Rapid development in Virginia, rich with Civil War battlefields, rolling farmlands and historic sites dating to the nation’s founders, is fueling an effort to dedicate $40 million annually to conserve open spaces.

Compared with neighboring states, Virginia is miserly when it comes to buying precious lands, according to the Conservation Land Coalition. Maryland spends $70 million annually and North Carolina $60 million to protect open lands.

In fact, Virginia is one of the only states on the East Coast that has no automatic annual funding for land conservation.

“Virginia has lagged behind in preserving its lands,” said Trip Pollard of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

At the same time, Virginia has some of the greatest land conservation needs, he and other coalition members said. According to the coalition:

  • Virginia lost nearly 450,000 acres of farmland from 1987 to 1997, about 5 percent of the state’s total;

  • Virginia has lost an average of 26,000 acres of forests annually between 1997 and 1992, the most recent survey year, and 42 percent of Virginia’s wetlands have been lost since Colonial times.

A legislative subcommittee last year recommended that $40 million be set aside annually in the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, but that figure was whittled down to a one-time appropriation of $1.75 million. The coalition is urging Gov. Jim Gilmore to include the $40 million in his budget to be released in December, although that appears to be a longshot.

Gilmore spokeswoman Lila Young said the governor favors using tax incentives to encourage landowners to sign conservation easements that prevent development. “Virginia is not in the business of having the government buy the land outright,” she said.

One such tax credit to encourage conservation easements goes into effect in 2000.

Virginia spends little to buy properties, but has set aside 127,000 acres through conservation easements, said Paul Ziluca, chairman of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which oversees the easement program.

Michael Lipford, Virginia director of the Nature Conservancy, said easements alone will not work, especially when the owners of precious lands can make a bundle by selling to developers. Besides, a large chunk of the $40 million could be used for easements anyway, he said.

“We hope the administration includes this funding in its budget,” he said.

To generate interest in the effort and to call attention to Virginia’s disappearing historic resources, the Preservation Alliance of Virginia is creating a list of the 10 most endangered historic places in the state. It has sent nomination forms to groups around the state and will announce its list in May 2000.

“I grew up in New York and there the Civil War was a chapter in a history book,” said Charles Seilheimer, a member of the preservation alliance board. “Land we discard would be revered in 45 other states.”

Every year the state fails to act, it loses more historic lands, he said. “You never find a shopping mall being turned back into a historic battlefield,” Seilheimer said.