Perspectives on Sustainability
Sense & Sustainability:
From the Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Virginia.
Goal: Nature Can Coexist
Many of us in our community have become interested in the idea of "sustainability" because it implies that a healthy economy is dependent on, rather than being in conflict with, a healthy natural and social environment. It suggests that we can have good jobs and a habitable planet at the same time.
As one who is weekly involved in the public debate between growth and preservation, jobs and the environment, economic development and watershed protection, I believe the public demands that we work to enhance our local quality of life while we continue to improve and protect our natural environment. Furthermore, our community is the more sustainable when we invite its diverse points of view into the forum of discussion on our future.
In the past, communities have dealt with issues such as traffic congestion, waste disposal or urban decay in isolation from each other. Sustainability suggests that seemingly unrelated or competing community issues are in fact interconnected. The declining financial health of Charlottesville and long-time rural residents’ fear that they will be unable to live in Albemarle County in future are parts of the same problem.
The fact that the rather awkward term "sustainability," unknown until just a few years ago, is becoming a household word suggests that it touches on deepening concern about the side-effects of growth and also a desire for a more civil form of public discourse.
Locally, interest in sustainability has become visible in several ways.
Monticello High School
The Monticello High School’s design illustrates several important principles of sustainability. On-going operational costs were considered alongside short-term capital construction costs. Daylighting and "state of the shelf" (proven technology) efficient heating and cooling system, for example, which add expense to construction costs, will save on energy use in the long run.
Less quantifiable considerations such as the effect of natural lighting and air quality on productivity and absenteeism received serious attention seldom given in traditional architectural and engineering design for a school building.
The multi-disciplinary design team brought together architects, engineers and specialized consultants who usually work in isolation on their individual areas without much consideration of how their areas are interrelated. The philosophy of the team speaks to a fresh approach: "[O]ur primary aspiration is the making of places full of wonder which celebrate the human and the natural environments. … We see ourselves as part of a community working together to create the highest-quality affordable environment which will reinforce the learning process for our children and future generations."
Sustainable site design examines the impact of the buildings, parking lots and playing fields on the ecology of the site and surrounding properties. The football field was configured to prevent partial filling of the existing lake with silt, and a significant buffer of trees were left between the school and a neighboring property.
The school’s sustainable design features will ultimately save the county money and will make the building a more pleasant place in which to teach and learn. The building will serve as a model of sustainable building techniques and a philosophy of the use of public funds that takes into account the inter-generational, as well as short-term, costs and benefits of a project.
The Sustainability Council
The Thomas Jefferson Sustainability Council is a diverse group of farmers, teachers, business people, builders, foresters, developers, real estate professionals, environmentalists and elected and appointed officials. It brings together players from the major areas of community life and fosters mutual understanding and civil discourse among them.
The council’s charge from the Planning District Commission is to describe the elements of a sustainable future for the region – where economic, human and environmental health are assured. In a recent presentation on the council’s work to the commission, council member Bob Burkholder, former president of the Greene County Farm Bureau, spoke eloquently of the importance of working together to preserve agriculture and farm land for the region’s future and of the difficulties local farmers presently face.
Council member Rudy Beverly, director of the Drewary Brown Job Training Center of the Monticello Area Community Action Agency, summarized the council’s findings with reference to human resources. "We live in a finite world, with limited space and resources, and if not careful, we will harm the region by destroying our natural resources and exceeding our social resources. … We must protect the needs of our citizenry. … We are not sustaining our species if there are members of the community who lack clothing, nutrition, safe housing, health, education, transportation, employment and a sense of safety and security. If people lack the basic human needs to survive, the region loses its desirability as a good place to live and work."
The council, with assistance from hundreds of citizens and professionals have developed goals and objectives in the areas of agriculture, basic human needs, community awareness, economic development, forestry, government, inter-dependence, natural environment, population, transportation, values/ethics and waste. Objectives include allowing for a diverse mix of small and large-scale businesses and industries that operate sustainably, retention of farm and forest land, reduction of single-occupancy automotive trips within the region and reduction and re-cycling of waste generated by businesses and individuals. Water quality and quantity sufficient to support the region’s human population and biological resources, and citizen involvement in government are also necessary components of a sustainable community.
In its work the council has been motivated by an appreciation for the special history and character of this place, the wealth of its natural endowment and its ability to provide for a extraordinary range of human needs. It recognizes that the region and its communities must contend with the challenge of population growth, with social and economic pressures both from within and outside the region and with rapid technological change and other factors that place its human and natural systems under stress. In a sustainable community, the following principles are at work:
Such communities can assume control of their destinies and by their own intention, become stronger, healthier, more livable places.
The council will soon complete principles, goals and objectives, which can serve as a working definition of sustainability for the region. The document provides a set of tools that local governments, businesses and industries, community groups and individual citizens can use to measure the condition of the region and its natural, social, human and produced resources.
Next year, the council will reach out to our citizens, businesses, organizations and local officials to develop grass-roots "sustainability accords" to which they all can agree. These will make clear the connection among economic, social and environmental problems and the importance of consensus in planning the region’s future.
