Roanoke rising – includes related articles on the George Washington-Jefferson National Forest and geographical information on Roanoke

Roanoke rising – includes related articles on the George Washington-Jefferson National Forest and geographical information on Roanoke – environmental health of Roanoke, Virginia

Cara Ellen Modisett

With enough people sharing the vision, mountain forest and urban forest are once again moving closer to becoming one and the same.

Where progress meets the Parkway, the challenge is to balance economics and ecological health. Here’s why this city’s succeeding.

Nestled in the mountain-rimmed Roanoke Valley of southwestern Virginia, the increasingly metropolitan city of Roanoke is glass and concrete flanked by soaring forests along the Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountaintops. The Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway wind along the ridgeline overlooking the parking garages and high-rises of downtown; a 10-minute drive in any direction leads to a hilly, rural patchwork of field, forest, and farmland.

Like most communities in the burgeoning Southeast, the Roanoke Valley is changing. Its young professionals are drawn to an increasingly busy commercial district, doubhng population in the last 20 years to more than 230,000. Those new residents want homes that are convenient to jobs and situated amid relatively wide-open spaces.

The result: an explosion of new homes outside of town and a clamor for more open space within.

But now Roanoke Valley business and civic leaders are joining forces with greenspace planners, AMERICAN FORESTS, and regional forestry experts. Their goal is to make Roanoke’s threatened urban forest a primary component in planning for future growth and development.

When retired career forester Charles Blankenship founded the Roanoke Valley Urban Forestry Council in 1993, he merely wanted to network with professionals in related fields. From there the group step-stoned to its present partnership with the Valley Beautiful Foundation, and “it’s really rocketed into a lot of things,” Blankenship says.

That partnership began with a Greenway Steering Committee, which evolved into a Greenway Commission. Needing the ability to acquire land, they formed the Western Virginia Land Trust (WVLT). Now another group, Pathfinders for Greenways, raises money and does the physical work, “the building and maintaining of the greenway system.”

This common sense, common ground approach set the stage for a new era in landuse planning. “We’re all working together under the same mission of protecting and retaining as many trees within the community as we can and trying to meet AMERICAN FORESTS’ targets here so that we have a healthy community,” explains Blankenship. (AMERICAN FORESTS has set a goal of 40 percent overall tree canopy in cities.) “I’ve often seen this as a four-legged stool. The three organizations plus the local governments make up a pretty sturdy basis for our efforts here in the valley.”

AMERICAN FORESTS’ role in all this has been to provide information and advice. “We’ve been able to mobilize all these different people… scientists, engineers, people who are on the ground that understand Roanoke and its ecology; citizen groups; and folks who know how to get things incorporated into public policy,” says Gary Moll, AMERICAN FORESTS’ vice president for urban forestry. “We give them powerful information about their ecology.”

That “powerful information” comes from CITYgreen, a GIS program that combines satellite and computer technology, aerial photography, and on-the-ground tree counts.

“One of the values of CITYgreen is that it gives a dollar value for trees in terms of stormwater runoff, air pollution, cooling, and energy savings,” says Blankenship. “There’s community cost when you cut down trees, and we’re beginning to get our hands on that. That’s what CITYgreen’s all about.”

And Blankenship’s network of partners is beginning to see results. The Pathfinders group is raising money and building and maintaining greenways. The WVLT is establishing conservation easements on privately owned tracts of Valley watershed and forested lands with help from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which holds conservation easements on more than 110,000 acres of private land in Virginia – more than any other state than Montana.

The WVLT has set its sights on protecting land up into the mountains beyond the Roanoke/Salem/Vinton tri-city area. It hopes to put under easement “visual corridors” along the Blue Ridge Parkway, private lands that compose the scenic views enjoyed by visitors.

Making greenways a priority benefits more than just tourists. “You actually have what’s often called a ‘goneway,'” says Liz Belcher, greenway coordinator for the Roanoke Valley. That alludes to the genetic diversity and basic survival these “linear parks” afford animal species by allowing them to migrate between habitats.

Greenways translate beneficially into an urban setting, says Blankenship. “We see greenways as . . . lacing together the larger blocks of trees left in our community into what I think is an important part of our tree infrastructure.”

There’s a growing theme here: Quality of environment equals quality of life equals quality of trees. Gary Moll agrees. “We measure trees because they are indicators of the ecology.” By removing carbon from the air, providing shade, filtering groundwater, and preventing erosion, trees save cities millions of dollars in energy, repair, stormwater, and water and air purification expenses. If trees are healthy and thriving in the stress and unfavorable conditions of an urban setting, then the soil, water, and air likely are healthy, too.

