Protecting a Global Hotspot of Biodiversity in Virginia


As a boy, Neal Kilgore encountered his version of a horror story during an innocent fishing trip with a buddy.
Casting their lines into the Clinch River in Wise County, Va., around 1970, the boys noticed fish floating on the surface. For as far as they could see, bass, bluegill and other species up to several feet long languished, their scaly bodies sacrificed to a chemical spill from an upstream power plant.
A few days later, “You could have walked across the river on dead fish,” recalls Kilgore, now of Washington County, Va.
Kilgore and others who have long mourned environmental violations of the biologically diverse Clinch and New Rivers in Southwest Virginia are taking steps to protect those and other waterways by joining people across the state who are choosing preservation over large-scale development.
Two private, non-profit organizations, the New River Land Trust, based in Blacksburg, Va., and The Land Trust for southwest Virginia, in the westernmost mountains of Virginia, are helping landowners who decide they want to conserve their property forever to do just that. The land trusts work with private landowners to develop conservation easements, voluntary legal agreements between landowners and conservation organizations that allow landowners to determine how their property can be used now and in the future. The easement then becomes a permanent part of the property deed. Most easements just restrict development, but some go further to limit logging or certain types of logging, require stream buffers to keep cattle from creeks, or promote other soil and water conservation measures.
In return, landowners receive federal tax deductions, as well as a generous state tax credit that can be sold for cash to other Virginia taxpayers. These credits, which can be substantial in some cases, allow easement donors to recoup a portion of the value of the development rights they give up when they restrict the future uses of their lands.
A Hotspot of Aquatic Diversity

Representatives of the trusts are educating landowners about the importance of protecting the Clinch and New, long rivers as snaky as the mountainous roads that cross them, waterways that wiggle into and out of Virginia and other states.
The Clinch, with headwaters in Tazewell County, Va., rambles from the mountains of Southwest Virginia down to the Tennessee River.
“There’s no place else in the world with this number of [aquatic] species in one spot,” about 40 species of mussels alone, says Steve Lindeman, a forester with The Nature Conservancy who is on the board of directors of The Land Trust for Southwest Virginia.
The Clinch is home to aquatic characters such as the Appalachian monkeyface, the shiny pigtoe, the rough rabbit’s foot and the purple bean – all federally endangered or threatened freshwater mussels.
The New River, one of the world’s oldest rivers, is one of few in the world that flows from south to north. Like the Clinch, it provides habitat for many endangered and threatened species of salamanders and mussels. With headwaters in North Carolina, the New churns through Southwest Virginia and halfway across West Virginia where it joins the Gauley to become the Kanawha River.
The New and Clinch rivers are valued partly for recreation, tourism and as municipal drinking supplies. But according to many, these rivers are not valued nearly enough – a situation the land trusts aim to address by promoting conservation easements.
Much of the damage to the New and Clinch comes from development, which causes sediment to be released into the water from road and building construction; septic systems that leach into the ground; runoff from houses and pavement that worsens flooding. Runoff and black water spills from coal mining operations are another major threat, especially to the Clinch.
Farming and extensive logging can have negative effects as well by burying crucial reproductive habitat for aquatic life in silt from the erosion that follows those activities. Cattle that use streams, in addition to contributing to erosion, can also introduce harmful bacteria.
“You can’t save a river if you don’t keep your farmland intact,” says Bill Wasserman of Russell County, the President and founder of The Land Trust for Southwest Virginia. In recent years, he has seen farms fractured into subdivisions, leading to increasing development, as well as excessive logging of native forests. “In southwest Virginia, the rural character of the region is part of the way of life. The things I’d come to love about this region weren’t going to be there unless somebody stepped up and started to preserve some of it.”
Fortunately, Wasserman stepped up. He has a conservation easement on 500 acres of his mostly-forested property on Clinch Mountain. The community of old trees there includes poplars, oaks, maples, walnuts and buckeyes, some 4 feet in diameter.
About 280,000 acres in Virginia are already in conservation easements in connection with about 25 land trusts. Most easements are held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a state agency for which Wasserman works that monitors the agreements. These agreements are backed by the state attorney general’s office to make sure they are followed.
Easements are “alternatives to chopping up farms or forests for a one-time commercial use,” says Lesley Howard of Blacksburg, president of the New River Land Trust. “They give people another way to conserve land for future generations.”
Howard’s trust has worked with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to put about 7,000 acres under easement, with 40 easements under way this year. Most of the property is in Floyd, Grayson, Giles, Montgomery and Wythe counties. About three miles along the New River in Grayson County are protected, in addition to easements that preserve other rivers and tributaries of the New. The trust recently received a federal appropriation of $250,000 to buy another easement along the New.

