On May 21, 2022, we came together at Sheldon and Rita Clark’s Mistwood Farm on the slopes of Clarks Mountain in Orange County to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of The Piedmont Environmental Council.
The location of the event was intentional. Our tents were set up on land protected by perpetual conservation easement, looking out across a large landscape of farms and forests nourished by fertile soils and the waters of the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers and their tributaries.
Hopefully, through our workshops on accelerating conservation in the Upper Rappahannock and the Piedmont Grassland Bird Initiative, displays highlighting PEC’s work across the Piedmont region, and conversations with guests, we communicated the incredible private and public effort that has contributed to this extraordinary setting.
Together with thousands of families, hundreds of partner organizations, and dozens of local, state, and federal agencies, we have accomplished something special, a model for the rest of the United States. People want to live, work, and visit here, attracted by a combination of small cities, vibrant towns, rural communities and incredible open spaces. Much of the areas of development are well planned and designed to strengthen existing places, consistent with the Strong Towns model. Beyond their boundaries lie vast areas of farms and forests. Nearly 20 percent of these acres—433,132 in fact—have been protected forever through conservation easement.
A general concept that 30 to 50 percent of land area is necessary for natural ecosystem functions is gaining more and more scientific and policy consensus. Combined with nearly 150,000 acres of federal, state and local lands that include an expanding network of trails and public access to rivers and streams, PEC’s service area has more than 25 percent of its land available for the rural economy, recreation, and nature. Our vision for the region since 1984 has included a goal of conserving one million acres, roughly half of the nine counties in PEC’s service area.
That success in conservation provides a great foundation for present and future efforts to improve water quality, restore forests and native habitat for wildlife, build sustainable food systems, and provide public access to nature and open space. As we continue conserving land, we need to support efforts of restoration and more sustainable land management.
For 50 years, PEC has remained committed to the pursuit of better local planning and conservation; the results are significant and even inspirational. We have embraced the complexity of issues and places where we work. Each has a different geology, its own history, its own ecosystem. By understanding the many layers of conservation values, we expand the toolkit of options for each landowner and each parcel of land.
We know that progress takes time and effort; we believe that success comes from relentless incrementalism, the constant effort to connect, piece by piece, the larger mosaic of rural historic districts, agricultural and forest districts, wildlife habitat cores and corridors, and the scenic byways, scenic rivers and trail networks that connect them.
It may surprise you to know that our region has grown in population at a rate faster than the state as a whole. But rather than sprawling suburbs, the Piedmont region has grown, for the most part, within the areas planned for that growth. And it has done so, while continuing to be a place that people want to come to—to live, work and visit.
Going forward, we believe that collaboration over protecting rural working lands and open spaces and planning of communities within the Piedmont can bridge rural, urban and suburban perspectives. Neighbors may disagree on other issues, but protecting nature and improving quality of life for all is common ground. It will not get easier, as the past few years have proven. But every day, we find a way to engage and empower residents and communities of the Piedmont to make progress. Sometimes it’s a big, visible win, like defeating the Disney America project. Sometimes it’s the act of planting a single, beautiful tree. Each creates optimism for the future.
We hope you will join us in that work.
Chris Miller, President
This letter appeared in The Piedmont Environmental Council’s member newsletter, The Piedmont View. If you’d like to become a PEC member or renew your membership, please visit pecva.org/join.