Conserving land and wildlife habitat is always a challenge, but managers at the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge consider their Virginia refuge one of the lucky ones.

Their good fortune begins with the setting. The refuge is focused on a 60-mile stretch of the lower Rappahannock River, on Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. Farms, forests and marshes carpet the landscape, where new development has yet to leave a significant mark.

“Within the Chesapeake watershed, the Rappahannock stands out as one of the still relatively undeveloped rivers,” said refuge manager Joe McCauley. “There are large tracts of land held by a small number of landowners, who have been stewards of the land for generations.”

The refuge also benefits from a unique partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns the refuge, and several nonprofit organizations—such as the Conservation Fund, Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“From its inception, this refuge was intended to be based on partnerships,” McCauley said. “But in 23 years of working with Fish and Wildlife Service, I haven’t seen a partnership that works as well as this.”

The Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a member of the Chesapeake Gateways Network, is one of the newest in the national system.

“It’s got a lot going for it,” said Andy Lacatell, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Chesapeake Rivers Programs. “There are big farms, open space, marshes and forest. It’s a high quality, high diversity river system used by anadromous fish like herring as a migration corridor.”

The Rappahannock River also lies at the center of the Atlantic flyway and has long been recognized as vital for bald eagles, migratory birds and waterfowl. Large forest blocks provide good riparian habitat for eagles, as well as nesting and foraging habitat for other birds.

A refuge along the Rappahannock was first considered during the 1960s. In 1984, the United States and Canada created a North American Waterfowl Management Plan that brought renewed attention to the river.

“It was an international blueprint for conserving waterfowl habitat,” McCauley said. “Expert biologists identified specific areas that were critical to conserve but not yet protected. The Rappahannock was one of them.”

The formation of the refuge began in 1994 and the first tract was purchased in 1996. Because it has evolved in ways that are tailored to the local setting, the refuge is unusual both in geography and its approach to acquiring land. Instead of maintaining one defined property, the refuge targets a 270,000 acre “area of focus” between the roughly parallel Routes 3 and 17, with the river cutting a central path between them. The goal is to bring 20,000 acres under refuge protection. To date, the refuge owns or holds easements on 7,711 acres in 20 parcels—most of them in disconnected parcels.

It’s an unusual layout for a national wildlife refuge, but McCauley said it’s the right one for the Rappahannock.

“It would be impossible for one group to protect the entire tidal section of the river,” McCauley said. “It’s just too much. So within it, we’ve identified the most important places—the biggest wetland complexes, the largest area of contiguous land—to create protected stepping stones where birds can move through the valley to rest and feed and nest.”

Along with purchased or donated land, the refuge also holds conservation easements on nearly 1,400 acres. Easements are legal agreements in which the property owner retains the land but sells the rights to certain kinds of usage to another party. For example, owners may keep the right to farm the land but relinquish development rights.

Easements are a common conservation tool, but few refuges have made use of them. In many places, development pressure has raised land values to the point that the cost of an easement approaches the cost of buying the land outright.

“In those places, easements don’t make good fiscal sense,” McCauley said. “You’d pay 80 to 90 percent of the purchase price without getting all of the management opportunities you might have by owning the land.”

But along the Rappahannock, easements fit with both the economics and landowner interest.

“Conservation easements open doors,” said deputy refuge manager Kathryn Owens. “The people who live here love the land, and many of them still want to farm it. With easements, owners can still live on the land and play a management role. And there’s lots of flexibility to really meet the needs of the landowner. The details on each easement are different.”

Easements also help to maintain community character. “When the refuge first opened, people were concerned about the refuge taking land out of production,” Owens said. “There was a perception that it wouldn’t preserve the cultural landscape. But easements create an opportunity for conservation that protects the culture, too.”

Opportunities to add land or easements—and even the acquisition process itself—are shared through a unique partnership with independent conservation organizations called the Rappahannock Working Group. The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Fund, and Trust for Public Land are active participants

“The idea is that it doesn’t matter who protects the property. Just make sure it is protected,” Lacatell said. “What makes it work really well is that we’re very open with each other about who we are talking to—landowners, funders. It’s a completely open process, so we’re not stepping on each other’s toes.”

One of the best outcomes, Owens said, is that the partners can match interested landowners with the agency or organization that best fits their needs. The partners have even stepped in to accept property temporarily when the refuge can’t process the agreement quickly enough or doesn’t have funds immediately available.

“It’s the most beneficial conservation partnership I’ve ever seen,” Owens said. “It’s about saving the land, regardless of who gets the points.”

In all, the partners have protected more than 17,000 acres within the refuge acquisition boundary.

The refuge continues to expand its holdings and maximize them for wildlife habitat. More than 230 species of birds use the refuge, including many that are priority species in the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan. Among them are the American black duck, American bittern, barn owl, grasshopper sparrow, wood thrush and northern bobwhite. Bald eagles depend heavily on the refuge and surrounding area. In 2006, eagles along the Rappahannock River tended 124 nests and 193 chicks—the highest numbers recorded in Virginia this year.

The public can experience the refuge by visiting the Wilna Tract just north of Warsaw, or by calling ahead for arrangements at other sites. The Wilna Tract features extensive grasslands, wooded hiking trails and fishing on a serene 35-acre pond. Hand-launched boats are welcome. The refuge hosts an annual fishing derby for children and offers hunting at many locations for those who receive a special permit.

The Rappahannock Wildlife Refuge Friends is developing a canoe launch and interpretive trail for Mount Landing Creek, which is bordered by pristine wetlands.

Like many areas in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the pace of development is quickening along the lower Rappahannock. McCauley hopes that the combined efforts of the refuge, its partners and local property owners will help preserve the landscape that has been loved by generations and continues to serve regional wildlife so well.

“If we could all feel confident that change would never come, we wouldn’t need a refuge here,” McCauley said. “But change is coming. We really have a window of opportunity to conserve big blocks of land—and everyone can bring something to the table.”

Rappahannock River Valley

The Wilna tract, north of Warsaw, is open from sunrise to sunset daily for fishing from shore or small boats, hiking on nature trails, photography or wildlife observation.

To get there: From Tappahannock, VA, take US 360 East across the Rappahannock River toward Warsaw and continue for 4.1 miles. Turn left onto Route 624/Newland Road and continue 4.2 miles. Turn left onto Route 636/Strangeway and continue for 0.25 miles. Turn right onto Route 640/ Sandy Lane. Follow Sandy Lane for 1.1 miles and turn left into the refuge.

Other refuge areas are open by reservation. Call the office ahead of time to ensure that habitat management activities won’t conflict with your visit.

Environmental education programs and hunting permits are also available. Contact the refuge headquarters for details.

For information, call 804-333-1470 or visit