to cross their jurisdictions. Without considering its impact on global warming, or that a glut of gas already existed, FERC ruled that the pipeline was a necessary project and “would result in limited adverse environmental impacts, with the exception of impacts on forest.” Thus began a protracted battle by landowners and environmental groups against this ill-conceived project.

Consider the plight of my neighbor on Brush Mountain whose property was taken by MVP using the powers of eminent domain. The 90-year old gentlemen and his family worked for decades to build a successful horse farm. He had conserved hundreds of acres of forest for riding trails and protecting the watershed. MVP slashed a 150-foot wide gash through the center of his property with no regard for his concerns. He can no longer use his property as he sees fit. He spent thousands of dollars fighting the eminent domain action in court while work was allowed to proceed before receiving any compensation. Meanwhile a huge swath of his property lies barren and eroding. Acres of mature oaks and maples which could have been lumber, or at least firewood, now lay rotting along the pipeline path.

Hundreds of other citizens joined the battle, some through litigation, others through direct action. Landowner Red Terry and her daughter decided to block pipeline construction on their property by taking to the trees. For weeks they occupied small platforms built high up in the oaks. They were eventually forcibly removed and arrested for trespassing — on their own land! Other brave souls chained themselves to equipment or otherwise impeded work progress which led to dozens of arrests. Two tree sits still block one of the few places MVP has not completely stripped bare of vegetation. Attempts by law enforcement to remove these steadfast pipeline fighters have thus far been repelled. A coalition of citizens groups banded together to form a grassroots organization dubbed POWHR – Protect Our Water, Heritage and Rights. Only united resistance could generate enough power to stand up against the monied fossil fuel interests.

Many citizens felt that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality was not monitoring Mountain Valley Pipeline construction closely enough. Numerous complaints and repeated occurrences of environmental damage were reported. Soon a group called Mountain Valley Watch was formed. Citizen volunteers fanned out across the pipeline path to monitor environmental degradation. Hundreds of reports were filed. Pictures, videos and even drone reconnaissance showed repeated violations by MVP.

Meanwhile numerous lawsuits from property owners and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club disrupted the original timeline for completion. Construction stopped for months as a result of environmental damage and lawsuits challenging pipeline permits. In December of  2018 the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA declared that the U.S. Forest Service “abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.” The judges referred to Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax: “We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.’” For reasons still unclear the Forest Service initially agreed to allow the pipeline construction which directly violated both the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. These permits were blocked by the courts but are expected to be reinstated.

With construction only partially complete environmentalists’ fears had come true. Erosion, mudslides, silting of streams and other environmental destruction occurred repeatedly.

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality sued MVP for hundreds of incidents. In October 2019 The Commonwealth of Virginia reached an agreement with Mountain Valley Pipeline which forced the company to submit to court-ordered and court-supervised compliance with environmental protections. They imposed additional layers of independent third-party monitoring on the project and levied a civil penalty of $2.15 million. From the pipeline fighter’s perspective this was but a slap on the wrist for the multi-billion-dollar project.

In early 2020, a similar pipeline project, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, was cancelled for a host of financial and environment reasons. Both projects originated at a time when demand for methane gas had skyrocketed and producers were drilling as fast as possible. Today the industry is in turmoil as overproduction led to a huge number of bankruptcies. Meanwhile solar and wind projects are rapidly replacing the need for gas. The cost of these sustainable energy sources has fallen below the cost of gas. More and more people now recognize methane’s contribution to climate change and the need to curtail its use. Gas prices have hit all-time lows and demand is expected to fall precipitously. Meanwhile the estimated cost of MVP increased to $5.7 billion.

It’s time for our government and financial institutions to fundamentally reassess the need for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. We must shut down construction permanently and kill this dangerous project. We must begin the important task of restoring the forest on Brush Mountain, Bent Mountain, Peter’s Mountain and so many others. Sadly, no one can replace the unique rock faces. It’ll take decades to grow new trees. It’ll take a lifetime to rebuild the topsoil enough for the magical mountain mushrooms to sprout once again. Many of the fragile plant and animal species may never return.

As I sit and survey the pipeline destruction on Brush Mountain, I feel that I’m literally looking at the end of the world as we know it. In 2020 unprecedented forest fires ravaged the western United States. High temperatures across the globe broke all records. The hurricane season was absolutely freakish. The scope of the disaster this pipeline would inflict is far from being fully realized. If we allow projects like this to continue, they will push us over the edge. The destruction here is nothing less than a crime against our environment and our children’s future. Greta Thunberg said it best: “The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change.”

As I traipse back down the trail with a sick feeling in my gut, I know that the Battle for Brush Mountain must continue. The solution is clear. We must change our path. We must stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline and projects like it NOW. We’re all in this battle together.

David Seriff Blacksburg VA