The existence of the Virginia Creeper Trail is an important reminder of a different kind of political climate and a different kind of congressional representation in Southwest Virginia, one focused more directly on the common good.
In the 1980s, Representative Rick Boucher secured federal money for Southwest Virginia. This represented a significant achievement for the 9th District. One element of the funds focused on recreational development.
The Creeper Trail is an excellent example of how that public funding was spent. It stretches 34 miles from Whitetop to Abingdon. Supporting local activists, Boucher secured $2 million to preserve the Creeper Trail as a National Recreation Trail and to improve its safety and usability.
This federal grant money for the Creeper Trail in 1982 helped transform the land into a major tourist asset today.
Travel to Damascus on most any spring, summer or fall day, and the tourist activity will be visible at local shops like Mojo’s, Mt. Rogers Outfitters, the Blue Blaze bicycle shuttle service and The Damascus Brewery. Over 250,000 people use the Creeper Trail every year, and Damascus, Abingdon and Washington County generate an estimated annual $25 million in tourism revenue. That kind of money is not small change. Growing tourism has inspired entrepreneurs and job seekers (mostly seasonal) and cultivated greater demand for the rich variety of crafts, artisans, scenic sights and festivals. According to the Virginia Tourism Corp.’s 2014 Economic Impact Report, Southwest Virginia generated nearly $971 million in tourism expenditures. The Creeper is no doubt one of the shiny gems in this substantial and growing industry.
Republicans and Democrats both used earmarks for decades to invest in their home districts and to persuade reluctant colleagues to vote for bills. For example, according to Freedom Works, the GOP-led House and Senate approved a total of 14,000 earmarks in 2005. This earmarked money accounted for half of one percent of federal spending, which is a relatively tiny portion. The Creeper was made possible by one comparatively tiny federal investment over three decades ago, and that investment has paid off many times over.
This tiny federal investment in Southwest Virginia should be remembered, for sometimes government can positively create local opportunities for business and development. The Creeper Trail is an example of a smart bet by committed local activists and federal representatives that benefits the common good.
Sometimes federal money is wasted. Two decades of continuous war in Iraq, Afghanistan and several other countries testifies to this. The notorious “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska came to popularly define wasteful pork spending.
But let’s not pretend that all investments are a waste; some turn out to be very profitable. I bet that most everyone around Damascus, Whitetop, Taylor’s Valley and Abingdon would agree that the Creeper Trail is a benefit to the local economy. Those residents would likely reflect that it was a good federal investment in 1982.
The political times have definitely changed, and we definitely have a different kind of political leadership. Barack Obama was elected as president in 2009, and the Tea Party emerged as staunch political opponents at the same time. Earmarked money became a taboo topic for congressional representatives, and Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th, rode into elected office on that political sentiment.
Griffith is part of a new political climate and a new kind of political leadership. Today, no federal money is available to revamp the Creeper Trail. Congress opposes earmarks as wasteful spending that only adds to the national debt. Congress does not see public and private value in some federal investments, like the Creeper Trail. Griffith talks about the very real and useful grant money that Boucher used to secure as if it were a child’s fantasy.
The success of the Creeper Trail today symbolizes a different kind of political environment and a different kind of political leadership of the past. Remembering how the Creeper Trail was made can help point to a different future, one where local activists and elected representatives work together to create economic opportunities that benefit the common good.
Jacob L. Stump is an author, professor and small business owner from Konnarock in Southwest Virginia. He currently serves as a term assistant professor at DePaul University’s Department of International Studies in Chicago.