The many recent tributes marking the passing of former U.S. Sen. John Warner are rightfully long on superlatives. Senator Warner has been described as an “unmatched leader,” a “giant” and a “dear friend.” To me, he was all that and more. His reputation as a political maverick was well-documented in those articles. He was someone whose litmus test for taking a stand was his conscience — and his loyalty to country rather than party. His family life, military service, cabinet appointment as Secretary of the Navy and five terms as an influential and respected U.S. senator have all been well covered. Somewhat surprisingly, though, Senator Warner’s credentials as one of Virginia’s most significant conservationists have received scant attention.
As senator, he was instrumental in the establishment of Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park in the Shenandoah Valley. He supported legislation to create and fund the Chesapeake Bay Program and was instrumental in the creation of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, our nation’s first water trail. Sometimes referred to simply as the Chesapeake Trail, it extends over thousands of miles of the Bay and its tributaries, highlighting the explorer’s travels and the indigenous cultures that Smith encountered in the early 1600s.
Senator Warner loved the Rappahannock River in particular. He talked of personally moving migrating fish from below the Embrey Dam near Fredericksburg and releasing them above the dam, allowing them to reach their upstream spawning grounds. Perhaps that is what led him to secure $10 million to have that same dam demolished in 2004 — as part of a military training exercise. Removing the dam opened up more than 100 miles of spawning habitat for American shad, striped bass, American eel and other migratory fish species.
During the late 1990s, the senator championed the newly established Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge by helping to secure the first refuge appropriations from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The vast area designated for refuge land acquisition was novel for its time; it extends across seven counties and includes more than 60 miles of Rappahannock River shoreline. Today, visitors can walk trails, launch canoes and kayaks, fish and hunt, and enjoy abundant wildlife, thanks to early advocates like Senator Warner.
His efforts on behalf of the Rappahannock River and its namesake refuge continued well past his 30-year stint in the Senate. He was fascinated by the convergence of bald eagles that occurs along the Rappahannock River, particularly at places like Fones Cliffs, a 4-mile formation along the tidal-fresh portion of the river in Richmond County. The forest-topped cliffs reach heights of 80–100 feet above the river and are composed of diatomaceous earth formed millions of years ago. Resident Chesapeake Bay bald eagles have a burgeoning nesting population along the Rappahannock, but what makes the area even more special is that it’s an extraordinarily popular layover spot for migrating eagles flying north in the spring and south in the fall. It is a phenomenon unique to the Chesapeake Bay.
The senator was determined to help save this special place, and his commitment never wavered. His daughter Virginia joined him in that endeavor when she funded the purchase of an acre of land near Fones Cliffs, which the Chesapeake Conservancy then donated to the Rappahannock Tribe, the indigenous people for whom the river was named. For the tribe, this modest acquisition marked their formal return to the river’s edge after an absence of more than 350 years. At a celebration of that event in 2017, John and Virginia Warner were featured guests of the tribe.
We were honored that Senator Warner agreed to serve on the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Board of Directors for many years, and that he remained an honorary Board member until his death in May. In 2016, he was presented with the Conservancy’s Champions of the Chesapeake Award. During his acceptance speech, the senator said this about the effort to protect Fones Cliffs: “Like many of you, this is a place that I would like to see conserved for future generations. In fact, I told [the conservancy] that seeing to that would be one of my signature efforts. This is as important to me as my work to get rid of Embry dam, also along the Rappahannock, which robbed many species from being able to migrate upstream. Well, we got that done. Embry dam is gone. And now we’re going to get this done too.”
Rest in peace, Senator. You did your part; we will carry on.
Joel Dunn is president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy. The original version of this article appeared in the June 8 edition of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star and is reprinted here with permission.
The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.