Fifty miles south of Washington, DC, where the Potomac River curves abruptly to the east at Marlborough Point, the Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve rises high between the tidal freshwater marshes along Accokeek and Potomac creeks to its north and south.

The preserve’s 2,872 acres offer dramatic topography — a central ridge that climbs to 160 feet with steep ravines that fall back to the water’s edge. Both creeks are fringed by tidal wetlands replete with spatterdock, yellow pond lily, and the rare American lotus. These steep slopes are one of the reasons its forests are largely intact, with many trees dating back to the Civil War or earlier.

After more than 200 years of ownership by one family, the Crow’s Nest peninsula passed through a series of owners, and was ultimately purchased by developers based in McLean, VA, in the late 1980s. With the proximity to DC and Fredericksburg, VA, it was only a matter of time before prime waterfront sites would be staked out amongst 400-year-old tulip poplars and globally rare upland forest species.

But for the perseverance of Crow’s Nest enthusiasts and an economic recession that helped to motivate the owners, pink surveyor’s tape might have led to second homes and winding roads through exclusive neighborhoods.

In the mid-1990s, Hal Wiggins, an environmental scientist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Fredericksburg, was looking for wetland mitigation opportunities to offset a proposed regional airport for Stafford County. A resident of nearby Spotsylvania County who appreciated paddling the unspoiled waterways surrounding the 4,000-acre Crow’s Nest peninsula, Wiggins discovered an extensive heron rookery up Potomac Creek — which was ultimately protected in 1997 by the Fairfax Land Preservation Trust (now the Northern Virginia Preservation Trust).

“This effort,” Wiggins explained, “compelled me to do more as a scientist and citizen of the region.” A trained biologist, Wiggins urged Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation — and Stafford County— to appreciate the variety and uniqueness of Crow’s Nest’s natural and cultural offerings.

Subsequently, DCR ecologist Gary Flemming described Crow’s Nest as supporting “one of the finest — if not the finest — upland hardwood forests remaining in the Virginia Coastal Plain.” Ultimately, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assessed Crow’s Nest in the late 1990s, it rose to the top of agency’s priority list for preservation on the East Coast.

What ensued was a cadre of preservationists, individuals, elected officials, nonprofits, and state and federal agencies persevering through multiple setbacks to protect almost three-quarters of the land on the peninsula.

Joseph Maroon, then director of the DCR, the agency that manages the preserves, said, “There were steep slopes on the property, and there were steep slopes to overcome in trying to protect the property.”

Efforts to obtain federal funding for purchase fell through at the last minute, Maroon recalled. “But we kept at it. Stafford County was a great partner, unlike any other that I have ever had the pleasure working with.”

The owners had bought the property for a high price — at one point the purchase price was $62 million — which Maroon said, “complicated things pretty dramatically.”

Meeting the steep price was made possible when the county agreed to take out a state loan for $9 million of the ultimate $32 million cost. “That was a lot of money for a little county like Stafford,” said Paul Milde, a Stafford County supervisor who is widely credited as a prime mover behind the negotiations and who encouraged local officials to take on the debt.

”I’m one of those rare Republicans who is a land conservationist,” said Milde, who got his start in local politics driven by the desire to see Crow’s Nest preserved for future generations. Inspired by President Theodore Roosevelt, Milde understood that the demand for housing would eventually “eat up all the land” if it was not protected.

In 2009, the second of two land purchases completed the acquisition of all of the 2,782 acres that is now one of Virginia’s 64 natural area preserves.

Part of the land purchased for the preserve includes a strip along the north side of Accokeek Creek, where a 20-car, porous-paver parking lot has been installed, as well as a half-mile trail that loops along the edge of the woods overlooking the marsh.

The inventory at Crow’s Nest is impressive and includes 750 acres of tidal and nontidal wetlands, representing some of the best examples of diverse and intact wetland habitats in the Potomac River drainage. There are 21 miles of stream, riparian and wetland buffers. The preserve’s unfragmented and mature 2,200-acre stand of hardwoods is increasingly rare in the Chesapeake Bay’s coastal plains.

Under the preserve’s woodlands lies nutrient-rich, alkaline soils formed 60 million years ago beneath the vast inland sea of the Pangaean continent. These calcareous soils give rise to unique plant communities.

This neck of land has been largely uninhabited since the Civil War, when it was occupied alternately by Union and Confederate troops who made use of the trees for nearby hospitals, prison camps and shipping piers. The landscape was difficult to farm, but it brought income from timber sales to a series of owners up until the 1950s.

During a Thanksgiving weekend walk on one of the new trails, preserve steward Mike Lott pointed out some of the oldest tree specimens: a chestnut oak towering high toward a brilliant blue sky, and the hulking trunk of a very old tulip poplar, nearly 4 feet in diameter, rising above the spare understory of mountain laurel and huckleberry.

