The “Virginia Treasures” initiative ushers in a new era of land conservation in the Commonwealth – one that emphasizes creating public access to natural, cultural and scenic outdoor recreation resources while continuing to protect significant natural resources through conservation easements.

Governor Terry McAuliffe set the goal of identifying, conserving and protecting at least 1,000 so called Virginia Treasures over the course of his four-year administration, which started in January 2014.

He linked the conservation goals to economic prosperity. “Parks, natural areas, agricultural lands and historic sites are part of the foundation needed to build a new Virginia economy,” Governor McAuliffe said. “These are the assets that support our thriving tourism, fishing and farming industries, and enhance the quality of life for thousands of Virginia residents.”

The program aligns with President Barack Obama's 2009 Executive Order for Chesapeake Bay Restoration and the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, said Natural Resources Secretary Molly Ward, who chairs the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Principals’ Staff Committee.

Ward noted that the  executive order and the Bay Agreement encourage land preservation and public access in the Chesapeake Bay region, adding, “ 

“Expanding access to public outdoor recreation is a critical component of the (Virginia Treasures) initiative. When we increase access to natural spaces, we increase awareness about the importance of protecting our natural resources.”

According to the new program’s guidelines, which will be administered by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, designated Virginia Treasures could fall into the category of land conservation -- working farms, forests, waterways and open space -- or the category of recreational spaces --  trails, water-access points, parks, scenic byways, rivers, viewsheds, public gardens and wildlife-viewing areas.

The initiative was launched on Earth Day at Pocahontas State Park, where a native plant garden designed to provide habitat for butterflies and other pollinators was named one of the Virginia Treasures.

The program was developed over the last year under the direction of Secretary Ward and involved stakeholders from land trusts, conservation NGOs and numerous state agencies. According to Ward, many had not been directly involved in land conservation initiatives, including Virginia’s Marine Resources Commission and the Department of Game and Inland Fishing. She said that the initiative has brought new excitement into the discussion at a time when the number of acres protected by conservation easements in Virginia has been declining.

The new initiative was hailed by program partners, including the Chesapeake Conservancy, as a measure of McAuliffe’s commitment to biodiversity, public access and wetlands. “Thanks to Virginia’s forward thinking Governor, future generations will be able to enjoy Virginia’s Treasures for many generations to come,” said Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy.

Mark Bryer, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Chesapeake Bay Initiative said, “Through these ongoing and new commitments for protecting ecologically important areas, the Virginia Treasures initiative will help the Commonwealth meet the goals that Governor McAuliffe agreed to in the new Chesapeake Bay Agreement.” Bryer is also co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Healthy Watersheds goal implementation team, which promotes protecting land as a means to prevent future pollution.

Virginia land conservation under the new program

Virginia land conservation got a boost under former governor Timothy M. Kaine, when he announced the goal of permanently protecting 400,000 acres during his 4 year term that concluded in 2010. Kaine protected 424,000 acres through conservation easements and other measures.

Former governor Robert F. McDonnell made the same promise, but was unable to meet the mark, in part due to the recession. During his term 233,000 acres were protected.

Gov. McAuliffe also set 400,000 protected acres as the goal. So far his administration has protected 36,500 acres.

Jason McGarvey, representative for the Virginia Outdoor Foundation, the agency that acquires and monitors conservation easements, said that the rate of acquiring conservation easements has been affected by the variability of federal and state tax incentives available to landowners.

Another reason for the decreasing number of acres protected, said Secretary Ward, was that “we had already protected the ‘low hanging fruit.’”

“So we wanted to be smart about our efforts,” said Secretary Ward. “As we developed the Treasures goal, we asked ourselves, what should we be looking at besides the acreage?”

She said the Commonwealth will look at what is going to have “the most impact on the most areas and for the most people so we can make the most of the dollars we are spending.”

VOF’s McGarvey said, "What’s new with this program is that it places an emphasis on connecting people with nature.”

Though many of the easements that VOF holds do offer visitation options for the public, private landowners hold many tracts of land.

“One of the criticisms of the conservation easement program is that it doesn’t get much for the public in terms of access to resources, “ Ward said. “We want to make that something that we focus on as well.”

Virginia’s 2011 Outdoor Survey showed that new trails and water access – for swimming, beach use, boating, wildlife watching – are most needed in the Commonwealth.  The Chesapeake Bay access provided by Pitts Landing in Accomack County is an example of a recreational treasure.

Danette Poole, DCR’s director of planning and recreation resources, said the new program is designed to foster an ethic of stewardship of natural resources by providing more ways for people to interact with nature and be outdoors. Virginia Treasures can include gardens, arboretums – and even playgrounds and natural play areas.

Special designations, such as national trail designations or historic sites that are nationally registered, can help qualify a site or feature as a Virginia Treasure. For example, the recently completed canoe access at Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve – an area originally protected for rare species and old growth forests – is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and the Star Spangled Banner Trail.

Counting the Virginia Treasures

Nikki Rovner, director of state government relations for the Nature Conservancy in Virginia, was one of many stakeholders consulted during the program’s development.
The advantage of an acreage-based goal, she said, is that “everybody knows what an acre is, and it is easy to understand what permanent land conservation is.” But what is and what is not a treasure, she said, requires a lot more judgment – and there may not be as much accountability.

Larry Smith, DCR’s natural area protection manager, said the methodology for selecting Virginia treasures for land conservation is an outgrowth of how his agency has evaluated land conservation projects since the Kaine administration.

Several years ago, DCR developed a decision-support tool, Virginia ConservationVision, to encourage green infrastructure principles – including connectivity -- during their planning processes. The suite of Web-based models can assess ecological and cultural features of land protection projects, as well as forest economics, agricultural value and watershed integrity.

“We were very well-positioned to continue to assess projects using these tools and to communicate with the federal and state agencies to obtain and share data,” Smith said. All of the land conservation projects developed since the start of McAuliffe’s term qualify as Treasures.

The emphasis on quality – not just quantity -- requires conservation planning to be strategic, which land preservationists applaud. “One of the things TNC has learned in 60 years of conservation is that it is really important to have a strategy,” Bryer said, adding that Virginia and DCR are being strategic with this program.

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation holds easements to and monitors three-quarters of the roughly 1,000,000 acres protected in Virginia. McGarvey said his agency has always utilized prioritization methods, but success is not always measured in acres. “A new trail doesn’t preserve acres, but its value in terms of public access can’t be measured that way.”

Danette Poole, whose division at DCR will be tracking the recreational Treasures, acknowledged that evaluation of Treasures is not as clear-cut as it is on the land conservation side, where nominated projects must demonstrate one of 14 metrics. “Requirements for parks, for examples, are much broader, so we’ll be asking for specific information.”

But DCR has opened the door for nominations for all kinds of projects, said Sarah Richardson, land conservation specialist for DCR. “I hope people will be thinking about what kinds of things could be Treasures so that they can tell us about them. We want this program to involve a lot of people.”

In the new Virginia conservation landscape, where quality is just as important as quantity, according to Secretary Ward, “One acre can be really important … depending upon where it is.”

For more information about the Virginia Treasures program, see: http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/virginia-treasures.shtml