Protecting More than Rivers

In addition to the ecologically important river frontage, the New River Land Trust also protects 1,281 acres under easement in equally important high elevation areas. With the help of the New River Land Trust and Virginia Outdoors Foundation, Mark Todd and his family put easements on their farmland and forested property on Buck Mountain in Grayson County. At an elevation of 4,670 feet, Buck Mountain, which overlooks the New River, is reportedly Virginia’s tallest privately-owned mountain.
Some of the land has been used for cattle farming since Todd’s grandfather, Bays Todd, acquired the property about 50 years ago. Todd and others hunt turkeys, deer, grouse and other game on the property, through which the Saddle Creek headwaters, a tributary of the New, run. A Christmas tree farm dots some of the acreage.
“This is the way we want to keep the land. That way, we know that for the future, my grandchildren and on down the line, it will be there,” says Todd, a doctor who lives in Salem, Va.
The easement Todd put on his portion of the property prohibits structures other than those needed for farm use and limits the height of buildings to preserve ridge views. Cell towers are not allowed.
Cell towers are also prohibited on the 44 acres in Washington County on which Neal Kilgore put an easement with the help of the Land Trust for Southwest Virginia. The easement restricts logging, prohibits commercial buildings and the selling of lots for development and keeps cattle from streams, among other provisions. Kilgore was motivated in part by seeing uncontrolled growth elsewhere in Virginia.
More development means less land for food production to feed an increasing population, says Kilgore, who works for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. “At least I know in my heart I have set aside some agricultural land that is available for production if future generations need it,” he says.
Kilgore didn’t mind investing $2,800 on surveying, land appraisals and a lawyer’s fees to put an easement on his tract.
In addition to federal and state tax breaks, the New River Land Trust plans to give another incentive with an income-based program in Montgomery County that offers no-interest loans for the land appraisals required to get easements. Trust officials hope to expand the program to other localities.

Education and Research

Educating landowners about conservation and the importance of the New and Clinch rivers is part of the land trusts’ missions.
The Land Trust for Southwest Virginia holds barbecues for landowners, county government officials and others to discuss easements. The trust has already helped with easements on about 500 acres of forest and farmland in Lee, Scott and Washington counties, Wasserman says, and it’s one of the newest land trusts in the Southeast.
The New River Land Trust, like a number of land trusts across the country, is beginning to identify areas of high conservation value in the area they cover. According to President Leslie Howard, the New River Land Trust is working on a database to identify places on the New and elsewhere that are particularly important in conserving water quality and preserving scenic and recreational value.
Officials with both land trusts believe development and conservation can coexist. “We can allow development. We just need to plan for it, make sure it happens in the right place at the right time,” says Lindeman, of Washington County.
Another strategy for preserving land and water, which the New River trust is pursuing with a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, is helping landowners find ways to make a living from their property by farming, timbering and other activities.
Many landowners, however, already know how they want to use their land and are well educated about the value of easements and the need to protect their children’s heritage. They are contacting their local land trusts in increasing numbers every year across Virginia and neighboring states.
Neil Kilgore knew it was the right place and time to put an easement on his property as he anticipated the birth of his son, Konnor, now 2. “What kind of world do we enable children to inherit?” he asks.
He wants Konnor to inherit a Clinch River in which mussels wallow in the clean gravel they require, a Clinch River where the fish he sees are underwater – not floating on top of it.


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