The Piedmont View

In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, working with the Montpelier Foundation, donated three conservation easements to PEC that permanently protected 1,024 acres at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia. Thanks to a generous gift from the Mars family, the three easements will ensure the protection of agricultural resources, forest resources, scenic open space, historic landscapes and views, and wildlife habitat that exist on the property.

Montpelier and surrounding conserved lands. Photo by Aaron Watson.

These easements build on 25 years of investment in the restoration, interpretation, and stewardship of Montpelier’s land. This project more than doubles the acreage protected by easements at Montpelier, resulting in the permanent conservation of 1,941 acres or 71 percent of the property’s 2,700 acres.

This achievement alone is cause for celebration, but it is also a key milestone in PEC’s developing strategy to accelerate conservation and restoration in the region.

Montpelier and the additional 14,922 acres of land under easement within the Madison-Barbour Rural Historic District are an anchor for conservation in Orange County. They also provide protection for the Rapidan River as it descends from the reforested flanks of the Blue Ridge in Shenandoah National Park and the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area to enter the fertile rolling terrain and wider floodplains of the Piedmont.  

After it winds its way through some of Virginia’s most productive farmland, numerous Civil War Battlefields, and sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places like Fort Germanna, the Rapidan merges with the larger Rappahannock River west of Fredericksburg. The banks of both rivers near that junction are protected by a conservation easement donated by the City of Fredericksburg. From there, the river flows south for about 90 miles until it reaches the Chesapeake Bay.

The connection between the headwaters of the Rappahannock-Rapidan watershed and the Bay is vital for hundreds of thousands of people who drink from its waters, and who fish and paddle in its rivers and streams. Locally, the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers serve as a drinking water source for the towns of Madison, Gordonsville, and Orange, community of Lake of the Woods, counties of Stafford, Spotsylvania, and Orange, and the City of Fredericksburg. 

These river systems also support diverse habitats including cold waters clean enough for brook trout, free-flowing connections for migrating species like American shad and American eel, and fertile estuaries rich with oysters and striped bass.

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Protecting land in the Rappahannock-Rapidan river watershed also has a critical part to play in the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. That point was driven home in the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership’s recently released Marking Milestones report, which is the watershed’s most comprehensive survey of land conservation and funding in a decade. 

One of the eighteen success stories highlighted in the report was the 382 acres of Glenmary Farm that the Nixon family permanently protected in 2018 with the help of PEC, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District. 

Over 1.35 million acres of land have been protected throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed...

Since 2010, over 1.35 million acres of land have been protected throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. That’s an incredible 68% of the goal to conserve an additional 2 million acres by 2025, which is outlined in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement signed by six states, the District of Columbia and the federal government. 

But as far as we’ve come, achieving the next milestone will be no small feat. The integrated conservation policies of federal, state, and local agencies, including Conserve Virginia, identify an additional 30-50% of the Chesapeake Bay watershed that should be conserved. These goals are remarkably consistent with PEC’s longstanding vision for 1 million acres of permanently protected land in the Piedmont for a variety of rural uses.

The challenge to realize this vision here is substantial. The Piedmont is positioned between two of the fastest growing areas in the U.S. in Northern Virginia and Charlottesville, and expanding cities like Fredericksburg and Richmond. Not only does this make the area a target for residential real-estate developers, but it has also caught the eye of companies interested in using the land for data centers, transmission lines, and large scale energy infrastructure projects. In the past two years alone, the Piedmont has seen proposals to convert over 10,000 acres of farm and forest land to industrial-scale solar. This means we must have a greater sense of urgency in pursuing permanent conservation.

The good news is that we’ve come to a moment in time rich with possibility. Increased conservation funds in the 2018 Farm Bill, when matched with state and local funding, offer the chance to make a better investment of public dollars. PEC, through its conservation funds and with the assistance of The Volgenau Foundation and other philanthropic supporters, hopes to leverage this funding over the next five years to help conserve more working farmland and wildlife habitat, protect historic resources, and improve public recreational access.

PEC is working hard to educate lawmakers at all levels of government about these funding opportunities. Members of our field staff are also in contact with landowners every day to ensure they understand all conservation and sustainable land management tools available to them.

We hope that the efforts of landowners in and along the upper Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers will serve as a catalyst for more conservation throughout the entire Rappahannock watershed. These efforts will be assisted by PEC, along with partners like Friends of the Rappahannock, American Battlefield Trust, local jurisdictions, soil and water conservation districts, and other agencies such as the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Along the way, it’s important to celebrate conservation accomplishments, whether they be big or small. This summer’s success at Montpelier was a big one and we look forward to celebrating with you on September 21! 

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