Bay Journal

Loudoun County state park new but not unknown

Conservationists gift land to Virginia

  • By Whitney Pipkin on December 18, 2016
An old barn now serves as a community meeting space and occasional schoolhouse for homeschool groups at the Blue Ridge Environmental Center, not far from where an organic farming family still manages the land. (Dee Leggett, Blue Ridge Environmental Center) The property is home to several historic farmhouses and log cabins. (Dee Leggett, Blue Ridge Environmental Center) Wortman Pond is home to a deafening chorus of frogs and the occasional Eastern snapping turtle. (Dee Leggett, Blue Ridge Environmental Center)

Robert and Dee Leggett wanted to buy a little natural land in Virginia, to preserve it and provide a local campground for Boy Scouts. But, in 1998, they ended up with closer to 900 acres of deep woods, babbling brooks, wildflower meadows and historic farmsteads after finding land that might be developed without their intervention.

And, this year, that property became the first state park in Virginia’s Loudoun County.

“It was fully open to development when we bought it and put the easements on it,” said Dee Leggett, recalling the long road to the land’s permanent protection as a state park.

A nonprofit organization called the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship has managed the land since the Robert and Dee Leggett Foundation purchased it. The expansive park has become the largest accessible natural environment in Loudoun County, a region facing steady development pressure just west of Washington, DC.

That status — or the ways in which the park has been used for nearly two decades — won’t change with its new title, at least not any time soon.

But becoming a state park might put the land on more visitors’ radar, said state parks director Craig Seaver.

“It’s a beautiful area with a lot of resources, and it plays well for a state park,” he said. “It’s been discussed as a potential for a state park in that region for years.”

The Leggetts, without relatives who could inherit the land, have been eyeing state park status for years as a way to preserve the park in perpetuity. Their foundation gave a majority of the acreage to the Old Dominion Land Conservancy a couple of years ago as a holding agency for the state.

That group gifted 600 acres to the state in June, with plans for the state to acquire the other 280 acres at a future date when funding is available.

For now, the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship will continue to manage the park until the state has the resources to tackle it. Seaver said that the state is also considering the purchase of additional lands nearby for constructing cabins or other facilities; conservation easements limit the amount of structural development within the park itself.

“The hope is that, in the future, we can work with the general assembly to acquire additional land” as part of a master planning process for state parks that has not yet begun, Seaver said.

For now, the land will continue to be used by scout troops, school groups, hikers, overnighters and as an organic farm. And the Leggetts hope that making it the county’s first state park will put those resources on the map.

“We’re always looking to increase opportunities for visitors, from an educational perspective especially,” said Dee Leggett. “Anything that gets kids outdoors, we think, is critical, for their health and well-being and the protection of the land in the future.”

Normally, when the state gets land for a new park, it’s starting from scratch. With properties that were used for little more than agriculture or forestry before being donated or purchased, it can take the state years to transform them into a publically usable space.

“This land is very different,” Leggett said.

That’s because the grounds are more than ready to welcome visitors, even if the state isn’t quite ready for them to arrive in large numbers. Leggett said the foundation doesn’t have a sense of how many people already visit the park, which is open from dawn to dusk, because there is no full-time staff at the site. Regulars aren’t likely to even notice at first that it has become a state park, because new signage or other on-site changes are yet to be installed.

Most visitors enter from a main entrance off of Harpers Ferry Road in Purcellville. The first thing they notice, just off the long gravel drive, is a tall deer fence on the hill, which protects a certified organic farm’s vegetables and orchard from the wildlife grazers.

Farmers-in-residence Attila Agoston, Shawna DeWitt and their two children are often around as well, tending to vegetables or rotating animals through a small pasture area to build better soil health.

Agoston also helps out with mowing and maintaining other parts of the property while DeWitt makes sure a historic house, available for rent through AirBNB.com, is ready for guests.

“Our farmers are most hospitable,” Leggett said.

Beyond the farm, the barn and the 1848 Demory-Wortman House, which sleeps 10, are trails that wind into the deep woods. Visitors are free to wander the nine miles of trails. Leashed dogs are welcome.

Most of the trail loops are less than a mile long but can be coupled together for lengthier hikes. The Farmstead Loop takes visitors by historic cabins and a binocular-worthy high point, while the Little Turtle Trail crosses both Sweet Run and Piney Run.

United States Trail Ride, Inc., organizes horseback-riding treks on a few of the park’s trails, which are not otherwise open to riders. The group also maintains the trails, removes fallen trees and ensures riders wear helmets.

Two campsites can be reserved for larger groups who want to set up tents on the grounds. The Demory Field has capacity for up to 80 people and access to bathrooms, showers and eating areas, while the Sawmill Field can sleep up to 400 for larger groups that can bring in their own portable bathroom facilities.

For nature enthusiasts, the park’s trails provide encounters with more than 130 species of birds, 60 species of butterflies and the occasional salamander, fox or bobcat. The Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy offers monthly bird walks as well as stargazing parties to take advantage of the park’s dark skies.

Along the way, visitors interested in history can find plenty of fodder on a site that was stomping grounds for Civil War soldiers headed to and from Harpers Ferry, WV.

The park’s proximity to the national park at Harpers Ferry and to the Appalachian Trail was a selling point for the state. Making the land a state park not only highlights the resource that already exists in Loudoun County but also helps to link it with other parks across the region.

The Leggetts chose the site, in part, because of the opportunity to protect part of the “viewshed” of the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the ridge adjacent to the park.

Clyde Cristman, director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, said the state hopes to take advantage of that proximity by creating a formal trail out of the informal footpath that runs from the Appalachian Trail to the park’s campgrounds, directing passers-by to the new state park.

Meanwhile, the Blue Ridge Center’s status as a newly minted state park won’t change the visitor experience for at least a couple of years. Instead, it will be quietly added to the state’s list of parks and, for a little while longer, remain one of Loudoun County’s best-kept secrets.

Visit ‘the Ridge’ in Loudoun County, VA

  • Trails are free to use and open to the public every day from dawn until dusk. The education center and restrooms are open seasonally from April through November.
  • The entrance to the center is located on Harpers Ferry Road in Purcellville, opposite the Neersville Fire Department. The entrance is easy to miss, so be on the lookout for the entrance sign.
  • For information, visit blueridgecenter.org or call 540-668-7640.

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About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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