I first saw Fones Cliffs in spring 1997. I was in the company of the renowned author and naturalist John Page Williams, and I was there to help celebrate the establishment of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
The Fones Cliffs formation stretches along 4 miles of the river’s shore, reaching heights of more than 100 feet. In the late afternoon sun, the cliff face sparkles from diatomaceous earth (fossilized remains of marine phytoplankton) deposited millions of years ago.
That day a seed was planted in me, somewhere in my heart, my soul — or maybe my left pinkie — I’m not sure. But it stayed with me, somewhat dormant, until June 2000, when my dream of becoming the manager of this new refuge on the Rappahannock River became a reality.
At that point, the conservation of Fones Cliffs grew into a personal commitment. The cliffs were then — and are today — ranked among the highest priorities for land conservation in the refuge’s Land Protection Plan, confirming my marching orders.
Back then, I was only aware of the wildlife values of the cliffs: the spectacular concentration of bald eagles, the nesting and migrating songbirds — many of conservation concern and therefore a priority — and the rafts of waterfowl that find optimal habitat in the river and protected marshes across from Fones Cliffs.
Those values, and my commitment to protect them, were significantly augmented with the establishment of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail by the National Park Service. During the planning stages of the trail, I became aware of the people who share their name with this remarkable river, the Rappahannock Tribe.
As I did more research, I found that the tribe not only inhabited most of the land within the refuge boundary at the time of Smith’s explorations but had a noteworthy encounter with Smith and his men right below the cliffs in August 1608.
I was fascinated, not only to learn about the history of the places I was managing, but to realize that the tribe persists despite a concerted attempt to legislate them out of existence by Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Today, I gratefully count tribal members as friends and co-warriors in the fight to conserve Fones Cliffs.
During my 10 years as refuge manager (2000–2010) and then as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Regional Realty Officer (2010–2015), I tried, really tried, to put the pieces together to acquire any and all of the three major tracts that make up the cliffs. The USFWS and its nonprofit partners — The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land and The Conservation Fund — met with landowners, conducted several appraisals and made offers to purchase land.
We came tantalizingly close but ultimately fell flat, mostly because of a period of market volatility during which the appraisals were not in sync with rapidly escalating land values and lack of appropriations from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.
When I retired in 2015, I stated publicly that I would not rest until Fones Cliffs was protected. That was perhaps a bold statement from an aging wildlife biologist and refuge manager.
Fortunately, the Chesapeake Conservancy came into my life and provided a means to uphold my promise. Since retirement, I have had the privilege to serve as Chesapeake Fellow for the Conservancy, and to my delight, they have made the conservation of Fones Cliffs the centerpiece of their land conservation work in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Along with dozens of government and nonprofit partners, and with tremendous bipartisan political support, the Conservancy helped spearhead the Rivers of the Chesapeake Land and Water Conservation Fund Collaborative Landscape proposals that delivered more than $30 million to the Chesapeake Bay region from 2015–18, including $3.6 million to Rappahannock River Valley Refuge and more than $6 million to the Chesapeake Trail.
Finally, in 2019, The Conservation Fund had a breakthrough with one of the landowners. They purchased a 252-acre property in the heart of the Fones Cliffs formation that had been rezoned in 2015 and slated for a 47-unit housing development. In May 2019, the USFWS purchased the property from The Conservation Fund, adding it to the refuge, and relegating that particular housing development to a fast-fading memory.
The refuge is already making plans to invite visitors to witness the breathtaking views, to relish the sights and sounds of bald eagles, and to reflect on the environmental changes in the past 400-plus years while standing in a place that has changed little.
So is that it? Am I done? Have I fulfilled my promise? Short answer: no. Sadly, the adjoining property of 968 acres has also been rezoned and is the proposed site for an 18-hole golf course, more than 700 housing units, a lodge, a restaurant and more. As I write, the company has been cited by the Virginia Attorney General for environmental violations. While it is too early to know for certain what that means for the proposed development, it is certain that continued vigilance is required.
Fortunately, the Chesapeake Conservancy, USFWS and the many individuals and organizations who have persistently waged the campaign to save Fones Cliffs remain as committed as I. To all the partners, I say “thank you” for helping me keep my promise.
Joe McCauley retired in 2015 after 32 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now serves as the Chesapeake Fellow for the Chesapeake Conservancy. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.