Conserving Land in Virginia

area of Merrimac Farm in 1901
Prince William County in 1901
Source: Library of Congress, area of Merrimac Farm in 1901 (by William H. Brown, 1901)

Article XI, Section I of the state constitution, adopted at the start of the environmental movement in 1970, says:1

To the end that the people have clean air, pure water, and the use and enjoyment for recreation of adequate public land, waters, and other natural resources, it shall be the policy of the Commonwealth to conserve, develop, and utilize its natural resources, its public land, and its historical sites and buildings. Further, it shall be the Commonwealth's policy to protect its atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction for the benefit, enjoyment, and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.

The Federal government manages nearly 2.4 million acres in Virginia as national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and military bases. The state manages an additional 300,000 acres. That's an impressive total - 4,200 square miles of land. However, Virginia has nearly 40,000 square miles of land, so Federal/state ownership is only 10% of the total. Obviously, government agencies do not own all the ecologically-rich areas in Virginia.2

Private property owners, by far, are the protectors of Virginia's natural resources. Some organizations are working actively to assist private property owners manage their lands to conserve natural resources, while still earn a reasonable rate of return. Extension agents, working closely with the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, assist farmers in minimizing soil erosion.

Landowners can sell or donate conservation easements to ensure land use practices are "environmentally responsible" for decades to come. The easements reduce the development potential of the land, and the lost income from potential development is partially offset by tax advantages. In the last 20 years, astute conservation organizations have hired financial planners and tax experts as well as ecologists and biologists.

The Nature Conservancy is one of the most effective conservation organization in Virginia. It is headquartered in Arlington, right at the Ballston Metro Station. The old Rosslyn office space was unremarkable, but after moving in 1999 The Nature Conservancy has established a beautiful little garden of native plants, primarily ferns and cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) outside the building.

Conservation organizations are more willing than the government organizations to acquire less-than-fee rights in property. Government officials find it difficult to manage land cooperatively while appearing to treat everyone equally, since circumstances on each parcel vary so dramatically. Land trusts, on the other hand, are less subject to public criticism when they accommodate special requirements or subsidize individual landowners. In Southwest Virginia, the Nature Conservancy has financed fences and watering systems so cattle can access drinking water without getting directly in the streams, stirring up sediment and polluting the water.

The most striking example of private conservation effort is the organization's acquisition of the salt marshes along the Atlantic Ocean side of the Eastern Shore. The Virginia Coast Reserve was acquired quietly, and now totals 45,000 acres. The organization has earned trust as well as respect on the Eastern Shore by seeking to create business opportunities in the area, rather than just "lock up" the marshes and keep people from disturbing the wildlife.

Instead, The Nature Conservancy supports eco-tourism and sponsors sustainable development initiatives in Accomack and Northampton counties through the Virginia Eastern Shore Corporation, established in 1994. The Eastern Shore is heavily dependent upon poultry raising and farming, and the Virginia Eastern Shore Corporation is helping establish the Eastern Shore Select Hayman sweet potato as a high-value item, in part my making potato chips out of potatoes that were not suitable for sale in grocery stores.

The Nature Conservancy calls itself the "real estate arm of the conservation movement," but conservation has now got a business side too. The Center for Compatible Development has projects in Bayview (Northampton County) and in St. Paul (Russell County).

Why St. Paul?
The Nature Conservancy is actively trying to protect the mussel species in the Clinch River ecosystem. Through the Russell County Vision Forum and the Forest Bank, the organization is trying to steer the Russell county economy away from coal mining and towards sustainable forestry, agriculture, and tourism. If most natural resources remain on private lands, it's essential that natural resource conservationists get involved in the local economy. The Nature Conservancy does not consider business and profit-making activities to be hostile to conservation, or vice-versa. The organization has a long-term perspective to modify standard land use practices in a few selected communities, so they protect (rather than exhaust) the natural areas that tourists might come to see.

Gap Analysis

Nature-Oriented Tourism

History-Oriented Tourism

Chapman's Mill at Thoroughfare Gap, next to Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve
Chapman's Mill at Thoroughfare Gap, next to Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve
Source: Historic Prince William, Aerial Photo Survey 2019



1. Constitution of Virginia, (last checked April 16, 2014)
2. "Public Land Ownership by State," Natural Resources Council of Maine, (last checked April 16, 2014)

Land Use Planning in Virginia
Parks, Forests, and Tourism
Virginia Places