Maury Johnson walks his property in Monroe County, West Virginia. Credit: © Matthew Pickett / / Courtesy photo

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy expected scrutiny for accepting a $19.5 million gift from the pipeline’s developer but believes time will show it was the right decision. 

Maury Johnson has been tangling with a long, skinny, unwelcome intruder — the Mountain Valley Pipeline — on his West Virginia homestead for close to six years.

He and his rural neighbors figured the Appalachian Trail Conservancy would continue to back them as they strategized to prevent the long-delayed, contentious natural gas pipeline from being buried along 303 miles of sensitive West Virginia and Virginia habitat.

So, Johnson was crestfallen when he learned in mid-August that the nonprofit Conservancy had signed a $19.5 million “voluntary stewardship agreement” with the handful of companies building the pipeline. A Conservancy staffer delivered the news via telephone minutes before a press release landed in his inbox.

“It shocked me so much that I almost fell to the floor,” said the 60-year-old retired farmer and former teacher from Monroe County. “At first, I wanted to drop my membership in the Conservancy. But then I thought, wait a minute, membership gives me power because they have to be responsive to members.” 

The Conservancy, founded in 1925, is the guardian of the storied footpath that stretches 2,193 miles from Georgia to Maine. Its charge, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, is a unit of the National Park Service.

Johnson convinced his anti-pipeline colleagues to hold off on a protest at the Conservancy headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, until he composed a letter to Sandi Marra, the president and CEO of the nonprofit, and checked in with other allies.

“I didn’t want to be confrontational with Sandi,” he said, adding that other Conservancy staffers had reassured him that anti-pipeline efforts would not be ignored just because of the pact. “I wanted to give ATC the benefit of the doubt, to trust but verify.”

Johnson is upset enough that the Mountain Valley Pipeline is slated to be buried under a lengthy section of his 150-acre farm. But he’s also heartsick because his once-pristine view of Peters Mountain is now of chain-sawed trees.

That’s about 11 miles from his home and where the pipeline will likely cross under the Appalachian Trail in the Jefferson National Forest on the Monroe County, West Virginia-Giles County, Virginia border.

Johnson first bonded with the iconic treasure as a teen when he helped with trail maintenance.

He’s resentful that pipeline construction is leaving what he calls a 30-mile scar from Peters Mountain to Keeney Knob. Continued destruction nearby, he said, spoils the view of Sinking Creek Mountain from Kelly Knob, an Appalachian Trail landmark.   

“Every time you crest a ridge, you see it coming at you like a big snake,” he said. “It’s right in your face.”

Johnson serves on the executive committee of the Preserve Our Water, Heritage and Rights (POWHR), a coalition of Virginia- and West Virginia-based local grassroots groups that have combined forces with the Appalachian Blue Ridge Alliance to halt fossil fuel pipelines. 

They might not have felt as deflated by the Conservancy’s agreement had it not come on the heels of the July cancellation of Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Ostensibly, both pipelines were designed to carry a glut of hydraulically fractured natural gas in West Virginia to a market in North Carolina that close observers say is non-existent. At 600 miles, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline  was twice as long as Mountain Valley — and also received more than double the amount of attention.

For one, Atlantic Coast traversed a wealthier stretch of Virginia, and two, activists could go after a local bogeyman because the joint venture was led by Richmond-based Dominion. 

The ownership of Mountain Valley is more distant. The limited liability company is a joint venture of EQM Midstream Partners, NextEra Capital Holdings, Con Edison Transmission, WGL Midstream and RGC Midstream. 

“Mountain Valley is the ugly stepsister pipeline that nobody wants to talk about,” Johnson said. “All along I’ve said that the powers that be will let Mountain Valley be built to keep the Atlantic Coast from being built.”

Charges of greenwashing

The nebulous subject line of the initial news release circulated August 17 by the Conservancy states, “Voluntary Stewardship Agreement to Advance A.T. Conservation.”

Subsequent paragraphs in the body of the email spell out that the Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC initiated contact with the Conservancy more than a year ago.

Marra emphasized in an interview that the Conservancy will not use the money to mitigate damage caused by pipeline construction. 

Instead, the organization will dedicate at least 80% of what is by far the largest donation in its 95-year history to managing and protecting land to enhance the trail corridor in West Virginia and Virginia. An expansive inventory of high-priority, climate-resilient lands and fabled vistas in the region includes some 5,000 acres.

The remainder of the money will support recreation-based economies in tiny, remote communities that haven’t capitalized on their proximity to the Appalachian Trail. 

While some activists with environmental organizations said Mountain Valley’s payout had a bad odor, few want to go on the record criticizing an entity active in land protection.

However, Lee Williams didn’t hesitate to label it greenwashing. She co-directs Green New Deal Virginia.

“It’s an example of a group accepting money from a bad actor and allowing them to greenwash their image,” Williams said. “This is infuriating for people who know what’s going on with pipelines. For those who don’t, they’re the ones who will think that pipeline companies are wonderful for doing this.”

The Richmond resident, active as a volunteer with the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, has organized numerous anti-pipeline events.

“I always felt the Mountain Valley Pipeline route would be a sacrifice zone,” Williams said.

Initially, paid staffers at the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter were willing to grant interviews about the voluntary stewardship agreement.

Later, chapter spokesperson Tim Cywinski, responded to a reporter’s query via email: “Actually, I just realized that the Sierra Club will not be weighing in on this story. We are not connected with this particularly (sic) aspect of MVP.” 

Chapter staffers were more than willing to discuss the multiple reasons they had joined other organizations to stop the pipeline.

