Faye Crawford Cooper didn’t lose her childhood all at once. But she knows how it started.Faye Crawford Cooper stands in front of the home where she grew up in Burketown, VA. She has helped connect scores of landowners in the greater Shenandoah Valley with conservation easements that protect land from development. This property is one of them. (Jeremy Cox)

She grew up on a farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, catching turtles, chasing snakes, scooping up tadpoles by the handful, overturning rocks to spot skinks and scouring the countryside for signs of deer.

Then came word that a new highway was slated to blaze its way down the middle of her family’s 140 acres of rolling terrain. After that portion of Interstate 81 opened in 1963, life in and around the farm was never the same, Crawford Cooper recalled.

Workers dug a new channel to steer stormwater off the road. The wetlands dried up. The turtles vanished. The deer scattered. The hum of cicadas was replaced by the roar of semi-trucks and sedans.

“Everything changed in terms of the natural setting of the farm,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much of an effect it had on me until later on when I changed careers.”

As seen through the lens of Crawford Cooper’s experience, the interstate both shattered the valley’s wild past and drove away the defense of its remaining pieces. Drawing inspiration from the valley of her memory, Crawford Cooper devoted most of her adulthood toward preserving the rural places that remained.

In 1990, as the march of subdivisions and strip malls looked almost inevitable, Crawford Cooper co-founded the Valley Conservation Council. The group quickly found itself at the head of a movement that eventually established conservation easements across approximately 155,000 acres — an area so large that, if assembled in one slab, it would be larger than Chicago.

A conservation easement is an arrangement in which property owners voluntarily donate or sell most, if not all, of the rights to build homes or businesses on their land. The ground remains legally theirs, though, and they can continue to raise crops, livestock or timber on it.

Crawford Cooper’s efforts have shaped the valley as much as any force in recent decades, said Natasha Skelton, the council’s executive director.

“She’s put her signature on the landscape of the greater Shenandoah Valley,” Skelton said.

Crawford Cooper, 65, has managed to remain a voice for the wilderness without becoming a voice in the wilderness, allies say. One of the biggest highlights on her resume was receiving the Gerald P. McCarthy Award for Leadership in Environmental Conflict Resolution from the University of Virginia’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation in 2011.

“We don’t fight too much,” said Crawford Cooper as she sat on the porch of a restaurant overlooking a pasture she hopes to someday see under an easement. “We didn’t take an adversarial approach to local governments. We wanted to be viewed as a resource and not a thorn in their sides.” 

Crawford Cooper said preserving open space is vital to the Shenandoah Valley’s economy and character.

The valley stretches along a northeast-southwest angle for nearly 200 miles but is only 30 miles wide at its maximum. It is often called Virginia’s “farm basket,” a basket that contains four of the state’s top five agriculture-producing counties.

Aside from farming, the region’s hiking trails and Civil War sites generate nearly $1.5 billion in annual tourism spending.

One motivation for preserving land that sometimes gets overlooked but is no less important, Crawford Cooper said, is ensuring the health of the Chesapeake Bay. No fewer than three major tributaries — the Shenandoah, James and Rappahannock rivers — spring forth from western Virginia. 

“We’re sitting in the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay,” she said.

Initially a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, Crawford Cooper took a job with the Nature Conservancy’s office in Charlottesville in the 1980s. In her telling, she was compelled more by a paycheck than the idea of conservation. But that soon changed. As the director of stewardship, she traveled regularly to some of the most pristine parts of Virginia, where the Conservancy managed its land preserves. She also learned how to make a nonprofit survive financially.

In 1989, after the first of their two sons was born, Crawford Cooper and her husband, Peter, decided to move to Staunton. 

By then, the valley’s population had swelled more than 50 percent from 1960–1990, climbing to nearly 350,000 people, according to U.S. Census figures. Most of that growth took place in the region’s cities. Harrisonburg, home to James Madison University, saw its population double to 31,000.

“Zoning either didn’t exist or was a dirty word,” she said. “We were just seeing hundreds and thousands of acres being converted from open space to these other uses.”

Crawford Cooper and other alarmed residents began strategizing over kitchen counters and coffee tables. A consensus soon jelled that there was no organization working to shield cropland, timber acreage and other open space from bulldozers.

“We were not anti-growth,” Crawford Cooper said. “We were for good planning.”

They established the Valley Conservation Council and, after a few years, Crawford Cooper was hired to direct it. The group financed reports underscoring the need for open space, lobbied local officials to write preservation into growth plans and persuaded dozens of private landowners to sell the development rights on their properties.

Since 1990, the amount of land under conservation easements has jumped from 5,000 acres to more than 160,000 acres, Crawford Cooper said. “Now, I’m not going to claim they influenced every one of those acres, but I think [the council] has had a hand in that movement,” she added.

Under her direction, the group also successfully encouraged some jurisdictions to create agricultural districts, which prevent multiple tracts of contiguous land from being heavily developed for up to 10 years. She continued her easement work out of the Staunton office of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and later guided conservation efforts as Virginia’s representative to the Mid-Atlantic Highlands Action Program. Crawford Cooper rejoined the Valley Conservation Council for a second stint as executive director before leaving with an emeritus title to go into private practice a few years ago.

While much of the region is now protected from intense development, many of the threats facing the greater Shenandoah Valley remain. 

A University of Virginia think tank projects the valley’s population to surge by nearly another one-fifth by 2020, surpassing 630,000 people. Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Transportation is studying ways to carry that additional traffic on an already congested I-81. One option being considered is widening the 325-mile stretch to six lanes at a cost of nearly $3 billion.

For her part, Crawford Cooper plans to retire in January to spend more time traveling with her husband. But she isn’t sure whether she will step away entirely from environmental causes.

She worries that today’s children won’t appreciate the outdoors as much as previous generations because of technology, such as video games and smartphones. 

“The work is not all done,” she said. “There’s been some great success stories with land and water conservation. I’m proud to have been associated with some of that to make that happen. But there’s still a lot to be done in terms of changes to the landscape.”