Sometimes if conditions are right, a series of ideas will converge, and much like a network of small streams, pick up velocity and become a mighty force just like the river they are intended to serve. That’s what happened in the lower James River this year, as a 20-acre tree planting project designed to quell a serious erosion problem at Presquile National Wildlife Refuge flowed naturally into a collateral effort aimed at designating that stretch of river as a globally significant area by the National Audubon Society.
The refuge and surrounding wetlands have long been revered as a shining pearl in a string of landforms that provide birds with what they most need: healthy habitat for roosting, breeding and nesting. This recently earned the island and larger swath of river and shoreline buffers an “Important Bird Area” designation by Audubon.
Aimee Weldon, who coordinates Audubon’s Important Bird Area program in Virginia, noted that the lower James River supports one of the densest breeding populations of bald eagles in the mid-
Atlantic. “Forty-two eagle pairs nested here in 2006 and hundreds of non-breeding eagles spend their summers and winters within the IBA each year,” she added. The red-headed woodpecker, as well as egrets, great blue heron and the rare prothonotary warbler also frequent the region.
This stretch of river below Richmond—and its associated habitat—is held mostly in private ownership. Large plantations and historic properties flank the river here, hailing back to its importance to colonial Virginia. Today, those tracts are augmented by conservation and wildlife areas managed by federal and state agencies, Chesterfield and Henrico counties, industry and Virginia Commonwealth University. The result is a large, contiguous corridor of riverside habitat that has not been degraded by changing land use.
But the river has faced other man-made challenges; specifically, a series of channels were cut across its large meanders in an area known as “The Curles” during the 1930s to ease the way for ships headed to Richmond. As a result, the southwest side of the Presquile refuge banking the channel has sustained considerable erosion and sluff-off into the river.
For that reason and others, the James River Association had identified the refuge as a prime candidate for a tree-planting project to stem the erosion and nutrient loads fouling the water, and was working with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to launch a volunteer response. A separate grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to plant riparian buffers helped to boost the initiative and was aimed at “capacity building” to establish a corps of skilled volunteers who would become hands-on stewards and support refuge staff to help offset diminished funding and staffing.
The restoration efforts and Important Bird Area designation eventually converged into one stream of thought last January as everyone realized a common focal point at Presquile. By working together and sharing talents, the tree planting grew into an even larger outreach effort—one that targeted birding clubs, other conservation groups and the interested public through a mass media campaign that notified residents and neighboring businesses.
Ultimately, 3,500 native trees and shrubs were planted on eight designated workdays spanning a six-week period. More than 200 citizens participated—families, church groups, bird enthusiasts, scouts and employees of large corporations such as DuPont and Phillip Morris.
It was a staggering organizational effort. Leading up to the first planting in early September, each participating organization took a share of the workload: setting up an online registration system, planning for food and drink and tent set-ups on workdays, ordering supplies. Leslie Middleton, director of the Virginia Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay office, developed a spreadsheet to track each identified task by point person and deadline. “It enables partnerships to flourish when these things are clearly articulated,” she said. “Over time, it became much less important, because we knew who was doing what.”
The magnitude of the job was amplified because everything had to arrive at the island refuge by cable-ferry. Refuge Manager Cyrus Brame said the job quickly turned his demeanor from one of “cocky” to “quite humbled.” Arriving in four different shipments, potted trees had to be transferred at the ferry landing from tractor trailer to a flatbed and smaller truck, one by one. The first order: 735 trees and shrubs. Brame counted on his co-workers and volunteers at the refuge to help when those trucks showed up.
Refuge workers used previous tree-planting experiences as well as historical records to identify the best native species for the natural conditions faced on the island—occasional droughts and, at higher elevations, wind. Several varieties of oaks were picked because of their large mast at maturity. The oaks will also shade out, and eventually kill, invasive Johnsongrass, which has taken over this corner of the island. Faster growers, like tulip poplar and smaller dogwoods and shrubs, were planted as well. The mix offers wildlife benefits in the form of food and shelter to birds and to ground nesters like rabbit and quail.
Brame worked closely with Amber Foster at the James River Association to orchestrate the tree planting, choosing older, potted trees along with pine seedlings; ordering tools and supplies like tubes to prevent deer browse, and mats for weed control; and staggering the delivery of materials over the six-week period to coincide with planting days.
Knowing which trees will thrive is important, of course, but timing for planting seedlings is also important. “Nurseries won’t ship them until after the first frost, when the trees are in a dormant state,” Foster said. “So if you’re planning to use bare root stock, don’t set your timetable before late fall.” She added that the plantings just barely made it within the mid-October time line.
Training individual volunteers was also critical. Brame said that proper adherence to each step of the planting process will make or break the trees’ survival. “If you don’t follow each and every step, someone else will need to fix it, or the trees won’t make it,” he cautioned.
Many volunteers who joined in the tree planting had read about it in the newspaper. Corporate partners also recruited employees to pitch in—in some cases, allowing them to plant trees during company time. The planting dates were spread over weekdays and weekends, to allow broad participation from the working public, retirees and school-age children. For many, it fulfilled a long-held dream to visit the wildlife refuge.
The project not only required partnerships to get plants and trees in the ground, but also partnerships that will last over the long haul and incorporate follow-up—such as watering the trees next spring if nature doesn’t provide enough rain. Brame, in fact, already has a watering plan in place. A plan to monitor tree health and growth over time is also in the works, and will be conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University through a service-oriented ecology course.
An unanticipated outcome: Volunteers and members of local conservation groups gained insight into the “personality” of other organizations and state entities when they worked side by side. “This event was a catalyst,” said Audubon’s Weldon. “Volunteers now see the bigger picture and how the mission of one group dovetails into another.”
The same is true for the corps of volunteers who turned out for a project to stem erosion, but whose sweat will pay off for the new Important Bird Area for generations to come.
Perhaps Joe Ellis, a committed volunteer and steward of the refuge for years, said it best, “In a few years I look forward to visiting Presquile National Wildlife Refuge with children and grandchildren with hopes of seeing bald eagles roosting in our trees!”
Audubon names 14 sites in Virginia Important Bird Areas
The lower James River brings the roster of Important Bird Areas in Virginia to 14.
While Audubon’s IBA program is a global one, in this country it is managed on a state-by-state basis. Other coastal Virginia sites currently under development for designation include several on the Eastern Shore peninsula and a clutch of islands in Tangier Sound.
Funding to develop the IBA began with seed money provided by Richmond Audubon, and a National Fish & Wildlife Foundation grant administered by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, to shore up wildlife resources in the state. The funding, along with technical assistance and staff support from the department’s wildlife diversity division, were pivotal to establishing the IBA.
Virginia’s criteria for becoming an IBA set a “rigorous threshold,” according to Aimee Weldon, who coordinates Audubon’s IBA program in Virginia. Basically, the target site must support 10 percent of a given species’ population in the state to be considered.
A host of other factors are taken into account, such as habitat conditions and whether those conditions sustain species that are endangered or of special concern—during breeding season or migration events, for example. In Virginia, these criteria were synthesized by the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, under the guidance of well-respected researchers Mitchell Byrd and Brian Watts.