Vanishing act: Conservationists make the case for saving Albemarle County’s rare and threatened habitats

Lonnie Murray, chair of the Albemarle County Natural Heritage Committee, points out rare species. Photo: Ian Nichols Lonnie Murray, chair of the Albemarle County Natural Heritage Committee, points out rare species. Photo: Ian Nichols

It’s a warm, early fall day, and Lonnie Murray and I are preparing for a scramble.

We’re in a remote hollow in far southwest Albemarle County at the invitation of the landowner to explore a granite outcrop that nearly a decade ago was listed as one of the county’s top biodiversity hotspots.

“The Natural Heritage Committee will not be held responsible for your injury or death,” Murray says. He’s the group’s chair, an advisory body created by the Board of Supervisors in 2005 to help assess and advocate the importance of sites exactly like this.

He’s joking about the liability, but it’s pretty steep. We switchback our way up the slope, trying not to roll an ankle or dislodge the leaf litter and loam. A few hundred feet above the road, the mountain levels out, and we’re standing on bare granite.

“You don’t think of us having deserts here,” said Murray. But in a way, that’s what we’re in. The southern exposure means the outcrop bakes in the sun daily. The only water comes from above, and there’s next to no soil. It is, in short, a rough place to be a plant.

Unless you’re rock selaginella or grimmia moss, which can lie shrivelled and dormant until rain resurrects them into bright cushions of green. Or fameflower, one of Virginia’s few native succulents, a hardy cactus-like plant with hot-pink blooms. Or fragrant orange grass, mountain mint, and pennyroyal.

All of them are here. Some of them are, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, nowhere else in Albemarle County. Murray stoops again and again to point out rarities and beauties, slipping seeds into a small envelope as he goes: a native dayflower, with a few remnants of brilliant blue blooms still visible; a low-growing minuartia. “When this was in bloom, it was a cloud of white flowers,” he says. “In spring, this is really amazing.”

Even without Murray’s enthusiastic expertise, it would be clear we’re in a special spot. The forest pauses here. The chestnut oak and ash trees that march along the ridgelines and the black cohosh and mayapples of the cool understory are nowhere. Neither are the legions of singing insects, their chorus growing a little thin as September barrels to a close. The species on the rock have a fierce, survivalist beauty, from the Carolina roses growing bonsai-like from cracks and seams to the green-eyed praying mantis that snatches up and devours part of a juvenile eastern fence lizard right in front of our photographer’s lens.

And then there’s the view from up here. To the south, there isn’t a single sign of human habitation—just a dry, lonely hollow and undulating hills that fade to blue.

“Why in the world would we not want to work harder to get this protected?” Murray asks.

Since the late 1990s, Albemarle County has acknowledged the need to protect areas of great natural importance, but it’s done little to make good on the goal. A 2000 program to use public funds to buy development rights on private land aimed to put 10,000 acres in conservation in 10 years. It fell short—the total is up to 7,500 acres—and some of the area’s most remarkable sites have slipped through the cracks. Murray thinks even open-space conservation easements don’t do enough to protect the rare plant life in spots like the one we visited. He says the county needs more options, more funds, and more political will if it’s going to save them.

Life in a remote, rocky outcrop can be harsh—and not just for the plants. Photo: Ian Nichols
Life in a remote, rocky outcrop can be harsh—and not just for the plants. Photo: Ian Nichols

Rare resources

We had made the half-hour drive down Route 29 to the outcrop site in Murray’s Toyota sedan, me navigating, him driving and explaining where county policy falls short on land conservation.

“We just don’t have enough tools to work with,” he said.

Albemarle could allow smaller plots of land to qualify for the tax breaks that come with open space land use valuation, he says—currently, the minimum is 20 acres. It could increase the number of years’ worth of back taxes people have to pay if they change their land use to allow for development. It could allow anyone with a property deemed ecologically sensitive to jump the line, so to speak, and get special consideration for participation in its Acquisition of Conservations Easements (ACE) program, which uses hotel tax revenues to buy up development rights on forest and farmland.

“The Board of Supervisors could enact that at the next meeting, and it would be done,” he said. “But there’s just not a will.”

But the most important step in his mind, and the one least likely to win favor from an elected body that leans hard in favor of private property rights, would be tying any such measures to a requirement that the landowner commit to good stewardship and work with staff to protect biodiversity.

It’s not just about preserving pretty specimens, Murray explained. Many of Albemarle’s hotspots lie in the somewhat confusingly named Southwest Mountains, the little sister range just to the east of the Blue Ridge that serves as the source for much of the area’s drinking water. The health of the land, the soil, and thus the water supply is closely connected to the health of the ecosystem as a whole, and the sites on the Natural Heritage Committee’s list are crown jewels. These small pockets of biodiversity represent the few surviving areas where our particular native ecosystem remain intact, like little living seed banks for the future. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

As Murray pointed out, there are more immediate practical reasons to preserve them, too. Take the rock outcrop community: Plants that can thrive in such hot, arid conditions and poor soil could be perfect candidates for green roofs and parking lot plantings, and the more we know about what they like and how they interact, the better. Why bring in exotic turf species and wage war against crabgrass when you could grow hardy native sedges, ferns, mosses, and wildflowers instead?

The county needs to make conservation and care of the land work for the landowners, he said as the Toyota tried and almost failed to gain a last hill, its wheels spinning in gravel. “What else do we have to offer them?”

Ann Mallek, who represents Crozet on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, said the county has the opportunity to make its ACE program both bigger and better. Officials are finalizing the latest update to its Comprehensive Plan, and once it’s finalized in 2014, it will be five more years before the county will get the chance to make major changes to its land use rules.

“It’s the perfect time to really force ourselves in the Rural Area chapter to have a discussion on this,” said Mallek, who has pushed in vain for full funding of ACE in recent years. “Once we have the confidence to actually have a budget for the ACE program, then we get along to the next challenge, which is making the program better by increasing the level of stewardship required.”

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