This local effort is seeking to visualize for our region a sustainable future—to make certain that we pass on the many opportunities, beauties and advantages which our region has afforded us.
David P. Bowerman is chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Sustainability Council.
Building for Now and Forever
Sense and Sustainability: Charting Paths for the Future
First in a five-part series
Once upon a time not long ago, environmentalists and business leaders rarely spoke, except to shout.
"The world is coming to an end!" the tree huggers would yell. "Grow the economy!" the industrialists would scream back.
And so on.
But today, the warring sides are starting to listen to one another – and work together.
And the word that has brought them to the peace table – in the Charlottesville area and in several other progressive communities around the country – is an undescriptive bit of jargon: "sustainability."
The term "sustainability," in fact, has spawned an entire movement that is equal parts philosophy, agronomy, economics and ecology.
Sometime next year, 1,000 Central Virginia residents, businesses and civic organizations -- as well as Gov. George F. Allen and the president of the United States – will be asked to sign something called the "Sustainability Accords of 1997."
The document – whose ponderous title conjures up treaties among nations – is expected to be the culmination of three years’ work by a group of public officials, business leaders, environmentalists and educators from the city and five surrounding counties.
But just what is sustainability and why should anyone care?
The Daily Progress has traveled around the region to find out.
We visited local farmers who believe society should return to a more natural and more regional form of agriculture; we talked with architects searching for new ways of creating buildings in tune with the environment; we tramped through the woods with foresters trying to preserve diverse woodlands; we followed a developer who wants to revive the intimacy of the old-style village; and we toured a Southern city rethinking what constitutes good economic development.
"People feel the need for a paradigm shift in the way we use materials and make products," said Albemarle County Supervisor David Bowerman, chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Sustainability Council, the group putting together the Sustainability Accords. "Today, we look at, ‘Is this project good for our community now?’ What we don’t look at is, ‘Is it good for our community in 50 years?’ "
In a region as diverse and picturesque as ours, it is not surprising that we found a good number of people – some connected with the official effort, some not – thinking about the idea of sustainability.
In many cases, "sustainability" is evolving and experimental. And, of course, there are skeptics who believe the ideal will be impossible to achieve.
University of Virginia architecture dean William McDonough, one of
the movement’s leading advocates around the world, put his version
succinctly: "In essence, my philosophy is based on ‘how well
are we loving our children?’ "
William Hale, a Louisa County building contractor who sits on the Sustainability Council, offered these synonyms for sustainability: "Elements of durability, long view, integrity of vision, appropriate, green, economic conservatism, traditional values – and probably ‘for the children’ – all play a part," Hale said.
The World Commission on the Environment, one of the first groups to discuss the concept, in 1987 defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
More recently, the President’s Council on Sustainable Development declared that "a sustainable United States will have a growing economy that provides equitable opportunities for satisfying livelihoods and a safe, healthy, high quality of life for current and future generations. Our nation will protect its environment, its natural resource base and the function and viability of natural systems on which all life depends."
The council chose Charlottesville’s sustainability effort – which includes the city and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson – as one of a dozen case studies across the country.
"What we’re going to do is talk to just tons and tons of different groups to share what our findings are," said Michael Collins, project director for the Thomas Jefferson Sustainability Council. "I don’t know of any other region of this size that’s doing this."
The accords will contain a series of indicators to monitor Charlottesville’s progress in sustaining itself, in areas such as population, economic development, urban planning, transportation, the natural environment and even social equality.
"I think what really drives it is the recognition that 99 percent of our human history we lived an integrated existence – with each other and the world – and we used all our senses," Collins said. "Now we have a disintegrated, mechanized, compartmentalized … world which we weren’t wired for."
"This may be what is causing our most serious problems," Collins said. "this is what I think people are beginning to feel in their gut."
NEXT: Chattanooga, Tenn., once a polluted backwater, is reinventing itself as a living civic organism.
City Rethinks Relationship With
Sense and Sustainability: Charting Paths for the Future
Second in a five-part series
A few years back — most residents remember all too well— this city on the banks of the Tennessee River seemed dead. Wasted. A pollution-ridden urban corpse of concrete, abandoned buildings, and lifeless sidewalks.
Today, it is clean and bustling. The downtown streets brim with tourists, new businesses and restaurants open their doors daily and residents once again are beginning to feel a connection that had all but vanished or moved its allegiance to the suburbs.
"Ten years ago there was nobody out here," said David Crockett, a city councilor driving a visitor around the downtown recently in a four-wheel-drive utility wagon. "This place was out to lunch, gone fishing."
"I think we’ve turned a corner," he said.
What Chattanooga did was to reinvent itself.
Once an example of the decline and fall of cities, today it is singled out for its pleasant river walks, its fleet of electric buses and its plan for invigorating a once ghostly city center with people and clean industry — all examples of what Chattanooga officials call sustainable urban development.
Charlottesville is not Chattanooga. The latter’s population — approximately 160,000 — is about four times as large, and the cities don’t share the same problems.
