Mae Oetjens, Contributing Writer
The VCU Center for Environmental Studies entered a formal agreement beginning this spring with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation following a student-conducted study for Virginia’s Scenic Rivers Program.
Environmental science professor James Vonesh taught the scenic resource and policy assessment course, which led to the collaboration with DCR in 2020.
The students in the course evaluated an 11 mile stretch of the James River. They analyzed the river based on a 14 point criteria from the Virginia’s Scenic Rivers Program and made a formal recommendation that the section should be added to the program, according to a report created by the class.
“Not only is it a case study and hands-on opportunity for experiential learning, but it also means that it’s a real world product,” Vonesh said. “If you go to the scenic rivers webpage, you’ll find our reports there. They [the students] are actually playing a small role in this real process of the scenic river designation in the state.”
The criteria for the Virginia Scenic Rivers Program includes researching the river’s historic features, public recreational access, overall aesthetic appeal and water quality, according to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The Virginia General Assembly, which is responsible for granting approval for the Virginia Scenic Rivers Program, will make a formal decision on the 11 mile stretch studied by the class on Wednesday, Jan. 19.
“We will know after tomorrow whether or not the work the class did play a role in helping to designate a new scenic section of river in Virginia,” Vonesh stated in an email on Jan. 18.
Virginia’s Scenic Rivers Program is a state-run program that designates protected rivers and streams, according to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Professional landscape architect Lynn Crump is a retired state scenic resources coordinator for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. She was involved in working with VCU to evaluate the James River stretch for the Scenic Rivers Program.
“We got to talking and decided to try a class on scenic resources that at the end of the semester there would be a project that would be useful, not only for students but for the scenic rivers program,” Crump said.
Crump worked with Vonesh to develop the partnership between VCU and the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
“The program is set up to recognize the significant scenic, recreational, natural and historic features or river segments in Virginia,” Crump said. “It is a very grassroots driven program. Rivers don’t get studied unless the localities support it.”
Jesse Boardman, a VCU alumnus who graduated with a bachelor’s in environmental studies in 2018 and a master’s in environmental studies in 2019, took the scenic resources and policy assessment class in 2018.
“I did a lot of research as to what the zoning was around that section of the river, how the land was used, what the population was along that section of the river,” Boardman said.“It was one of my favorite classes that I took at VCU.”
The collaboration with DCR and the Virginia Scenic Rivers Program is continuing throughout Spring 2022, but the class will not be offered again until the fall. Registration for fall classes begins on March 29, according VCU’s academic calendar.
Vonesh plans to spend the spring figuring out a “qualitative assessment of scenery,” a subjective way to measure the beauty of a research location.
“One person might think this is beautiful, and another person might not. And so how do you score scenery? And so that’s something that really draws from the fields of aesthetics and things like landscape architecture,” Vonesh said.