Conservancy: ‘We’re not the Sierra Club’

Marra emphasized that the Conservancy is not a broad-reaching environmental organization. Its chief reason for existence is protecting the Appalachian Trail, a unique resource that requires unique management considerations.

“We’re not the Sierra Club. We never say the trail is a green wall to stop all energy projects,” she said. “That’s not our role.”

For instance, she said, the Conservancy’s wind power policy wouldn’t support projects that scar viewsheds. The nonprofit also has a five-year-old pipeline policy.

At the same time, she’s not unsympathetic to the hurt Johnson and his colleagues have expressed.

While the Conservancy has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with local groups trying to halt the Mountain Valley or keep its design from harming the trail, causing landslides in fragile karst landscapes and sullying water sources, leaders’ belief that the pipeline would eventually be completed nudged them to the bargaining table.

“We went in very skeptical and with our eyes wide open,” Marra said. “And we had to factor in us burning some bridges and facing scrutiny. This had to be a win for the Appalachian Trail.”

The Conservancy hired an experienced law firm to help negotiate a financial amount that could make on-the-ground differences and also partnered with the Conservation Fund. 

“This is brand new and quite a stretch for us,” she said. “The Conservation Fund has the capacity to help guide us through this.” 

The Virginia-based fund has helped protect 8 million acres nationwide since it was created in 1985. 

Marra said the pipeline builders who approached the Conservancy last autumn seemed sincere and contrite.

“The people I dealt with were honest in acknowledging that there had been significant mistakes and poor handling of this pipeline project,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is about protecting the Appalachian Trail and sometimes this creates less-than-ideal bedfellows.” 

While Marra understands frustrations voiced by Johnson and others whose lives have been disrupted by pipeline planning and construction, she said the majority of Conservancy members and its affiliates have been supportive. 

She addressed the agreement at the Conservancy’s virtual annual meeting on Sept. 12, where the treasurer highlighted the $19.5 million as a “midyear financial highlight.” She also fielded several queries from critics during the Q&A portion of the meeting.

“I don’t think you judge anybody by one decision, you judge them by their actions,” Marra said in an interview after that meeting. “We might not convert everyone, but three, five or 10 years from now, folks will look back and say ‘I wasn’t happy with the agreement, but now we have lands protected.’

“I’m willing to weather this because I know personally we are genuine in our intent. Managing the Appalachian Trail is the long game.”

A series of self-inflicted starts and stops 

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is actually two projects. The mainline is 303 miles and the 72-mile Southgate extension would reach into North Carolina. In the last five years, costs for the entire project have almost doubled from more than $3.5 billion to upward of $6.5 billion, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

That same NRDC report cites sloppy construction practices. For instance, the pipeline owners have paid more than $2 million in penalties for 300-plus water quality violations in Virginia and West Virginia. As well, North Carolina recently denied the operators a key water permit for the Southgate extension.

The deadline for the pipeline to be online is Oct. 13. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is in the midst of reviewing Mountain Valley’s request for a two-year extension of that initial construction timeline. 

Before FERC greenlighted the pipeline project, Andrew Downs, the Conservancy’s Virginia regional director said his nonprofit “finds that MVP’s proposed routing could not be worse.”

“The route snakes through the Appalachians requiring thousands of acres of forest to be cleared and creating gashes the width of a 12-lane highway,” Downs wrote in a 2017 opinion piece in the Roanoke Times. “The resulting eyesores would be devastating to the trail and surrounding landscape, and would be seen from as far as 20 miles away.”

In a September letter, a southwest Virginia environmental hydrologist urged FERC to reject the two-year extension because construction has already compromised the delicate karst topography, formed by limestone and other soluble rocks. It is characterized by steep slopes and underground sinkholes, caves, aquifers and streams. Mountain Valley filed its first application with the federal agency in October 2015.

“Since beginning construction of the pipeline in early 2018, MVP has not been able to control erosion and landslides,” Jacob Hileman wrote. “This has resulted in significant harm to water resources and upland forest outside the project’s limits of disturbance … and most worrisome, situations where buried pipe has shifted as a result of unstable hillslopes.”

Hileman’s 20-page document also points to the ongoing suspension of multiple crucial federal permits needed to complete the pipeline, as well as local and project-wide stop-work orders. He attributes those losses to severe deficiencies in the federal environmental impact statement and process by which the pipeline was approved.

The Conservancy and the pipeline operators stated that “there is no relationship between this voluntary agreement and the various federal and state permitting decisions.” In addition, the Conservancy said it will continue to engage in the federal permitting process.

Hileman also disputes the operator’s repeated claims that the pipeline is 92% complete. His math and measurements put that figure just above 51%.

Marra, the leader of the Conservancy, said she was aware that number was controversial, but that her staff had vetted it. She said she felt comfortable citing it when she spoke at the Conservancy’s annual meeting. 

Critics want to eyeball pact language

Johnson, of West Virginia, has exchanged several letters with Marra. 

And even though she told him in a late September email that “We have no more information to share with you,” he is doggedly pursuing access to the stewardship agreement as he also continues to bird-dog the pipeline operators.

Currently, he’s exploring a petition movement and legal options.

The Conservancy has clearly stated that its internal business agreements, regardless of the subject, are shared only with appropriate staff and officers.

“I won’t take no for an answer,” Johnson said. “I’m not expecting to put a halt to the agreement. I want to see its specific language and make sure it is on the up-and-up.”

He emphasized that what he calls a lack of transparency has soured people in the local communities from collaborating with the Conservancy on projects that advance both the region’s cultural heritage and its connection to a rich recreational legacy.

“We’re disappointed,” Johnson said. “We feel like we got kicked in the teeth.”

In the meantime, he’s keeping his Conservancy membership.

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.