“There are a few relict trees here,” Lott said, “some probably 300 or 400 years old. I’m reluctant to drill a test core to find out for sure.” The last timbering in the 1950s was selective and along the more easily accessible ridge line.

The trail system Lott and volunteers are building takes advantage of old logging roads. “Our goal,” Lott said, “is to open this section of the preserve to the public with 10–15 miles of trails.”

But first things first.

The primary purpose of Virginia’s 64 natural area preserves is to protect rare or important habitats or species. Once purchased, natural area preserves must be managed to improve existing habitat, control invasive species, and ensure appropriate use by the human species.

Much like a conservation easement, “natural area preserve” status provides legally binding protection from certain kinds of activities — public access is a secondary mission.

Hunting may be allowed. At Crow’s Nest, for example, waterfowl hunting is made possible through a lottery system one day a week during season.

None of the preserves allow camping or overnight use, and all limit human activity to minimize disturbance to the plants and animals being protected. Parking and facilities may be minimal to non-existent, though most preserves are open during daylight hours for passive recreation.

Today, access to Crow’s Nest by land and water is limited because facilities for the public are still under development.

Reflecting on Virginia’s natural areas, Maroon, now the executive director of the Virginia Environmental Endowment, said, “The protection of [these natural areas] comes first. But to open them up to the public, that takes money and resources.” As the DCR website says, “Significant staff and operations resources are needed before public access can be effectively implemented at the preserve.”

Tom Smith, head of the DCR Division of Natural Heritage, explained that the agency’s $2.7 million annual budget does not include money for land acquisition — let alone improvements to natural area preserves. “When we start putting in access for the public, this is when the costs really go up.”

Although Lott schedules several open houses each year for the general public and other opportunities for smaller groups of birders and naturalists, the main section of the preserve will remain largely inaccessible to the public until the 1.5-mile road along the spine of the neck is improved. The Virginia General Assembly has yet to appropriate funding for this project.

There are plans to complete a boat launch for hand-carried canoes and kayaks from the parking lot by the end of 2014. The launch will be a 400-foot-long pier across the marsh to a floating dock at a point where the shallow creek has enough water through the range of tides for launching human-powered craft.

Wiggins is working with Mike Lott to start a “friends” group for Crow’s Nest, a natural progression in the development of refuges and preserves planning to increase public access. Meanwhile, Wiggins continues to introduce friends and visitors to Crow’s Nest, paddling the creeks and helping preserve staff at public open houses.

Designations by federal programs can help. Part of the funding for the boat launch came from the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Program. Once complete, the water trail on Accokeek Creek will officially become part of the Potomac section of the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail.

Archeological investigations have unearthed evidence of occupation by Late Woodland era native peoples and eventually the Patawomack Indians, from whose name the word “Potomac” is likely derived. The area may have even been a trading place between the northern Iroquoian-speaking people, the western Siouan-speaking people and the local Algonquian-speaking people.

Lore has it that Capt. Samuel Argall captured Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, near Crow’s Nest. The Patawomack Tribe, descendants of these native peoples, is one of 10 American Indian tribes now recognized by Virginia.

At the water’s edge, Lott trained his spotting scope on the marsh looking for a stray migrant or winter resident, black duck or blue-winged teal. Lott has counted 138 bird species on the preserve since he became the DCR’s northern region steward in 2012.

As a dark shadow overhead emitted a loud, raucous call, revealing itself as an American crow, Lott explained how to distinguish this crow from the fish crow, the latter having nasal-sounding “nah, nah” cry.

Both are common here, which may explain why the Daniels family, the earliest English settlers, painted their trading schooner black and named it Crow. Its owners, Southern sympathizers at the start of the war, scuttled the ship in the shallows along Accokeek Creek early on, lest it fall into the hands of Union soldiers.

The Potomac River was important to Union troops for resupplying troops and protecting Washington, DC. And Crow’s Nest, on the river a scant 50 miles from the confederacy’s capital in Richmond, provided water access — and protection — of strategic importance.

These days, the preserve’s high biodiversity is of strategic importance to more than 60 species of migrating neotropical birds and globally rare plants and plant communities.

Milde finds solace here, especially in the woods. “The big trees — these are maybe my favorite part of Crow’s Nest. I want to see them die of natural causes,” he said.

“There is always going to be a demand for housing, and there is always going to be a need to protect open space.”

In 50–100 years, even the younger trees at the preserve will be considered “old-growth,” something future generations will be able marvel at when they visit Crow’s Nest.

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Open House

The public is invited to an open house at Crow’s Nest Preserve May 17. For details, call Mike Lott, northern region steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage, at 540-658-8690.