“The problem is that we’re building cities the wrong way,” says Moll. “We don’t give trees enough space to grow, and there’s not an understanding that trees matter.”

Paul Revell, urban and community forestry coordinator for the Virginia Department of Forestry, says that in the past people knew “that trees and waterways and vegetation were a good thing, but you couldn’t quantify the values. When making land use decisions…the forest system ecosystem always came out the loser.”

With its work in Urban Ecosystem Analysis (UEA) and the technological immvations CITYgreen provides, AMERICAN FORESTS is helping score some wins for forest ecosystems in cities nationwide. UEA adds another level to urban planning, factoring in vegetation, water, soils, and air to the previously existing elements of build ings, streets, land use, and utilities. UEA determines the value of the standing tree canopy by calculating what the city saves by caring for and planting more trees.

As the Environmental Protection Agency turns its attention to the air quality in smaller cities such as Roanoke, officials will find saving trees provides an economic boost. Rather than dwelling on restrictions, cities like Roanoke may see saving trees as a cost-effective way to avoid daily fines. “If you can’t meet your air quality standards,” says Moll, “You can’t add more business. And if a city can’t add more business, it’s in trouble.”

The problem is getting officials to see the situation in a different light. “The way to do that, we realized, was through planning departments,” Moll says. “We need to reach public policymakers in the language they speak.”

Using the UEA results, officials can put together charts, maps, and statistics that predict how Roanoke will be affected by things like heavy downpours and smog. They can also figure out how more – or fewer – trees will impact stormwater retention, air and water quality, energy savings, and wildlife. The financial ramifications of their decisions can also be factored in.

Dan Henry, urban forester for the city of Roanoke, thinks CITYgreen’s data and visual presentation, especially the maps generated by aerial photography and satellite imagery, help focus more attention on the importance of urban redevelopment.

“That concept can only be helped by the heightened awareness of how detrimental urban sprawl is” and to concentrate development in built-up areas, he says. “I think it can definitely help the city’s economic development picture by discouraging urban sprawl into the surrounding counties.

“Some might say that we’re a bunch of idealists putting together a wish list of want-to-do projects,” says Blankenship. “What we”re seeing here . . . is an emerging consensus among that group of people in this valley who are generally politically aware. If this kind of program is becoming quite popular politically it’s difficult not to be in favor of it.”

With enough people sharing the vision, mountain forest and urban forest are once again moving closer to becoming one and the same. Economics and ecology can create a living, thriving ecosystem protecting concrete and grass, humans and nature.


Roaooke residents have a vital resource at their back door, the George Washington-Jefferson National Forest.

Only minutes from downtown Roanoke, the forest offers a wealth of recreational opportunities – as well as the technical and financial support of local foresters. Working with the Roanoke Valley Urban Forestry Council, notional forest officials can bolster urban efforts to improve the region’s ecological health.

Such partnerships are vital because o “good chunk” of Roanoke’s public land is in national forests, says Charles Blankenship, the Council’s founder. Like many other cities, Roanoke battles pollution. And with a new interstate and more power lines on the way, Blankenship says Roanoke “needs trees wherever [we] can get them.”

Bill Damon, supervisor for the national forest, concurs. That’s why he’s set aside time and resources for his staff to participate in the Council. Public affairs officer Dave Olson, another Council member, says his participation helps the Forest Service achieve its goal of educating the public about forest management issues.

One example of the partnership’s success is AMERICAN FORESTS’ soon-to-be-completed CITYgreen oaalysis, which will give both sides the tools they need to achieve their goals. “It’s an excellent partnership because it… helps better explain to city folks the importance of trees for energy reduction, aesthetic, and other values.” It will also assist the national forest and city with smarter planning and development. “It’s u good example of how different forest managers can sit down and create a better community by having trees there.” – Janine Guglielmino

Roanoke At A Glance

* 1998 Population, Metro Area (est): 230,100

* 1998 Population, City (est): 95,600

* 1998 Population, County (est): 81,600

* Size of City (-square miles): 42.9

* Size of County (-square miles): 250.7

* Nearby landmarks: Roanoke and Hollins Colleges; Blue Ridge Parkway; George Washington and Jefferson National Forests; Mill Mountain Star; Smith Mountain Lake

* Large Industry: Hospital and related facilities; railroads; power machinery plant; banking

* Bodies of Water: Roanoke River; Tinker and Glade Creeks (tributaries)

* Watershed: Roanoke River


Cara Modisett and Paul Calhoun are Roanoke-based freelance writers.

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Forests

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group