Policy Update

To Seek a Thousand Treasures

I have written several times about Governor Terry McAuliffe’s goal of preserving 400,000 acres during his term. (See here and here.) This goal has been quite tentative, to say the least, during the past year or so. But now we finally have a definite answer as to Governor McAuliffe’s conservation goal for his term:

Instead of preserving 400,000 acres, he wants to preserve 1,000 treasures.

Let’s take a look together at the new initiative and how it might impact conservation efforts in Virginia.

The New Initiative: Virginia Treasures

According to the official news release (which you can read here), Governor McAuliffe announced a new conservation initiative named “Virginia Treasures” on April 22, 2015 at an Earth Day ceremony held in Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield County. Through this new initiative, the governor hopes to preserve 1,000 “treasures” by the end of his term. Governor McAuliffe’s term began in January 2014 and will end in January 2018. (Note that Article V, Section 1 of the Constitution of Virginia prohibits governors from serving two consecutive terms.)

According to the press release, the Virginia Treasures initiative will focus on preserving two categories of land, specifically “land conservation treasures” and “natural, cultural, and recreational treasures.” The former category will include “agricultural lands, forests that provide water-quality benefits, wetlands, and habitat for rare or threatened plants and animals”; the latter category will include “trails, water-access points, parks, scenic byways, rivers and viewsheds, public gardens and wildlife-viewing areas.” The Virginia Treasures initiative will be administered through the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

The official webpage for the Virginia Treasures initiative (which you can view here) provides more specific details. This page clarifies that the purpose of the initiative is to focus on the quality of land protected, rather than the sheer number of acres. Land can be protected either by outright conveyance of the land or by conveyance of a conservation easement.

The webpage further notes that, to be considered a “land treasure,” the land to be protected must satisfy at least one out of fourteen possible metrics, including agricultural land, forest land, and riparian buffers, among others. There is a similar list of criteria for natural, cultural, and recreational treasures. The webpage indicates that one should contact DCR staff for more details regarding these metrics, so I assume that these metrics entail much more specific requirements than are listed on the webpage.

Interestingly, the Virginia Treasures webpage provides examples of previously preserved “treasures.” (Even “treasures” that were protected before Governor McAuliffe’s announcement will count toward the 1,000-treasure goal, so long as they were protected after he took office.) An example of a “land treasure” is the Dundas Granite Flatrock Natural Area Preserve in Brunswick County, about which I have previously written. A more prominent example of a “land treasure” is Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County, which will soon become a state park. An example of a “recreation treasure” is the Tobacco Heritage Trail, a trail that runs along an abandoned railroad right-of-way in Southside Virginia (and a portion of which runs almost directly behind my office in Victoria).

How Will This New Initiative Affect Land Conservation in Virginia?

It remains uncertain whether this initiative will have any practical impact on land conservation in Virginia. Only the employees at the various state agencies dealing with land conservation are charged with carrying out the governor’s policy goals on a day-to-day basis, and I think it safe to say that most of them have always gotten more excited over preserving particularly special sites than trying to fulfill any sort of acreage quota. A good example of this is the Dundas Granite Flatrock Natural Area Preserve in Brunswick County, which is currently only about 11 acres in size. This land was preserved even though, by size, it only marginally contributed to reaching Governor McAuliffe’s former goal of preserving 400,000 acres.

A recent article in the Bay Journal seems to suggest that one major difference between the old, acreage-based goal and the Virginia Treasures initiative is that the new initiative better enables different state agencies to work together in prioritizing land conservation efforts. This increased coordination will better enable different state agencies to focus on strategically important conservation projects, rather than haphazardly trying to conserve land without a coordinated strategy.

Nevertheless, landowners are a key component of any land conservation program. For land to be preserved, the various state agencies are of course entirely dependent on landowners conveying their land or conveying conservation easements on their land. These state agencies have already been doing an admirable job of raising awareness among landowners of land conservation programs, and these state agencies in large part have already been prioritizing their resources. A good example of this is the Virginia Outdoors Foundation’s “Special Project Areas.” Again, the main difference seems to be improved interagency cooperation in setting these priorities.

Will this improved interagency cooperation have a significant effect on land conservation in Virginia? The Virginia Treasures initiative seems more to be a fine-tuning of existing conservation efforts and strategies rather than a massive overhaul, so any improvements in land conservation owing to this change in strategy will likely be incremental and noticeable only over a period of many years. (And perhaps that is the appropriate standard when talking about preserving land forever.)

Notably, I haven’t seen anything to indicate that additional funding is being allocated to the Virginia Treasures initiative or to land preservation efforts in general, aside from the farmland preservation grants that Governor McAuliffe announced in January (which I covered more thoroughly here). Rather, the reverse seems to be true with the limitations that were recently imposed on the land preservation tax credit (which I also covered more thoroughly here).

Even so, shifting the political conversation to the preservation of high-quality sites, rather than the preservation of a certain acreage, is beneficial. If nothing else, it forces us to stop and remember that some sites really ought to be preserved, independently of any ephemeral political goals that a governor might set. A number of acres by itself is too dry, too sanitized, too detached. Each preserved property generally has good reasons for being preserved—perhaps it contributes to clean drinking water, perhaps it nurtures a threatened species, or perhaps it offers a stunning view—and the property’s acreage alone does not tell us a great deal about those reasons. A number of acres by itself does a poor job of reminding us that Virginia, in fact, has treasures that are worth preserving.

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Derrick P. Fellows

Derrick P. Fellows is an attorney with Hawthorne & Hawthorne, P.C. in Victoria, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter at @dpfellows.

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