Nature-Oriented Tourism

antlers If a community can define a niche, a "we're special because..." story, then it can attract the tourist dollar.

Virginia communities advertise their sandy Atlantic beaches, Appalachian mountain vistas, waterfalls, caves, free-flowing rivers, fish-filled reservoirs, hunting opportunities on forested hillsides, etc. Mother Nature provided Virginia only two lakes - so the first state parks simply created small man-made lakes to provide desirable, if not 100% natural, swimming and fishing holes. Buggs Island Lake (Kerr Reservoir) shows what can be done if enough money is committed to reshape the land and rivers of Virginia. The reservoir is nearly as large as the District of Columbia, and the Southside town of Clarksville has more boat-oriented businesses than tobacco warehouses now.

There's a long tradition of hyping Virginia's natural areas to attract vacationers. Thomas Jefferson claimed that the vista from Harper's Ferry was worth a trip across the Atlantic Ocean, and that the Natural Bridge was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Maybe the "Breaks" on the Virginia-Kentucky border are slightly less-impressive than the Grand Canyon or the Black Canyon of the Gunnison... but if a park is well-advertised, plenty of tourists will go far off the beaten path to see for themselves.

Far, far off the beaten path, in that particular case. The Breaks is a destination, a place that requires a substantial effort to reach. It's not a place you see on the way to someplace else, or while in the neighborhood. Many of the visitors to Manassas battlefield are day-trippers exploring outside the monumental core of the national capital, but no one just casually drives over to see the Breaks...

There's a particular tension for those who seek to finance protection of a natural area via tourist-based revenues. Tourism, while relatively "green," is not completely benign.

To extract dollars from tourists, a site must offer more than a voluntary collection box. There must be a place to stay, a place to eat, a place to buy stuff, as well as something to see. Think there's a reason that those having to pay the bills are often interested more in facilities more than preserving the natural appearance of a site? Birding trails, boardwalks, and campfire programs alone don't get the tourist dollars out of the wallets. Revenues come from food, lodging, and sales of T-shirts... and tourists expect to shop in air-conditioned facilities with water fountains, restrooms, and close-in parking. In particular, caves are sensitive to damage from excessive disturbance of bats and other sensitive creatures, spotlights that allow algae to grow on formations, and pollution from water draining off parking lots.

Protecting the Land

Appalachian Trail improvements on the way to McAfee's Knob, west of Roanoke 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

Parks are like Noah's ark - they help to protect natural habitats, to conserve representative samples of all species and their natural settings. You can't pick the flowers of the Turks Cap Lilly or cut live trees for firewood in a park. In most parks, you can't hunt the wildlife - though you can fish. (Yes, fishing in Shenandoah National Park is OK.)

Still, the existing parks do not protect all of the many different habitats in Virginia. There are lots of forested mountain acres in the Blue Ridge Parkway, Shenandoah National Park, Breaks Interstate Park, and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The Nature Conservancy has protected extensive stretches of the barrier island-salt marsh complex on the Eastern Shore. Along the Potomac River shoreline downstream from Washington, DC, nearly every point of land and remaining wetland on the river's edge has been set aside as a park or refuge.

But in Northern Virginia, nearly all the grassland habitat has been replaced with the manicured lawns of houses, offices, or retail facilities. The Canada geese love the golf courses, but the fields of greasses that once supported populations of Henlow's and grasshopper sparrows are no longer there. Even large blocks of public land, such as the 5,000-acre Manassas National Battlefield Park, are not growing native species of grasses. Instead, the park plants hay and arranges for farmers to harvest it. That enables the park to maintain the historic landscape, the pattern of open fields with patches of forested woodlots seen by soldiers in 1861-62. They referred to the "plains of Manassas" in their letters about the battlefield, because the area had been cleared so heavily for growing wheat/corn and for pasture. The park's hay is good food for cows... but not necessarily a good mix of grasses for native species of birds. The Fish and Wildlife Service established the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge not to protect the shoreline, but instead to protect the upland grass habitat that is now surprisingly rare in the region.

mountain laurel blossoms
mountain laurel blossoms

There's a "gap" between the habitats that are protected vs. the full range of habitats in the state. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Biological Resources Division of the US Geological Survey are completing a "gap analysis" for Virginia. Satellite images (Thematic Mapper scenes) are used to identify the vegetation classes in the state in randomly-selected polygons. The vegetation data is combined with additional layers of data, including boundaries of protected areas and distribution of different species. The analysis is completed with Geographic Information System (GIS) technology.

Gap analysis enables conservationists to identify the biological hot spots, the acres that are especially rich in species diversity but not protected from adverse change by development. Conservation organizations, including local/state/Federal agencies, are planning to focus their land acquisition efforts on selected parcels so the greatest number of species can be protected through conservation easements or complete purchase of all property rights.

The conservation organizations have no desire to purchase all 40,000 square miles of Virginia and expel humans from the state - but they are committed to acquiring representative samples of each habitat in order to protect each species. Ideally, if there are enough acres in protected areas, there will be no need to list any more species as "threatened" or "endangered."

By protecting the areas rich in biological diversity, the conservation organizations will facilitate development of other areas which are less essential for wildlife, and more suitable for housing, highways, etc. That's not part of the mission statement for the Gap Analysis Program, but it's a natural consequence. By setting aside some areas for special protection and restricting change in natural patterns, Virginia is also declaring that other areas are suitable for modification and development...


flower near Big Meadows Lodge in Shenandoah National Park


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)

Parks, Forests and Tourism
Virginia Places