This year, the Virginia Environmental Endowment, a nonprofit, independent grant-making foundation based in Richmond, celebrates its 40th anniversary. Although its grants and leveraged matching gifts have resulted in more than $80 million of environmental improvement, many Virginians are unaware of the endowment’s unique beginning, its profound impact on the commonwealth’s natural resources and the role it continues to play.
The VEE opened its doors on Feb. 1, 1977. Its initial funding was a result of a $13.2 million fine against a chemical company for polluting the James River with the toxic insecticide Kepone, which contaminated the river and impaired the health of workers at the plant.
With the approval of the presiding judge, the Honorable U.S. District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr., $8 million of the fine was used to establish the endowment for the purpose of improving the quality of Virginia’s environment. It is the first grant-making foundation in the nation to devote its funding exclusively to environmental issues.
Between 1981 and 1991, the VEE received an additional $1.4 million from five more environmental settlements, which expanded its work into the Kanawha River and Ohio River valleys, and extended its grant-making into West Virginia and Kentucky.
Since 1977, it has awarded more than 1,400 grants to nearly 500 partner organizations totaling more than $28 million, leveraging its requirement for matching funds to achieve more than $80 million in environmental improvement.
In 1977, Virginia’s environmental landscape looked much different from today. There was no interstate Chesapeake Bay restoration partnership, few river organizations, little environmental education and only a handful of local land trusts. In 40 years, the endowment has been instrumental in each of these areas:
- Provided catalytic grants to establish some of Virginia’s most prominent conservation organizations, including the James River Association, Southern Environmental Law Center, Elizabeth River Project, Virginiaforever and the Virginia work of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The Nature Conservancy.
- Initiated and supported university programs that promote dialogue and public engagement, including the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia, the annual Environment Virginia Symposium at the Virginia Military Institute and the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at the College of William & Mary.
- Provided applied research funding to scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, William & Mary and others to help determine scientifically grounded answers to key environmental policy issues facing the commonwealth, including such projects as multispecies modeling of Chesapeake Bay fisheries to toxic contaminant analyses in Virginia waters.
- Awarded more than $600,000 in college scholarships to high school students in partnership with the Virginia Junior Academy of Science.
- Supported the establishment and training of local land trusts, environmental education efforts and conservation networks such as the Virginia Conservation Network and the Virginia United Land Trusts.
Despite all of it accomplishments, the VEE still faces many challenges — many unforeseeable in 1977. Actions to restore the Chesapeake Bay must continue to move ahead as the latest 15-year effort reaches a critical midpoint this year. The health of local rivers and streams face new threats, as does the conservation of working farms, forests, natural and historic landscapes. Threats to drinking water supplies from recurrent flooding require continued attention. Engagement must reach beyond the choir to increase the involvement of local governments, farmers, businesses developers, homeowners, students and diverse communities.
As the complexity of the problems facing Virginia’s environment increases, sufficient funding will continue to be a critical element of many of the solutions. Recent efforts by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the General Assembly have resulted in substantial investments in environmental funding. Virginia, though, has historically lagged behind other states’ funding for natural resources.
The future will demand new ways to stretch available public and private dollars to yield smarter investments. The VEE will continue to be a part of that future, playing a constructive role in leveraging its available dollars.
Through the years, the VEE has been guided by extraordinary leaders from the business, academic, governmental and nonprofit communities in conjunction with the exceptional work of its first executive director, Gerald McCarthy. Today’s seven-member board of directors is focused on supporting projects that improve the water quality of local streams and rivers; restore the Chesapeake Bay; advance the conservation of important landscapes; enhance environmental literacy; increase awareness of environmental issues; and respond to emerging concerns such as changing climate conditions and coastal resilience.
As VEE reflects on its past and looks to the future, it recognizes that it has been and continues to be fortunate and honored to work with many outstanding partners across Virginia and beyond. With them, the endowment will continue to partner to advance innovative projects and constructive approaches to address many of the complex environmental challenges that Virginia faces.
For information on VEE or how to contribute to its work, visit vee.org.