But as a Charlottesville-area committee of educators, government officials and business leaders prepares this fall to ask local residents to embrace the philosophy of sustainability, it might look about 450 miles southwest at the successes — and the roadblocks — Chattanoogans have met in their effort to sustain the life of their city.
"It’s an idea as old as man, and we’re kind of treating it as if it’s floated in on a silver cloud," said Stroud Watson, a gray-bearded, ponytailed architecture professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, talking about the sustainability movement. "The Indians did sustainable things because they used common sense."
"Why can’t we recycle our city the same way we got into aluminum cans, and plastics and newspapers?" Watson asked.
Nestled between Lookout and Signal mountains at the junction of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, Chattanooga’s polluted past seems almost too fantastic to be believed, yet residents insist it’s true. Dotted with formerly chugging foundries, the Rock City tourist attraction and the country’s first franchised Coca-Cola bottling plant, the city won the dubious distinction from the federal government in 1969 of being America’s most polluted city.
The air purportedly was so foul it caused women’s nylon stockings to disintegrate. Some people changed clothes three times in a day to stay clean.
Faced by the exodus of wealth that has plagued many of the nation’s cities, during the early 1980s Chattanooga decided to do something about it.
The results have been impressive, although some say there is still much work to do.
The centerpiece of Chattanooga’s redevelopment efforts is the $45 million Tennessee Aquarium, on the north end of downtown, which highlights the Tennessee River’s distinction as the most species-diverse river in the country.
But that was only the beginning. Forging public-private partnerships, the city built miles of park trails along the river on abandoned waterfront property and planted 30 blocks of trees throughout the city. It rebuilt unused bridges for pedestrians and bicyclists. It began restoring old storefronts and empty warehouses and started a program to help poor residents renovate their homes.
Never tearing down anything where possible, the city transformed old shells into new stores and restaurants and apartments. Officials say new apartments should include affordable housing for low- and moderate-income residents.
"I think the city as a whole believes that all housing should be mixed housing," Watson said. "We don’t want any ghettos of race."
Crockett, a tall, imposing man in a suit whose great-great-great-great uncle was the frontiersman Davy Crockett, equates the old-style of urban renewal — tearing down and starting from scratch — to "the slashing and burning of cities," which only adds to their stratification.
"You have a ‘have’ group and a ‘have-not’ group; they have neither a common public nor a common purpose," Crockett said. "The environmental, social and economic consequences are real high."
Black residents of Charlottesville still have not forgiven the city for bulldozing the once-thriving Vinegar Hill neighborhood in the 1960s, which caused the upheaval of hundreds of blacks, many of whom moved into the now-troubled federally subsidized communities of Westhaven and Garrett Square.
But if Crockett hates what happened to Chattanooga’s inner city during the last 100 years of "progress," he eyes with even more disgust the highways that serve as veins to the neighboring suburbs — highways not unlike U.S. 29, with gas stations, chain restaurants and strip malls, the emblems of suburban growth.
The sustainable development concept treats the city like a living organism, with a heart — downtown — and organs that make the whole thing function.
"Before," Crockett said, "we didn’t think about the basic element that make cities livable — making them pedestrian friendly, safe and with mixed uses. The whole idea is this is a highly pedestrian area where you can live where you work and you can shop where you live."
Recognizing the need for public transportation downtown but aware of its polluted past, officials began exploring using electric buses. Today the city boasts 18 electric buses made by a local company, Advanced Vehicle Systems — one of several companies Charlottesville has approached about its own planned foray into electric transit. (Charlottesville transit officials are currently accepting bids from several companies and plan to put four electric buses on city streets sometime next year.)
The free buses run from a shuttle station where tourists or commuters can park for a nominal charge. The buses run a five-mile route around the downtown and must be recharged once or twice per day.
With a top speed of 50 mph, the buses are not yet ready to enter the highway. They also don’t yet have the power to support an emission-free air-conditioning system, so bus riders in Chattanooga — who on a recent weekday were mostly tourists and a few locals — must be prepared to sweat in the summertime.
"They’re not ready to replace the diesel buses in all our applications, but in this downtown area, I would take nothing for them," said Ron Sweeney, director of operations and maintenance for the Chattanooga Area Regional Transit Authority.
That Chattanooga is a city on the move is impossible to miss. Bulldozers and bricklayers have infiltrated every corner of the city.
On one street, there are plans for a new trade center that will feature an environmentally friendly grass roof; on another, a "zero-emissions" business park that will house industries such as a soap factory that produce no poisonous gases.
But Chattanooga has by no means erased decades of degradation.
The city is still largely segregated. Predominantly black neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides contain row after row of decrepit houses, where residents must deal with crime and drugs daily. Many of these residents still are waiting to reap the benefits of the city’s turnaround.
And, inevitably, some aspects of the sustainability movement have not been popular.
One of the most controversial proposals for sustaining Chattanooga — and one to which Charlottesville will instantly relate — was the city’s decision in the fall of 1994 to dissolve its school system and merge with surrounding Hamilton County’s.
