600 marchers join Mattaponi tribe in protest against reservoir

The Mattaponi tribe led about 600 marchers on May 15 past the site of the nation’s first permanent English settlement to protest a proposed reservoir that they fear will destroy their culture and the river that bears their name.

“We return to Jamestown on a trail of hope,” Assistant Chief Carl Custalow said. “We return to Jamestown to inform Virginians and Americans, to tell the world of the misguided plans for a reservoir that threatens our people.”

Jamestown’s founding triggered events that pushed Virginia’s Native Americans into near oblivion, Custalow said. “Now, nearly 400 years later, the city of Newport News and the state of Virginia would destroy what little we have left.”

The tribe is protesting a plan by Newport News to build a reservoir near the 60-member Mattaponi Reservation in King William County. The city would siphon as much as 75 million gallons of water a day from the river.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has conducted an exhaustive environmental and cultural study of the project, says it hopes to rule on the proposal next month.

The Mattaponi tried to enlist the state government to oppose the plan under the terms of a 17th-century peace treaty, but the attorney general’s office said Virginia had no stake in the fight.

Now, the Mattaponi say all they can do is take their case to the public.

Newport News officials say their plan to build a 1,500-acre reservoir on Cohoke Mill Creek and pump water from the Mattaponi River is the best way to meet a growing region’s future water needs. But the tribe, which for centuries has been nourished by the river’s fish, fears the project will undermine its way of life.

Thomasina Jordan, chairwoman of the Virginia Council on Indians, said the Mattaponi have a spiritual regard for the river that flows past their 150-acre reservation. “The river is a source of connection, a source of life. That river is your key to tomorrow and the next millennium and the one that will follow that,” she said.

Madeline McMillan said she was the only Newport News City Council member who has heeded the tribe’s plea. “They are convinced they are absolutely certain what they are doing is right,” she said after completing the six-mile walk. “I am absolutely certain what they are doing is wrong. The tribe’s relationship with the river is a bond that should be understood and honored.”

Several marchers had said as much during their walk. “I just feel like the city council has lost sight of values,” said Brett Lewis, a laboratory technician who lives in Newport News. “They’ve let their competitive business sense override their human feelings.”

Bills would revise land practices in PA, fund open space purchases

Joining the legislative effort to control sprawling development, a suburban Philadelphia lawmaker proposed legislation on May 11 to revise land-use practices in Pennsylvania and provide a $1 billion bond issue to buy land for open space.

The five-bill package includes municipal zoning districts for open space; watershed zoning that could result in larger districts that extend across county boundaries; and the designation of certain areas for development based on population growth, housing, and industrial and commercial use.

Sen. Joe Conti, R-Bucks, who serves a fast-growing district and is the sponsor of the legislation he calls “Pennsylvania Plan 2000,” said the bills are aimed at controlling development, not stopping it. “The builders and the landowners want to know what they can and cannot do,” he said.

Local government can now impose zoning restrictions, but they are easily challenged in court. Conti said his legislation would put those restrictions in statute, which should result in fewer lawsuits.

Other Republican-sponsored measures pending in the legislature would give local governments the authority to plan regionally and permit urban growth boundaries that would limit development to certain areas, a concept used in several states and in voluntary use in Lancaster County.

Conti also proposes doubling the 2-cent distribution from the state’s 31-cent tax on every pack of cigarettes for farmland preservation, adding about $20 million to a program that was nearly tripled, from $22 million to $65 million, in the state budget for the new fiscal year that begins in July.

The proposed $1 billion bond issue, which would have to be approved by the voters, would provide $400 million more for farmland preservation, $300 for open space parkland and $300 million for maintaining the state’s parks and forests.

While critics such as the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy, a conservative think-tank based in Hershey, claim the loss of open space to development is exaggerated, lawmakers in suburban districts believe better control of planning at the local level is badly needed.

“It’s not a question of where the growth is occurring,” said Sen. James Gerlach, R-Chester, a proponent of regional planning and a co-sponsor on Conti’s bills. “It’s the impact it’s having on existing communities.”

Gov. Tom Ridge is currently crafting his own response to controlling growth, and his administration plans a series public hearings this summer on the various proposals for land use.

Full impact study sought for Capital Beltway widening

Federal highway planners need to conduct a comprehensive impact study of the proposed widening of 13 miles of the Capital Beltway in Virginia, according to EPA Region III Administrator Michael McCabe.

In a letter to the Federal Highway Administration, McCabe said that a full environmental impact statement is required rather than the limited assessment that Virginia officials are preparing. The project will expand the beltway from eight lanes to as many as 12.

McCabe cited the disruption that adding up to four lanes and rebuilding 10 interchanges could cause residents, businesses and wooded areas near the highway, as well as indirect effects on air quality, traffic on other roads and the use of public transit.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has rebuffed EPA calls for a full review. “This is a way to get their attention,” McCabe said of his letter to the federal agency.

Ken Wilkinson, the state highway planner in charge of the Beltway study, said the state followed federal regulations by conducting an assessment rather than an impact statement, which could take at least six months longer.

If the review finds that the road project would have significant noise, pollution or other environmental effects, he said, the state could then initiate a full study.

Babbit says VA is undermining efforts to save horseshoe crabs

While Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey work to prevent the ancient horseshoe crab from disappearing, Virginia is not doing its part, according to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

While on a May 17 visit to the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Babbitt said Virginia is leading “a race to the bottom” by increasing its catch limits for horseshoe crabs by 2,600 percent from 1997 levels.

Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey have limited the authorized catch of horseshoe crabs, which are used both in medical research and as bait to catch eels and conch.

“If one or two states are outside the system, it simply undermines and erases the efforts of Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey,” Babbitt said. “When you accelerate the fishing of these critters by a factor of four or five, we risk destroying this link between the crabs and the migrating shorebirds.”

Babbitt was joined by officials of the National Audubon Society and other conservation groups in urging Virginia to adopt more stringent curbs until more data on crab populations can be compiled.

Virginia officials rejected Babbitt’s criticism, saying that the alleged 2,600 percent increase in the catch limit is a skewed figure. “They are totally not looking at the statistics that were provided,” said Wilford Kale, senior staff adviser to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which set the limit.

The eel and conch fisheries are a $42 million business in Virginia. Watermen there used to purchase horseshoe crabs from Delaware and Maryland. But when those states restricted their catch, Virginians began harvesting the crabs to meet the entire demand, resulting in the dramatic increase, Kale said.

Virginia had no limit on horseshoe crabs in 1997. So even setting a limit for 1999 was viewed by the commission as “a major accomplishment,” Kale said.

The real problem is that North Carolina, New York and Massachusetts have no restrictions on horseshoe crab harvests, Kale said. “I will tell you that Virginia really did not feel like it was the loophole,” Kale said. “It’s unfair to keep Virginia under this eagle eye as you all have been doing.”

Delaware has capped the number of dredging licenses for horseshoe crabs at five, and limited the number of permits for hand-collecting crabs to 42. In addition, about 55 percent of the state’s shoreline is closed to horseshoe crab harvesting. New Jersey has taken similar measures, while Maryland slashed its harvest by 75 percent in 1997.

Horseshoe crab eggs are a crucial food source for about 30 species of shorebirds which fly from South America in April on their way north to the Arctic Circle.

The prehistoric-looking creatures spawn on the Bay beaches just as legions of migrating shorebirds arrive to feast on their eggs. Without the eggs as a food source, the birds would perish.