The 33rd annual Environment Virginia Symposium was held at Virginia Military Institute March 28–30, 2023. The event, organized and co-hosted by the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics, attracted nearly 500 attendees from state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, higher education, and the private sector. Col. Dave Gray, Ph.D., CLE director, served as master of ceremonies for the event.
Topics at this year’s symposium included monitoring and managing water quality, water conservation, stormwater initiatives, wildlife corridors, climate resilience, electric vehicles, tree canopy and mitigation of urban heat, agricultural best practices, climate change, healthy farmlands, modeling and monitoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay, and more.
The keynote session was moderated by Roy Hoagland, Virginia Environmental Endowment senior program officer, and featured four state government officials: Matthew Wells, Department of Conservation and Recreation director; Mike Rolband, Department of Environmental Quality director; Becky Gwynn, Department of Wildlife Resources deputy director; and Rob Farrell, Department of Forestry director.
Wells became DCR director in March 2022 and has over 20 years of experience in Virginia politics, policy, and environmental advocacy. He holds a degree in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and a certificate in sustainability from Virginia Commonwealth University. Wells wants to expand access to outdoor recreation, open new parks, provide additional park amenities, and ensure the parks are safe and well-maintained. Improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and mitigating high-risk dams are also high-priority projects for his department. Additionally, Wells strives to be as inclusive as possible to all citizens. “The DCR is making sure everyone has a seat at the table. We are engaging people where they are by community outreach. Flooding especially impacts minorities more, and we want to hear from them,” he said.
Rolband joined the DEQ in January 2022. He founded Wetland Studies and Solutions Inc. in 1991 and grew his company into a multidisciplinary natural and cultural resources consulting firm with a staff of more than 200. WSSI assisted land developers and public works agencies in navigating the Clean Water Act, Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, and local environmental regulations. Rolband said his focus is improving response time and performance in providing permits. He cited the success of his PEEP Program, a critical path management scheduling system for every class of permits that DEQ touches, in making the permitting process easier, more efficient, and transparent in communications with the public. People applying for permits can monitor the permit process online. He reported that his department is working on creating one comprehensive manual on stormwater, condensing the current five manuals that have conflicting rules and regulations. He plans a commodity trading platform that lets people buy and sell credit in real time to stimulate more investment.
Gwynn has worked at the DWR since 1988. She has extensive experience in land conservation, acquiring more than 20,000 acres included in the DWR’s Wildlife Management Area system and providing diverse habitats for at-risk common species and extensive opportunities for public access. Her department owns over 250,000 acres across the Commonwealth in wildlife management and conservation areas, and Gwynn wants to improve public awareness about and access to those properties. Gwynn also wants to diversify her workforce to include more women and people of color. Evaluating, restoring, and protecting properties and dam infrastructure is high on her priority list. She also stated that everyone should have access to the outdoors and that there should be no barriers. As a result, she is working to reduce the cost of hunting and fishing licenses. She wants to engage more with tribes and people of color to discover reasons that keep them from using and enjoying the parks.
Farrell, the eighth state forester of Virginia, serves as director of the DoF, which is responsible for protecting Virginia’s forest resources. Farrell’s key message was, “Trees are the answer. Whatever the problem is, trees are the solution.” After the audience’s laughter and applause subsided, he continued sincerely, “The challenge faced in Virginia is that 80% of the forests are privately owned. The only way to enhance and protect the forests is by working with those landowners.” The DoF plans to do more one-on-one work with landowners to encourage, enable, and educate them to address forest challenges. One of the drivers he suggested is having markets for forest products since money drives landowner decisions, and markets enable management. Farrell, too, wants his agency to reflect the population. “We recruit employees from the pool of applicants who want to work for us. Since becoming a forester requires a college degree in that field, we need to encourage a more diverse culture to study forestry.”