Charlottesville is now considering reverting to a town, which would include a merger of its school division with that of Albemarle county.
Unlike in Virginia, under Tennessee law counties are responsible for providing schools, so Hamilton County residents could not veto Chattanooga’s plan, which was slated to take effect in July 1997 before a recent movement in the city arose to overturn it.
Proponents of the plan say separate city and county schools have helped foster the "us" and "them" notion of the city and suburbs. A combined school system, they argue, would incorporate the strengths of both.
Advocates of sustainability also say that environmental and socioeconomic health is intricately tied.
"Here we are in the late 20th century and we’re still having this argument about rural vs. urban and what to do with our cities," said Bob McNutt, a Chattanooga neighborhood activist who strongly supports the school merger.
Of residents of Hamilton County, McNutt said, "They’re just outside the city ring; they use the city for employment, then they drive 15 miles into the county and pay no taxes."
Crockett, who favors the merger, puts the division between city and county even more bluntly.
"We’ve got to break that trend — not only in Chattanooga, but across the country — or we’re all dead," he said.
But since the proposal passed by some 3,000 votes in a city-wide referendum, opponents, most of whom are black, have launched a new campaign to delay, and perhaps even overturn it.
Some say it is largely a racial issue. Blacks, who compose 60 percent of city students and are still smarting from the effects of segregation and integration, are afraid they will be lost in a county system that is 95 percent white. The merged systems of about 44,000 students would be about 31 percent black.
"You got county residents saying they don’t want to be bothered," said Sherman Matthews, a black Chattanooga School Board member who opposes the merger. "What good is that going to do for the kids?"
Matthews, who was a teen-ager when integration hit the Chattanooga schools in the 1960s, added: "Tell me why, when schools were segregated and unequal, the black schools produced a better student with less? We had dedicated teachers who cared about what they were doing and cared about the kids."
Matthews thinks the sustainability effort has "has done great things downtown and great things for tourism." But as to whether it has solved the problems of the inner-city neighborhoods, he doesn’t think so.
"It has not influenced the quality of life," he said.
Crockett said he expects setbacks and bumps along the road to sustainability. But he will not listen to questions about "the reality" of the gulf that still separates blacks and whites, rich neighborhoods from poor ones, suburbia form city.
" The reality is, we have to change reality," he said.
And he added: "It’s not all the answers, it’s all the questions that are being asked that sets this city apart."
NEXT: Across Central Virginia, builders are devising houses that harmonize with their surroundings.
Architects Design Earth-Friendly
Sense and Sustainability: Charting Paths for the Future
Third in a five-part series.
Matthew Crane has heard the giggles and the inevitable "Three Little Pigs" jokes. He doesn’t mind — he’ll build his house of straw anyway.
"I think the current way we are using resources condemns us to a very short time on the earth," said Crane, a 37-year-old builder.
On a stunningly beautiful mountain ridge in Greene County, Crane is starting to lay the foundation for a model home for this company, Alternative Home Builders.
He’s making the frame for the one-and-a-half story structure from oak timbers logged and milled right on the property. He’s situating the house so its large south-facing windows can capture the energetic rays of the sun when it’s cold outside and avoid them when it’s hot. He might add photovoltaic cells to the roof instead of paying the power company to erect electric wires and towering utility poles.
And then there are the walls. Forget wood studs and fiberglass or foam insulation. Crane is using 520 tightly packed straw bales culled from a wheat farm in Fluvanna County.
"You’re taking what is often just a waste product and is often burned," said Crane, a tall, bearded former University of Virginia doctoral student in environmental ethics. "You’re taking this waste product and turning it into a building resource."
From the Batesville couple fashioning a home from dirt-filled used tires, to the Charlottesville architect molding concrete resin into siding in place of wood, to Crane’s straw bale house and even the future Monticello High School, a number of local architects and buildings are beginning to search for new ways to create living and work spaces that minimize the impact on the environment.
Nationally, the movement is know as "green" or sustainable architecture. Its proponents are questioning every facet of building, from the materials they employ to the toll their creations take on nature and even the way designs affect how we live in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
"As a movement, it’s really just getting in gear," said Charlottesville architect Tom Fisher, who has designed solar-powered and straw bale homes outside the area. "It’s just a way of living more gently on the earth and in closer harmony with natural systems."
Like their counterparts in other sectors of the sustainability movement, these architects often speak of a simplicity and natural balance that has vanished from the equation in industrial society.
"Things started out in ways that were sustainable," said Gail Lyndsey, a Raleigh, N.C., architect and one of the East Coast’s leaders of the movement. "Then we went for convenience over durability and we wanted things faster, faster, faster."
Lyndsey, who helped design an environmentally sensitive U.S. headquarters for a British retailer, the Body Shop in Wake Forest, N.C., said she and other sustainable architects are focusing on a handful of key issues: building placement that takes advantage of "free solar income," energy efficiency, use of natural light, ventilation and building materials.
