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

Fameflower, an elusive native succulent, is well-adapted for dry, exposed habitats. Photo: Ian Nichols
Fameflower, an elusive native succulent, is well-adapted for dry, exposed habitats. Photo: Ian Nichols

In perpetuity

Two very different sites on the same list of important spots—and neither has an easement that specifically protect their natural resources. UVA holds a dark skies easement on the property with the granite outcrop, intended to keep light pollution down near its observatory, but it doesn’t specifically protect plant habitats. And while Kuttner said he’s considered selling development rights on his property, he hasn’t made a move yet.

But if there are any properties on the list officials are worried about, it’s not these two, which Murray holds up as examples of particularly good stewardship.

Ches Goodall, coordinator of the county’s ACE program, said it remains a powerful tool for conservation, in part because it favors lower-income residents—those making $55,000 a year or less get the biggest return for handing over development rights to the county. And the formula used to evaluate and rank properties to be targeted for acquisition is intentionally elaborate, Goodall said. Points are given for roadside aesthetic value and the size of a plot, but also for elevation, the presence of streams, and whether it’s recognized by the Natural Heritage Committee as an important site. Since the program was created in 2000, the county has acquired easements on 41 properties encompassing a total of 7,500 acres, and at its peak, funding from the county topped $1.6 million, all from hotel tax revenues.

But acquisitions have slowed dramatically since the economic downturn, Goodall said. In the past four years, the county has closed on only six properties and 661 acres. That’s partly because there’s less money for buying easements: The county has fully funded the ACE program in only two of those last four years.

“It always comes down to funding, unfortunately,” said Goodall.

That, and willingness on the part of the property owner. The depressed economy ate away at the program from two ends, he explained, because after the housing bubble burst, the easement values the county was offering to landholders were so low that many couldn’t justify the sale.

And there’s the rub, said Rex Linville, Albemarle land conservation officer for the Piedmont Environmental Council.

“The reality is, even if Albemarle said…we’ll give you $1 million dollars toward protecting those spots, even if they said we’ll give you $10 million, at the end of the day, it’s up to the landowner whether they want to protect them.”

And while preserving small “postage stamp” plots of high ecological value is important, it’s also only part of the picture, Linville said. Without a buffer of land around it, even the richest, most diverse natural area could become cut off by development. “It becomes a habitat sink as opposed to a source,” he said.

That’s why efforts by nonprofit conservation groups like PEC and The Nature Conservancy, Linville argues, are so important. They can direct more resources toward public information campaigns and big-picture planning, said Linville. “It’s not just throwing money at the problem,” he said.

But as Hatch found out last year, private land—even land singled out for protection —is never really safe.

Last April, he went in search of a site along the north fork of the Rivanna River in Stony Point, where steep north-facing bluffs plunged down to shady floodplain. It was, according to the county’s decade-old biodiversity hotspot list, the most outstanding wildflower site in Albemarle County.

He got there too late. Instead of toad trillium and Dutchman’s breeches, he found bulldozers, tree cutters, and a swath of bare, churned-up earth snaking through the property.

“It was like that movie Avatar,” he said. “It was this pristine place being slaughtered by these huge logging machines.”

The plot had been targeted for a conservation easement years before, earning exceptionally high points for natural value in an ACE program analysis. But the property owners ended up withdrawing their application to the program, unhappy with the terms of selling off their development rights, according to county staff. Somewhere along the line, they’d decided to selectively log the bottomland, leaving behind the trees that were “too small and too sorry,” in Hatch’s words, but opening up the canopy and compacting the soil, snuffing out native spring ephemerals and inviting a tangle of foreign invasives like Japanese stiltgrass and weedy hops.

And just like that, one of the jewels was gone.

Rare spring ephemerals may not return to the floodplain, but all isn’t lost. The facing bluffs are home to a dozen species of native hardwoods, rare ferns, and rock-loving flowers. Portions of the steep slope were logged, but the areas that weren’t remain remarkable examples of the huge range of plants that can grow here.

“Can” being the operative word. Earlier this summer, said Hatch, he went on two long bike rides, a week apart.

“One was on the Blue Ridge Parkway,” he said. “I rode 30 miles to the south and came back. I counted 52 different things blooming. Then I rode to Nortonsville and back through Free Union, and I didn’t see a single thing.”

The landscape is changing. Albemarle’s islands of biodiversity might not rival what you’ll find in a pristine Appalachian forest, Hatch said. But now, as more of them drop of the map, “that makes them even more important.”

To read about a local artist who illustrates local species, click here.