An incomplete list of the adjectives used to describe the tidal portion of Virginia’s Rappahannock River over the years: free-flowing, fun, largely undeveloped, valuable, pristine, historic, important, renowned, forested, frequently murky, fertile, popular, brackish, rich, abundant, diverse.
But is it scenic?
Yes, that word has been bandied about aplenty, too. But now some of the river’s biggest advocates want to make it official.
A growing coalition of local governments and environmental organizations is pushing Virginia to designate the lower 80 miles of the Rappahannock as a scenic river. By the end of October, eight of the nine counties adjacent to the river had signed onto the campaign as well as three cities, the Rappahannock River Basin Commission and more than two dozen conservation groups.
The designation wouldn’t impose any new land use controls or regulations, restrict boating or grant public access to private properties along the river. Rather, supporters say, it would help promote ecotourism, amplify local voices in state and federal projects that affect the river and require state agencies to consider natural and recreational impacts when making permitting decisions.
Fringed by the metro areas of Washington, DC, to the north and Richmond to the south, the Rappahannock region is among the fastest-growing areas of the state. A scenic river designation would help the waterway retain as much of its natural character as possible, advocates say.
“It’s not saying, ‘You can’t build on the river,’” said Anne Self, the lower river steward for the Friends of the Rappahannock. “It’s just saying, ‘Let’s consider the preservation and protection as we go about this.’”
Supporters point to the 50th anniversary of the Virginia Scenic Rivers Act in 2020 as another motivation for the push. Since the law’s passage, the state has designated 37 river segments as scenic for a total of about 1,000 miles of waterways, or about 2% of all river miles in the state. The upper Rappahannock was named a scenic river in 1985, an 86-mile stretch from its headwaters near Chester Gap to just below downtown Fredericksburg.
From that point, the Rappahannock grows gradually saltier and wider before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. The river separates Virginia’s Northern Neck from the Middle Peninsula. With the removal of the Embry Dam in 2004, it became the longest free-flowing river in the eastern United States.
Its waters teem with blue crabs and oysters, and it is a critical spawning ground for striped bass, river herring, American shad and sturgeon. The National Audubon Society has designated the reach between Tappahanock and Port Royal as an “important bird area,” citing the presence of prothonotary warblers, rusty blackbirds and the densest breeding population of bald eagles in the state, among other species. The tidal Rappahannock is home to the Virginia’s only known breeding population of Coastal Plain swamp sparrows.
Much of its shoreline remains free of urban encroachment, revealing a tableau of forested wetlands, tidal marshes and cropland. Some of the most pristine areas have been protected with the creation in 1996 of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a collection of unconnected waterfront tracts that the Friends of the Rappahannock has likened to a “necklace of charms.”
“The ecology of this area is really remarkable,” said Hill Wellford, vice president of the Essex County Conservation Alliance, one of groups leading the effort.
If the lower Rappahannock gets recognized as scenic, it would become the first river in the state to carry that designation along its entire run, Self said.
“It’s one of the few rivers left in Virginia that doesn’t have a lot of development along its shoreline,” she added.
The support from the local jurisdictions triggered the second phase in the scenic river process: an analysis by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to determine whether the Rappahannock meets the program’s criteria. Among the factors: the width of the natural areas along the river, the density of development in rural spots, the quality of its fisheries, the number of road crossings and the amount of recreational access.
A river can have evidence of human disturbance, sometimes quite visibly, and still qualify as scenic, said Lynn Crump, who oversees the program for the DCR. The James River in Richmond and the upper Rappahannock’s high concentration of farm fields both won inclusion in the program, she noted.
“It doesn’t have to be absolutely pristine, but the idea is to have it natural in a way that whatever development there is, is not detracting from the scenic qualities, both visual and ecological,” Crump said.
The “scenic” label may be a marketing tool, but it does have regulatory teeth in one key aspect: If an entity proposes a dam along the river, it must be approved by the General Assembly.
Localities can choose to assemble an advisory board to lend a say in decisions that impact the river’s scenic status. The designation triggers an extra layer of review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission when it considers whether to license or relicense gas pipelines and electric transmission lines across the water body. And lands along the corridor can gain access to new grant funds.
If the DCR survey finds the river eligible for scenic designation, the localities must endorse it for the measure to move to the final stage: passage in the General Assembly. If there are any holdouts along a reach — Middlesex County’s Board of Supervisors tabled the idea in September, pending further legal review — other segments can still go forward, Crump said.
Supporters hope to bring a Rappahannock scenic-designation bill to state lawmakers.