With the latter, she said, architects are concerned with both the immediate impact of living in proximity to toxic materials such as paints and glues and the long-term energy costs associated with producing components such as timbers, vinyl siding, fiberglass insulation and synthetic carpeting.
Some of the alternatives being used: wood salvaged from the ocean or reclaimed from old buildings, carpets made from recycled soda bottles, floor tiles made from discarded glass and tightly compacted dirt blocks — "rammed earth" — in place of wood frames.
Crane says using straw bales is cheaper than building the frame out of wood, and they will provide about four times the insulation of a typical home.
"I’m pretty confident that I won’t have to heat it," he said.
Contrary to the popular nursery rhyme, the bales are very sturdy, will not wear out and even make the house more resistant to fire because they leave almost no oxygen in between the walls.
And the fact that they were produced as waste by a local farmer means less energy went into making the home.
"I’m not buying lumber that was shipped from California or the Northwest," he said.
The straw bale technique first gained popularity in the Midwest about 100 years ago, but died out until recently. The straw bales will be stuccoed over so they are not visible, but their pliability makes them conducive to adding curves to a structure.
"It’s a prettier product," Crane said. "It’s unique. It doesn’t look like something that came out of a factory cookie cutter."
Home builders perhaps have not gotten the kind of attention garnered by more prominent architects, such as William McDonough, dean of UVa’s School of Architecture.
McDonough, whose reputation extends internationally, often speaks apocalyptically about the human race and the damage industrial development has wrought on the earth.
Some of his more notable projects have been for businesses and cities — for example, a trade center in Warsaw, Poland, for which he convinced the government to plant a 10-square-mile forest to compensate for the building’s emissions of carbon dioxide.
McDonough’s firm helped design the Charlottesville area’s most public foray so far into sustainable architecture — Albemarle County’s as-yet-unbuilt Monticello High School.
The county voted to spend an extra $1.2 million on the building for such features as passive solar heating and cooling, extensive daylighting, occupancy sensors that control the amount of artificial light and carbon dioxide in classrooms and state-of-the-art ventilation systems.
McDonough cited studies that indicate students may perform better in daylit schools than their counterparts in schools with artificial light.
"Well-designed, daylit schools with quality full-spectrum lighting can improve students’ attendance, productivity and academic achievement," said one study by the architecture firm Innovative Design Inc. of Raleigh, which cited test scores among students in Johnston County, N.C., schools.
But the firm’s president, Michael Nicklas, acknowledged that the study doesn’t definitively rule out other explanations for the results.
"There are many variables, but we tried to take out as many as we could," Nicklas said.
While the school division embraced many of McDonough’s suggestions, officials have not been as keen on others.
The suggestion that the school’s maple gymnasium floor — like the entire "Eco-Mart" McDonough designed for the retailer Wal-Mart in Lawrence, Kan. — be made from sustainably harvested wood "is on the side burner right now," said Al Reaser, director of building services for the division, citing the potential costs.
McDonough also suggested the school have a grass roof, a feature he has included in the design of a planned trade center in Chattanooga, Tenn. Besides acting as a natural barrier against stormwater run-off, such roofs also reinforce a building’s place as a partner with the natural environment, he says.
School officials didn’t buy it.
"We just weren’t willing to be that adventurous," Reaser said.
McDonough’s firm estimated the costs of the sustainable features for the $25 million building would pay for themselves with energy savings in 18.5 years, although that figure does not account for inflation. However, the firm said over many decades, decreased electric, heating and cooling bills would amount to millions of dollars in savings.
Although the county did not go as far as he wanted, he still considers the high school a great leap forward. "I think it’s great that the Board of Supervisors is trying to make this high school a better place for our children," McDonough said.
Lyndsey said her clients can expect to pay between 11 and 20 percent more for a few sustainable features, with the cost going up depending on how far they want to go.
So whether sustainable building designs become the norm probably depends on what people are willing to pay up front.
Fisher, the Charlottesville architect, said examples of sustainable homes in the area are still "few and far between."
"It’s all really dependent on the client and his or her values," said Fisher, whose Environmental Design Consortium has a home page on the World Wide Web. "There’s a growing number of people out there who want their building to address these concerns about the environment."
But sometimes, he said, it becomes a matter of putting aside the immediate benefits of building as cheaply as possible and looking at the long-term benefits of using natural materials, maximizing the sun’s energy and creating as little waste as possible.
"You have to have a vision of a positive place that you want to get to," he said. "What would the world look like if we don’t put the brakes on what we’re doing?"
NEXT: Foresters are trying new techniques for maintaining diverse, ecologically-balanced woodlands in Virginia.
Ensuring Forests’ Future
Sense and Sustainability: Charting Paths for the Future
Fourth in a five-part series
On the grounds of James Madison’s bucolic 2,700-acre estate, thousands upon thousands of old-growth trees — towering 350-year-old yellow poplars and stately white oaks among them — greet visitors at every turn.
What the tourists don’t see are the bulldozers and logging trucks that for nearly a decade have mined these forests of millions of dollars worth of timber.
