Va. Native American tribes acquiring more lands for cultural and environmental preservation

‘They are closer to the land than anybody’

By: - September 9, 2021 12:02 am

The 105 acres of newly acquired Chickahominy Tribal lands on the James River in Charles City County. July 31, 2021. (Evan Visconti/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Over the past three years, the Chickahominy Tribe in Charles City County received nearly $7 million in state funding to acquire and preserve tribal lands, staving off development and improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

The current plan for the $3.5 million provided by the General Assembly this year is to purchase more lands that have cultural significance to the tribe, according to Dana Adkins, the Chickahominy Tribe’s environmental director. 

An area of over 900 acres likely containing the historic remains of a Chickahominy village called Mamanahunt is currently being considered for acquisition. Other properties along the Chickahominy River in Charles City County where tribal villages were located are also of interest to the tribe. 

 “We’re trying to establish places for our youth to be educated on environmentally and culturally significant events that impact the tribe,” said Adkins. “We’re looking at ways that we can best utilize our property for the benefit of our tribal citizens and the community at large, mainly for educational purposes.”

The last major land acquisition for the Chickahominy came via a $3.1 million state grant to purchase 105 acres in Charles City County along the James River in 2019. The tribe placed an easement on the land with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation that limits development and includes riparian buffers in an effort to restore the health of the habitat and the neighboring river.

Streamside forests, known as riparian buffers, are standard protocol for the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, along with management practices that keep the land in its natural wooded state for the benefit of nearby waterways, according to Brett Glymph, executive director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. The Chickahominy Tribe, among other tribes throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, have understood and practiced these techniques for centuries. 

“The tribes know that stewardship, water quality and environmental protection are important things,” said Matthew J. Strickler, Virginia’s secretary of natural and historic resources. “It’s a key value of theirs, and they are closer to the land than anybody. It’s not just setting an example, it’s the actual work that they do.”

LAND FOR WATER

Streamside habitat, known as riparian land, plays a large role in determining what enters the waterways that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. 

“Forests and wetlands capture rainfall, trap polluted runoff and stabilize soils that might otherwise wash into waterways,” said Roy Seneca, spokesperson for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Streamside forests, also known as riparian forest buffers, can reduce the amount of nutrient pollution entering waterways, sometimes by as much as 30 to 90 percent.”

Land conservation is considered a “tool in the toolbox” in improving overall Bay health, according to Seneca. 

“Some of the most effective practices to reduce nitrogen in the Chesapeake from non-regulated sources, non-point sources, are streamside forests, streamside fencing to exclude livestock from streams, nutrient management planning and planting cover crops,” said Seneca.

Non-point sources of pollution, or pollution that is widespread and unregulated, is a leading remaining cause of water quality problems in the watershed.  

“When you think about the water column and water quality, you really have to think about where that water is coming from,” said Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit organization involved in many major land acquisitions for indigenous tribes across the watershed. “That water rushes off the land, into the rivers and into the bay.”

 The Chesapeake Bay watershed spreads all the way from Cooperstown, New York, to Norfolk, Virginia. “It’s kind of challenging for people who live 100 miles upriver to make that mental connection that when they flush their toilets it eventually makes it down to the Chesapeake Bay,” said Dunn. 

The Chesapeake Bay watershed. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Revealing the source of pollution entering the bay, usually in the form of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, is “not that simple,” said Allen Davis, associate chair of the University of Maryland’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. 

 “For the most part it’s primarily agriculture, because the largest part of the watershed is used for agriculture,” said Davis. “Urban is small but growing; septic systems are small; wastewater treatment plants are significant, but it’s shrinking the most because it’s probably the easiest to handle.” 

 CULTURAL CONNECTION TO NATURE

Tribes throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed understand that all elements of nature are intricately connected, including the lands and waters. 

“Everything is related to us in all life forms, so we have to have respect and honor all of those forms,” said Chief G. Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe located in King and Queen County. “We got our food from the river, our medicine from the river and our knowledge from the river.”

Through a coordinated effort between the Rappahannock Tribe, the Conservation Fund, the Chesapeake Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 252 acres of land was successfully purchased and preserved two years ago at a culturally and environmentally significant location along the Rappahannock River called Fones Cliffs.

There are still 1,000 acres to the north and 1,000 acres to the south that the Rappahannock Tribe and the Chesapeake Conservancy would like to see protected. 

“Conservation is important for everyone, or it should be,” said Richardson. “It not only affects water quality, but it affects the quality of life for all of those life forms that are part of who we are. We want to live in a way that causes all life forms to flourish.”

Fishermen utilize a pier at Lawrence Lewis Jr. Park which sits adjacent to newly acquired Chickahominy lands, July 31, 2021. (Evan Visconti/ For the Virginia Mercury)

The tribes of the Chesapeake Bay watershed have a historical, cultural and spiritual connection to the rivers and streams that eventually flow into the Chesapeake Bay. “If our Earth and waters are sick, then we are sick,” said Richardson. 

Richardson is leading an initiative called “Return to the River” to teach young tribal members the traditions and culture of the Rappahannock River. She views land development as the biggest threat to the Rappahannock River and the tribe’s way of life. “Because our river hasn’t seen much development, it is cleaner than most. We want to keep it that way.”

Broader Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts are focused on total maximum daily loads and complex best management practices for farms and wastewater treatment plants, but the effort to preserve large swaths of land alongside the Bay’s tributaries is also making a significant impact. 

 “We’re not creating any more land, and any of it that we can conserve is good for the planet and it’s good for us, for the animals, and the flora and fauna,” said Glymph. “Land conservation is a critical component to us healing our planet, taking on climate change, and improving our land and water quality.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct Allen Davis’ title. 

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Evan Visconti
Evan Visconti

Evan is a freelance journalist and photographer, covering environmental news. Originally from Tully, New York, he graduated from Loyola University Maryland in 2019 and then earned his master's degree in journalism from Emerson College in 2020. He has reported on stories including offshore wind energy, dairy farming, and tribal land conservation. Contact him at [email protected]

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