As Miracle Ridge rises toward its peak on Jack Mountain, the remnants of a wire fence divide the mountain between lower slopes where cows once pastured and a high, narrow spine of virgin forest.
The trees — mostly oak and hickory — aren’t as big as the massive sugar maples on the lower slopes, but they’re just as old, surviving hundreds of years on shallow, rocky soil in high winds. Loggers haven’t touched this forest, nor have non-native plants invaded what Virginia’s Division of Natural Heritage has declared a conservation site of “very high significance.”
Now, the mountain ridge is becoming a classroom camp in the escalating battle over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would level the forest and more than 3,000 feet of ridgeline on its 600-mile path from the West Virginia shale fields to natural gas markets in southeastern Virginia and North Carolina.
“We anticipate people camping right where the pipeline is proposed,” said Bill Limpert, whose 120-acre property includes the mountainside he began calling Miracle Ridge after he and his wife, Lynn, purchased it nine years ago.
The Limperts have opened their land to an anti-pipeline encampment, beginning Friday and extending to Sept. 9, about a week before a seasonal window opens for tree cutting to resume on the pipeline route planned by Dominion Energy and its partners.
They expect as many as 20 campers a day to visit their land near Bolar in Bath County near its boundary with Highland County in the Allegheny Mountains.
The camp is organized by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, an environmental organization that opposes the production of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the construction of pipelines through environmentally sensitive areas to transport the fossil fuel to markets.
The first to arrive was Sam Wright, a 22-year-old Charlottesville native who graduated this spring from Virginia Commonwealth University with a sociology degree and a cameraman’s eye for compelling stories about people in the path of a 42-inch, high-pressure gas pipeline.
Wright came here as the advance organizer for CCAN, which has hired him as a summer intern. He already knows the Limperts from his work on “Troubled Water: Voices from Bath,” a documentary produced in late 2016.
“It’s important for people to come and witness,” he said as the camp prepared to open.
Barb Adams, a longtime Richmond resident and activist who produced the documentary, understands the camp’s purpose and potential power.
“This is a great place to hear a lot of different stories about how people are affected” by the pipeline, said Adams, who visited last month to work with Wright on another project.
The encampment comes at a delicate time, as the 125-foot-wide construction corridor for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is clearly visible on mountain ridges in Highland along U.S. 220 between Warm Springs and Monterey in the Allegheny Highlands bordering West Virginia.
Dominion officials met with the Limperts, Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler and state biologists at the property last month to discuss ways to minimize harm to the most sensitive features.
“There were a number of ideas that came out of those discussions,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said. “We are exploring those options in hopes of being able to resolve some of those issues.”
“We have not reached a resolution with the Limperts and the agencies, but we are working as hard as we can,” Ruby said. “And it is a priority for us.”
The Limperts’ land wasn’t in the path of the original pipeline route, but that changed two years ago when Dominion rerouted the project through part of Bath County in order to avoid the habitat of the endangered cow knob salamander in George Washington National Forest in Highland and the Cheat Mountain salamander in West Virginia.
The U.S. Forest Service had refused to issue a permit for the original route through two national forests.
In Southwest Virginia, the clearing of a construction corridor for the Mountain Valley Pipeline led to a prolonged confrontation this year on Bent Mountain in Roanoke County between Theresa “Red” Terry and pipeline crews supported by local and state law enforcement agencies.
Terry and her daughter, Minor, occupied stands high in the trees on property the pipeline developer had used eminent domain to seize for the project.
The Terrys eventually surrendered, but their stand, and similar acts of civil disobedience along the Mountain Valley route in Franklin County, sent a message not lost on Dominion and developers of the $5.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
CCAN Director Mike Tidwell, one of the first campers expected on the property, said at a news conference last month that the camp’s purpose is educational, not combative. But Tidwell said, “I think that’s a bridge we’ll cross when we get to it.”
Lynn Limpert, a retired graphic artist from Maryland, calls the camp’s purpose “bridge building.”