They’ve done it without destroying the view or greatly altering the natural habitat.
"We’re trying to maintain a total ecological balance while at the same time harvesting the trees that have reached full maturity," said June Murphy, an administrative assistant for the Montpelier estate in Orange County. "If we’re not stewards of the entire property, we’re not good stewards."
At a time when some experts are saying Virginia’s forests face a threat to their continued viability, Montpelier has become an international model for sustainable forestry.
What the estate has done with its vast riches of timber — with the help of a Charlottesville-area forest management consultant — Virginians will have to emulate if the state is going to continue as the home of diverse, ecologically-balanced woodlands, some foresters say.
"I think the way we’re going now, there are going to be some real problems ahead in terms of the sustainable economic function of the forests as well as the sustainable ecological function of the forests," said David Tice, a forestry consultant for North American Resource Management in Albemarle County, which manages the forests for Montpelier.
Woodlands do much more than dispel the monotony on a long drive on Interstate 64. They help clean the air, absorb noise, shade the sun, keep soil from eroding and provide a pollution buffer for waterways. They also provide thousands of people in the state with jobs.
Not a New Concept
Like much in the so-called sustainability movement, the exact definition of sustainable forestry is elusive and appears to be evolving.
"It’s just another way of saying forest conservation, and we’ve been doing that for years," said Dave Halley, a district forester for the Virginia Department of Forestry.
Foresters such as Tice see it as a philosophy of ensuring that there always will be healthy, manageable forests teeming with life.
Environmentalists in other states, such as Alabama, have decried the destruction of forests by timber companies, which in some states have relied heavily on clear-cutting during harvest.
But just this summer, an international body set up to formulate standards for sustainable forestry, concluded that some clear-cutting and single-species planting — in essence, the creation of "tree farms" — is acceptable, provided they do not overtake natural forests.
"The design and layout of plantations should promote the protection, restoration and conservation of natural forests and not increase pressure on natural forests," said the Forest Stewardship Council, which is made up of environmentalists, scientists and timber industry officials from the United States, Great Britain, Brazil and other countries.
Forest management may seem an esoteric or specialized concern, but the continued well-being of Virginia’s forests now lies largely in the hands of private landowners.
In Private Owners’ Hands
According to U.S. Forest Service figures, private citizens of Virginia own about 77 percent of the state’s woodlands; public holdings account for about 13 percent, while the timber industry owns about 10 percent (by contrast, timber interests hold 25 percent and 31 percent of the woodlands in Alabama and Florida respectively.)
In the Charlottesville area, pulp, paper and timber companies such as Westvaco, Bear Island Corp. And Glatfelter own as little as 3.6 percent of the forestland in Albemerle County and as much as 13 percent in Fluvanna County.
But citizen ownership of woodlands creates its own problems.
A U.S. Forest Service report issued this summer warned that sprawling growth in the central and eastern parts of Virginia is beginning to fragment forests, making them less useful as wildlife habitats or in maintaining clean air and water.
That’s where Montpelier’s program and other sustainable forestry techniques come in.
When the estate decided in 1987 to harvest timber from its 1,800 acres of forest to provide income for the home’s upkeep, Tice’s company was asked to come up with a plan for managing the harvest.
"It occurred to us that this is a perfect opportunity to look at what happens to an old-growth forest and look at that in implementing a sustainable forestry program on the rest of the property," Tice said.
Foresters Mimic Nature
Instead of clear-cutting or even high-grading — removing only the best trees, a technique that over many years can completely alter the quality of a forest — what Tice’s company did was mimic what would happen if the forest were left alone. Old trees would die and fall down, creating small openings in the forest canopy. But the overall composition of the forest would not change dramatically.
"A lot of times, landowners look at their forests as kind of an emergency bank account," Tice said recently, standing in a harvested area at Montpelier amid red oaks, yellow poplars and hickory trees more than a century old. "High-grading, the way it’s normally done, even though it’s selective, it takes out all the best trees."
"The plan is to be able to come back in here every 12 to 15 years," Tice added.
Montpelier’s woodlands management program has attracted the chief foresters of Japan, France and other countries, who have come to see the estate’s old growth forests firsthand.
Wal-Mart, the huge retailer, used timber from Montpelier for part of its "Eco-Mart" store in Lawrence, Kan., which utilizes environmentally friendly building designs.
Nobody is talking about an imminent forest emergency in Virginia. In fact, there is more forest land in the state now than 40 years ago, mostly due to the decline in agriculture in the economy, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
But with the population continuing to increase, foresters see educating the public and small logging firms about how to keep forests healthy as a major challenge.
"When we’re dealing with population, the only way we’re going to be sustainable is to persuade people to manage their land," Halley said.
Part of the solution, according to Tice, will be convincing landowners not to fragment forest land, perhaps even encouraging them to manage large tracts jointly with adjacent landowners.
"If you take a 21-acre parcel and locate six houses on it, what you’re left with, very seldom is it very operable from a forestry standpoint to be able to carry out a long-term forestry program," Tice said.
