Protecting the Cedar Run Watershed

When Mike and Margrete Stevens first came to Fauquier County eighteen years ago, as the new owners of Bonny Brook Farm, near Warrenton, they made friends with their neighbors Julian and Sue Scheer and Hilary and Rich Gerhardt (the Scheers’ daughter and son-in-law). This friendship with a family of dedicated conservationists led the Stevens to start hosting a wildflower walk on their land each April, as a sky-colored carpet of Virginia Bluebells blossoms along Cedar Run.

“Their commitment to their farm and the area where we live inspired us to do something for the local environment,” Mrs. Stevens says. “And one of the ways to do that was to invite other people from the neighborhood to come and take a walk and share in what we think is a splendid annual display of Virginia Bluebells.”

In 2010, the Stevens permanently protected their own land — a nearly 200-acre spread of crops and hayfields, with frontage on Cedar Run, and a house that dates from 1820. Mrs. Stevens says that they donated an easement on the farm because they wanted to protect its beauty and its traditional character, maintaining a sense of continuity with the past generations. Every spring, PEC members and other Fauquier neighbors are invited to Bonny Brook for the Bluebell Walk, a tradition that Mrs. Stevens says has become especially meaningful since Mr. Scheer’s passed away. A fund was established in his memory to support conservation of the land that he loved — PEC’s Julian W. Scheer Cedar Run Land Conservation Fund — and the annual Bluebell Walk celebrates this ongoing legacy.

The Cedar Run watershed is a focus of PEC’s land conservation efforts in Fauquier, in order to protect water quality in this river, which is a source of drinking water for Warrenton, Prince William and Fairfax, as well as to preserve farmland, scenic beauty and other resources throughout the watershed. Now, a full 20% of the land that drains into Cedar Run is protected — including 14,000 acres of public land and 11,300 acres of private conservation land.

One of the reasons for this success is the range of conservation options that are available to landowners. A few miles downstream of Bonny Brook, the Wilson family worked with Fauquier County’s Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program to protect their 270-acre cattle farm near Catlett. PEC’s Cedar Run Fund leveraged local PDR funding to reimburse the Wilsons for conserving their farm. In addition, the Wilsons donated a portion of the value of the easement.

Ray Pickering, the director of Fauquier County’s PDR program says, “The Board of Supervisors wanted a program that would appeal to the more traditional working farms and I think after eight years it’s certainly proven to be an effective tool. We’re up to almost 8,200 acres that have been protected through the PDR program.”PDR programs are active in four of PEC’s nine counties — Albemarle, Clarke, Fauquier and Rappahannock — expanding conservation options for family farms, whose owners may not consider donating an easement to be financially viable.

He says that the program makes efficient use of local funding, bringing in one-third of its funding from non-county sources, such as PEC’s Cedar Run Fund. And, in the long term, saving farms saves money for the county since farms, on average, generate more tax revenue than they require in services, while the opposite is true for housing developments.

Mr. Pickering says that the Wilson property was a good candidate for conservation because of its agricultural productivity, its frontage on a tributary of Cedar Run, its proximity to the Catlett growth area and its connections to other protected property. The Wilson farm adjoins the Nissley farm, which was also protected with funding from the PDR program and the Cedar Run Fund, in 2006.

The farm is a rolling expanse of pastures, with lines of cedar trees growing along the fencerows and distant views of blue mountains. Eleanor Wilson and her husband, the late Herbert Wilson, started farming there sixty years ago. Now, their son Mike Wilson raises crops and beef cattle on the land. Mrs. Wilson says that they wanted to protect the farm “because it’s beautiful and we didn’t want to have wall-to-wall houses here. We wanted it to stay like it is so that our grandchildren can enjoy it too.”