Dominion has not begun legal action to condemn about 8 acres of the Limperts’ property through eminent domain, which it will have to do to build across their property without their permission.
“We believe eminent domain for private gain is not lawful,” Bill Limpert said in the news conference. “We don’t think the pipeline is in the public interest.”
So the camp begins without the immediate threat of tree felling along Miracle Ridge, but Dominion plans to begin clear-cutting the pipeline route through Bath as early as mid-September and building the pipeline next year.
The project also is awaiting final approval of a state water quality permit that depends on approval of plans for erosion, sediment and stormwater control along the more than 300 miles of pipeline corridor in Virginia.
The pipeline developers also await a decision by the State Water Control Board in late August on whether it will continue to certify a nationwide permit that gives federal regulatory oversight of stream crossings.
Gary Robinson, a neighbor of the Limperts who lives on an 18th-century farm at the end of Little Valley Road, contends the pipeline can’t be built without damaging Little Valley Run. The stream feeds into Bolar Run and eventually the Jackson River, one of the headwaters of the James River.
“It’s pristine,” said Robinson, who is testing water in the stream above and below the planned pipeline crossing to document the water quality.
The stream is classified as a Class III Wild Trout Water by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries because of its importance in the breeding of native brook trout.
In an email to Robinson, state fisheries biologist Stephen J. Reeser called Little Valley Run “an important tributary for brook trout reproduction, that would also benefit the wild brook trout population in Bolar Run and other streams in the watershed.”
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation also is concerned about the potential effects of the pipeline on local water supply because of the interconnection of streams, springs and porous underground karst formations.
In comments to federal pipeline regulators in August, the department’s natural heritage division said contamination of Little Valley Run from construction “could affect the major springs at Bolar” and advised “protection of water quality in Little Valley Run should be of primary importance.”
But the steep slopes and unstable soil in the valley make it unlikely that pipeline developers can protect the stream, Robinson said. “There’s no way they’re going to be able to keep sediment out of Little Valley Run.”
The same state report to federal regulators in August also documented highly significant natural communities on Miracle Ridge, part of the Little Valley Slope Conservation Site, and the Duncan Knob Access Road, where a pipeline surveyor inadvertently spotted an endangered rusty patched bumblebee a year ago.
The access road runs through Robinson’s farm, wedged in the head of the valley between Jack and Little mountains.
“This is the first bumblebee seen in 20 years,” he said.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that the potential harm to the endangered bumblebee population constituted an “incidental take” rather than an existential threat.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the wildlife service’s incidental take permit for the pipeline because of the threat to endangered species, although Dominion and environmentalists disagree strongly on the scope of the court’s decision.
Dominion said the decision affects 75 to 80 miles of the route in Virginia, while environmentalists contend it stops the entire project.
The Charlottesville-based law center told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month that “at no point did Atlantic or FERC conduct a single competent survey for the critically endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee.”
For Dominion, the discovery of a single worker bee, indicative of at least one underground hive, does not meet the threshold for threatening the species, Ruby said.
“It’s a threshold issue,” he said. “It’s how much of a threat an endangered species is at risk from the project.”
The risk to Miracle Ridge is clear. A 125-foot-wide construction corridor would require clear-cutting the trees and leveling the ridge itself, although the Limperts and Dominion disagree on how much mountain would be removed.
One of the trees in the construction corridor on the lower slope is Ona, a massive sugar maple at least 15 feet in circumference. Lynn Limpert hopes the tree, estimated at 260 years old, will become a focal point of the camp and a model for young artists to render.
On the upper slope, the pipeline would destroy an area that’s never been disturbed.
“The pipeline is going through the middle of that significant community,” said Chris Ludwig, chief biologist for the Division of Natural Heritage.
Those are the kinds of stories that Wright, the VCU grad, expects campers to hear.
“I think the most important thing about the encampment is it’s getting people to a place and hearing stories firsthand,” he said.