The state’s largest timber companies, which get most of their timber from private landowners, have joined in the effort to educate the public.
In 1995, the American Forest and Paper Association started the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a program for educating landowners and loggers in forestry management techniques.
All of the major forest products companies in the state have joined the initiative, which sets limits on the size and frequency of clearcuts, said Jim Kuykendall, the sustainable forestry coordinator for the Virginia Forestry Association.
Kuykendall said the initiative thus far has focused on educating landowners and loggers, but next year a task force will be set up to begin monitoring whether companies are adhering to the guidelines themselves.
"It’s not just a lot of talk," he said. "It’s of a primary concern to paper companies that they have a ready supply of wood close by."
Albemarle County Supervisor Walter Perkins, a local forester for Westvaco, which owns about 200,000 acres in Virginia, said the company tries to sustainably manage its forests, always replanting within three years of a clear-cut harvest, and spreading out those kinds of harvests so as not to decimate native species. By far the most popular tree for replanting in Virginia is the loblolly pine, which is more robust than Virginia pine and reaches maturity quickly.
Clear-cutting Not All Bad
But Perkins said he objects to the notion that clear-cuts always harm the natural habitat.
"We’ve had clear-cutting long before man was here," Perkins said. "Mother Nature does clear cuts — whether it’s done through insect infestation, fire, storm or whatever."
"From a strictly ecological standpoint, I think they’re right," he said. "There are justifications for clear-cutting in some circumstances, and within the sustainable forestry arena, there is increasing recognition of that."
"In many cases, however, landowners have the final say. Even Westvaco relies on Virginia residents for two-thirds of its timber.
So forest-products companies must seek out people like author Rita Mae Brown, whose 430-acre horse farm in Nelson County includes about 250 acres of timberland.
Appomattox-based Stone Container Corp., which gets 100 percent of its wood from private citizens, manages Brown’s forest land. Its foresters have recommended a combination of clear-cuts and thinning they say will ensure the future viability of both the forest and the wildlife that inhabits it.
Billy Newman, a forester for Stone Container, said that the biggest threat to the future of the forests and to wildlife is private landowners not managing their lands properly.
"Unfortunately, a lot of landowners just don’t contact a forestry professional before they harvest timber," he said. "A landowner really needs to have a plan for the future. What the plan does is get him to think of ‘what are my goals on this piece of property and how am I going to get there.’ "
NEXT: Plans are in full swing for Horizons, a residential and business community in eastern Nelson County that developers hope will become the model for a sustainable community.
Trying to Recreate the Village
Sense and Sustainability: Charting Paths for the Future
Last in a five-part series.
Computer store owner and unlikely developer Alexander Larter surveyed the 490 acres of grass and woodlands, rolling hills, ponds and creeks where he hopes to reinvent the forgotten concept of the neighborhood village.
"The whole thing was like a jigsaw that fell out of the sky and landed at my feet about what this could be," said Larter, the 46-year-old owner of Cloneland in Charlottesville.
Nineteen months after he first conceived it, his plans are in full swing for Horizons, a residential and business development in western Nelson County he hopes will become the model for a "sustainable" community.
Larter, his wife and their partners envision a close-knit rural neighborhood, where residents walk to work in a nearby village and live in homes built in harmony with the natural surroundings, and where children grow up with a love and respect for the bounty of the land.
"Why are we having so many problems with crime, with drugs in school, with people being alienated?" asked Larter. "I think the problem is people are alienated from where they live. They live in their home box and get in their car box and go to their work box and they never touch dirt."
"It feels to me that people have lost their basic connection to a core central value."
Each home at Horizons will be built on a minimum of 5 acres — intentionally called "homesteads" instead of "lots" — with minimal disruption to the landscape. The homes will utilize solar power and heating where possible and be built from sustainably harvested wood.
Cars will be discouraged within the community in favor of walking trails connecting families with one another, common outdoor areas and with a main village.
Hunting and fishing will be forbidden as well as the use of pesticides.
And perhaps most importantly to Larter, residents will be encouraged to start small businesses right on the property.
Larter, his wife, Kristen Robertson, and their partners, John and Brynne Potter of Charlottesville, have optioned two adjoining tracts of land, not far from the Wintergreen ski resort.
If the development is approved — its size alone already has caused some concern among local residents — the homes, about 40 of them, would be located on about 420 acres teeming with forests, wildlife, meadows, ponds and creeks.
The businesses would be built on another 70 acres along Route 151. Larter and his wife plan to open an environmentally conscious campground to get things started. Also planned: an organic farm, a general store, a natural foods cafe and other businesses that promote ideas of sustainability.
"In the old-style village, you had the shoemaker and the cafe," Larter said. "The concept really for Horizons is a village and not just a suburban bedroom community Charlottesville."
Larter is no run-of-the-mill developer. With his long bushy beard, pony tail, dashiki vest and "Choose Peace" button, he would not look out of place at a Woodstock reunion.
But he stresses his community is not a commune, nor will its residents be separate from the outside world.
