- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) - While it may appear that wilderness advocates, timber harvesters, hunting enthusiasts and mountain bikers don’t have anything in common, their shared interest in a national scenic area on Shenandoah Mountain is changing that perception.

In November, the U.S. Forest Service recommended the scenic area, spanning about 90,000 acres, in its long-awaited plan for the George Washington National Forest.

Starting near Skidmore Lake, just south of U.S. 33 and west of Rawley Springs, the scenic area would border West Virginia and stretch nearly as far south as West Augusta. But it wasn’t just conservation groups that drafted the plan: Stakeholders from several organizations that use the forest came together to create the proposal.

A national scenic area is designed to “protect the scenic, cultural, historic, recreational and natural resources in specific areas, while allowing compatible uses,” according to Friends of Shenandoah Mountain’s website. Activities such as biking, horseback riding, camping and scenic driving are permitted.

A wilderness area is more strictly protected and may only be used for hunting, fishing, hiking or horseback riding. Wilderness areas generally have no roads, and are defined by the Virginia Wilderness Act as “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The Virginia Wilderness Committee, a grass-roots conservation group started in 1969, has worked closely with the Forest Service over the years, according to the group’s website.

VWC field director, Mark Miller, said the “idea of a national scenic area on Shenandoah Mountain was first entertained in the early 2000s,” to accommodate both mountain bikers and conservation advocates after wilderness restrictions provoked ire in the mountain-biking community.

Over the next several years, the VWC and groups such as Friends of Shenandoah Mountain drafted a proposal recommending Shenandoah Mountain as a national scenic area, which was submitted to the Forest Service in 2008, according to VWC Vice President Lynn Cameron.

However, a lack of communication between those groups and other entities such as hunting and timber proponents created tension between all parties, adding complications for the Forest Service.

Miller decided about five years ago that more conversation between all users of the George Washington was needed to revise the scenic area proposal.

“If we could come up with some agreement, the Forest Service would be bound to listen to us,” he said.

After contacting officials with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Forestry Association, the Nature Conservancy and different mountain-biking organizations, the first stakeholders meeting was held to address the desires and concerns by the various groups.

In October 2011, the stakeholder group submitted its first joint comments on the national scenic area proposal, marking trust and collaboration among its members.

Under the revised proposal, timber advocates agreed to recommend protective designations such as the national scenic area and wilderness areas if wilderness advocates were willing to compromise more land to be used for timber harvesting.

Rick Layser, president of the Virginia chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, found the dialogue helpful because he was able to explain the importance of open spaces in the forest to wilderness advocates.

He said there are “about 240 species in decline that need early successional habitats,” or open, grassy spaces, to thrive.

While Layser has “conditional support” for the wilderness areas, he said the Forest Service must “increase timber harvest and wildlife management” in the George Washington before his group supports additional designations.

Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition President Kyle Lawrence has been involved in the stakeholders group for the last five years.

“The plan did a really good job of incorporating very diverse views of stakeholders,” Lawrence said, adding that the SVBC and other mountain-biking groups still hope the wilderness area boundaries will be slightly adjusted for biking paths when Congress reviews the proposal.

Before Shenandoah Mountain’s national scenic area can become official, Congress must approve it.

A bill must first be introduced by a member of Congress before it is referred to either the House Agriculture Committee or the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Upon approval, it goes to the president for his signature.

It’s still unknown whether U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who is a member of the House Agriculture Committee, will introduce the legislation on behalf of the scenic area’s advocates.

Beth Breeding, communications director for U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, said earlier this month that he is “studying all aspects of the U.S. Forest Service’s plan,” when asked if he plans to vote for the future bill.

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Information from: Daily News-Record, https://www.dnronline.com

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