The conference’s plenary speaker was Robert “Bobby” Whitescarver, who is retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation. He teaches natural resources management, environmental policy, and politics at James Madison University and is a soil health champion in the National Association of Conservation District network. Whitescarver is also a watershed restoration consultant, an environmental activist, and a writer of an award-winning book, Swoope Almanac: Stories of Love, Land, and Water in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He and his wife own and operate two farms. During his talk, Whitescarver emphasized the need to save farmlands and advocated for incentives for farmers who put conservation easements on their properties. He also promoted the use of solar power panels and other alternative fuel sources.
A meaningful part of the annual symposium is the announcement of the Erchul Environmental Leadership Award winner. This year’s winner is Laura McKay, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program manager for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The award recognizes a Virginian who has made significant individual efforts to improve the environment. Virginia’s environmental community members nominate candidates who are judged based on their vision, expertise, commitment, integrity, communication skills, accomplishments, and diplomacy. The award is named for the late Capt. Ronald A. Erchul, Ph.D., former VMI professor and founder of the Environment Virginia Symposium.
McKay was recognized for conceiving and directing a range of projects over her four decades of service that have helped save and restore critical migratory bird and wildlife habitats; increased coastal resilience; and supported oyster, eelgrass, and bay scallop restoration. Due largely to McKay’s efforts, Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management program has financed dozens of land acquisition projects protecting thousands of high-priority acres and many designated natural area preserves. Areas of protection include critical migratory bird habitats as well.
As a longstanding member of the mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean management board, McKay has played a key role in collaborating with other mid-Atlantic states on shared ocean priorities. She played an integral role in developing the 2016 mid-Atlantic Ocean Action Plan. The plan focuses on improving ocean management policies, identifying additional potential offshore wind lease and aquaculture areas, safeguarding important fishing areas, integrating marine mammal/sea turtle conservation, addressing ocean acidification and other climate impacts, and minimizing use conflicts. McKay expanded the mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal from about 125 interactive maps depicting the ocean environment, marine life, and ocean uses to well over 6,000 maps.
In addition to her professional accomplishments for the environment, McKay was praised for her commitment to bringing people together, from local, state, and federal government leaders and staff to Native American tribes, nonprofits, universities, and citizen volunteers.
“Laura McKay is a model of dedication and resilience, a creative and sharp problem solver. Her work to nurture and advance the work of others has made her impact far larger than her career, and many generations deep,” said Jason Bulluck, Virginia Natural Heritage Program director at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Each year, Virginia Military Institute donates $1,500 to a nonprofit environmental organization of the recipient’s choice in their honor. McKay has requested that this donation be made to the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary.
Other awards presented at the symposium are the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards, which recognize successful and innovative efforts toward improving Virginia’s environment. This year’s gold medal winners are Canon Virginia, Inc. – Recycled Toner Pellet Project; Grenova – Reusable Pipette Tips; HRSD & D.C. Water – Development of Next Generation Mainstream Nitrogen Removal Technology through Partial Denitrification-Anammox (PdNA); Henrico Doctors’ Hospital – Sustainability in Healthcare: Recycling and Low Flow Anesthesia; and Blackwater Park – Beechtree Group, LLC, City of Franklin, and Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
Silver medal winners are Hampton City Schools – Oyster Restoration Project; Roanoke Cement Company, Troutville Plant – Sustainability Program; and the University of Virginia – Greening of Government.
Receiving bronze medal awards are Fairfax County’s Solid Waste Management Program – Purple Can Club Glass Recycling Program; The Tides Inn – Shoreline Restoration Project; Christopher Newport University & City of Newport News – Town and Gown Partnership: Solving Sustainability Together; University of Virginia – Sustainable Labs Program; and Newport News Waterworks Department – Grafton Ponds Extension.
Receiving honorable mention is Worthen Industries: UPACO Adhesives Division – Worthen Sustainability Program.
Next year’s Environment Virginia Symposium is scheduled at VMI April 9–11, 2023.
Marianne Hause VMI Communications & Marketing