His vision seems to be hitting the mark with some Central Virginia residents, especially couples with young children.
Horizons began taking reservations for homesteads in July. About a fourth of the property already is accounted for, Larter said.
"In today’s world you’ve got the stresses of work and the stresses of commuting and people are really stressed out — I see it in my practice," said Joe Culbertson, a 49-year-old chiropractor who plans to purchase land in Horizons with his wife and three young children.
"I think [the village aspect of Horizons] is going to make it easier to concentrate on the value of family life."
Dan Mahon, a landscape architect who recently moved from Charlottesville to Nelson County because he "didn’t fit in" in the city, said children today are missing what he grew up with in eastern Virginia.
"I grew up in the neighborhoods of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s," said Mahon, 40, who is considering the purchase of a homestead with his wife, Jan, and two children.
"It’s interesting to say this, but it seems that because there was one parent working there was a really strong neighborhood culture."
Mahon said of some of the other parents he’s met, "Most of them have young kids and they’re really looking closely at what kinds of parents do they want to be and in what kind of environment do they want to be. They want to be in an environment that is safe and they want their kids to see natural processes at work."
Horizons is not the only example of land developers trying to get away from the car-based economies of suburban America.
A group of Charlottesville residents is exploring co-housing, a communal living arrangement with clustered homes and common dining and recreation areas popular in Europe.
And there are other residential developments on the drawing board similar to Horizons, the nearest one being the Haymount project in Caroline County.
But Larter still has work to do in convincing his future neighbors in the county that they should embrace his vision.
"There were a lot of questions from citizens in the area who were concerned about what it was that’s being proposed and what the potential problems might be from it," Nelson County Administrator John Cutlip said. "We still don’t have a lot of detail about it."
Larter said the community will be so well set into the hills and trees and woods that commuters on Route 151 will scarcely know it’s there.
The average density of the development will be one house per 10 acres, far less than what’s allowed on the land, which is agriculturally zoned, he said.
But he insists the community will be a boon to the outside world, its shops and businesses, campground and farm offering goods and services and an example of how to live in concert with the environment.
"It’s not a utopia," he said. "We’re not trying to become separate from the rest of the universe. It’s a living development that’s 75 miles south of Charlottesville. If we only do it for people who are here, then we’re just preaching to the choir.
Series author Ian Zack, 29, has covered K- through-12 education, higher education and other subjects since joining the reporting staff of The Daily Progress in 1993.
Zack, who grew up in Arlington, holds a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and a master’s from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He formerly worked as a reporter for the Connection chain of weekly newspapers in Fairfax County.
"Sustain: To keep in existence; to maintain or prolong."
That’s it in a nutshell, according to Webster’s.
Our forebears had another simple phrase for this philosophy: Make it last.
We’re talking about sustainability, a new word for an old concept – a concept that is now being recycled, much like the components of a sustainable forest or a sustainable washing machine can be recycled.
But within this simplicity is a web of complexity. From this simple definition springs a vast array of ideas for implementing the concept of sustainability. (That’s why The Daily Progress last week dedicated a multi-part series to explaining and providing examples of the sustainability movement.)
Basically, sustainability holds that we should not use up our resources faster than we can replace them.
We should not build shopping centers or cars or washing machines with an eye toward discarding them in a few years when their immediate usefulness is ended and we move on to something "better." That’s how we’ve operated in the past, having grown accustomed to planned obsolescence and the notion of junking the old and replacing it with a shiny new product.
But if we continue to behave this way, at some point we’ll deplete our resources and may be compelled to come to a grinding stop. We can already see some foreshadowing of this, even in resource-rich Virginia, in the increasing fights for land and water: Not enough land for both farming and development, so land prices soar as a result of demand and force farmers out of business; not enough water for growing Virginia Beach, so the city goes prospecting for water and ends up in a battle with neighboring North Carolina.
The sustainability movement surely includes primitive purists who advocate going back to the land and living as the Indians once did.
On the opposite side are people who see sustainability as obstructionist or at best irrelevant, such as those who insist that scientific advances will find work-arounds to problems and substitutes for the resources on which we now rely.
But for many people at the center of the movement, sustainability simply means good stewardship (another old-fashioned word that has been resurrected for modern use). It means trying to make sure that sufficient resources remain so that the next generation can enjoy an equal or better standard of living. Therefore, sustainability does not eschew development; it only seeks to ensure that development is handled with an eye toward long-term, as opposed to short-term, progress.
The movement is diverse and, some would say, nebulous enough to include those who wish to take either small steps or large toward living sustainably. Sustainable living might include everything from keeping your car running at top efficiency so you don’t use more gas or emit more pollutants than necessary, to buying only furniture that is safety recyclable or biodegradable. For instance, University of Virginia architecture dean William McDonough designed a furniture fabric that is so safe it can be used as mulch after the chair itself wears out.
At its heart, sustainability means being careful with the natural gifts we’ve been given, being good stewards, being willing to work for long-term progress. All good values, all old-fashioned common sense.
Sustainability: A new-old concept whose time whose come – again.