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Environment Virginia Held at VMI

The 33rd annual Environment Virginia Symposium at Virginia Military Institute, a military college in Virginia.

Keynote session moderator Roy Hoagland shares a light moment with state agency directors Matthew Wells (DCR), Mike Rolband (DEQ), Becky Gwynn (DWR), and Rob Farrell (DoF). -VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

LEXINGTON, Va. April 6, 2023 — The 33rd annual Environment Virginia Symposium at Virginia Military Institute was held March 28-30. The event, organized and co-hosted by the Center for Leadership & Ethics (CLE), attracted nearly 500 attendees from state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, higher education, and the private sector. Col. Dave Gray, director of the CLE, served as master of ceremony 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, senior program officer for the Virginia Environmental Endowment, and featured four state government officials: Matthew Wells, director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR); Mike Rolband, director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ); Becky Gwynn, deputy director of the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR); and Rob Farrell, director of the Department of Forestry (DoF).  

Wells became DCR director in March 2022, and has over 20 years of experience related to 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 high priority projects for his department. He is also striving to be as inclusive as possible to all people groups. “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. (WSSI) 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 navigate the Clean Water Act, Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, and local environmental regulations. Rolband said his number one focus is to improve response time and performance in providing permits. He cited the success of his PEEP (Permitting Enhancement & Evaluation Platform) Program, a critical path management scheduling system for every class of permits that DEQ touches, making the permitting process easier, more efficient, and totally transparent in communications with the public. People applying for permits are able to monitor the permit process online. He reported that his department is currently 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 credits 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 that have been included in the DWR’s Wildlife Management Area system, and provide a diversity of habitats for at-risk to common species, as well as extensive opportunities for public access. Gwynn reported that her department owns over 250,000 acres across the commonwealth in wildlife management and conservation areas and she wants to improve public awareness about and access to those properties. She 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 serves as the eighth state forester of Virginia as well as the director of the DoF, which is responsible for protecting the forest resources of Virginia. 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 in sincerity, “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 and assistance with those landowners to encourage, enable, and educate them to address the challenges facing the forests. 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 plenary speaker of the conference was Robert “Bobby” Whitescarver, who is retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation. He teaches natural resources management and environmental policy and politics at James Madison University, and is a Soil Health Champion in the National Association of Conversation District’s network. He is a watershed restoration consultant, an environmental activist, and wrote the 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, he emphasized the need for saving the farmlands, and advocated for incentives to be provided to farmers who put conservation easements on their properties. He also promoted the use of solar power panels and other and alternative fuel sources.  

A meaningful part of the annual symposium is the announcement of the winner of the Erchul Environmental Leadership Award. This year’s winner is Laura McKay, manager of the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The award recognizes a Virginian who has made significant individual efforts to improve the environment. Members of Virginia’s environmental community nominate candidates who are judged based on their vision, expertise, commitment, integrity, communication skills, accomplishments, and diplomacy.  The award is named for the late VMI professor Capt. Ronald A. Erchul, Ph.D., founder of the Environment Virginia Symposium.   

McKay was recognized for conceiving and directing a range of projects that have helped save and restore critical migratory bird and wildlife habitats, increased coastal resilience, and supported oyster, eelgrass, and bay scallop restoration over her four decades of service. 

Due largely to her efforts, Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management program has financed dozens of land acquisition projects protecting thousands of high priority acres, many being designated as natural area preserves, the highest level of biodiversity protection and commitment possible in the Commonwealth of Virginia, protecting critical migratory bird habitats. 

As a long-standing member of the Management Board for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean, 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, whose purpose is to improve ocean management policies, identify additional potential offshore wind lease and aquaculture areas, safeguard important fishing areas, integrate marine mammal/sea turtle conservation, address ocean acidification and other climate impacts, and minimize 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, director of Virginia Natural Heritage Program 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 William and Mary. 

Other awards presented at the symposium are the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards, which recognize successful and innovative efforts that improve Virginia’s environment. This year’s gold medal winners are Canon Virginia, Inc. - Recycled Toner Pellet Project; Grenova - Reusable Pipette Tips; HRSD & DC 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 for April 9 through 11 at VMI.  

Marianne Hause
Communications & Marketing
VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE 

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