York River State Park in James City County is one of Virginia’s 41 state parks managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation that could see an increase in funding as part of new federal and state conservation initiatives. (Evan Visconti/ For the Virginia Mercury. Nov. 19, 2021.)
Is the pump primed for more federal funding of conservation initiatives in Virginia?
President Joe Biden’s administration, in alignment with United Nations climate goals, set the bar high in its America the Beautiful initiative with a challenge to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030, but “it’s too early here to really say what that’s going to look like in Virginia,” said Tom Smith, deputy director of operations at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Virginia would have to nearly double its total amount of protected lands, which currently sits at around 16.5 percent, in order to meet the national 30 by 30 goal.
“I think we have a lot of opportunity to grow the state’s conservation portfolio to reach 30 percent, if that’s our goal as a state,” said Karl Didier, forestland conservation program manager at the Virginia Department of Forestry. “I think it’s up to the state as a whole to determine what our contribution to the national 30 percent goal should be.”
Virginia has not made any sort of commitment to the national 30 by 30 goal, but environmental organizations hope that increased federal funding will at least force the state to match any new funds where necessary.
“We will need to get more state level dedicated funding, partly to match federal funds and partly to match private funds,” said Heather Richards, the mid-Atlantic regional director of The Conservation Fund. “That is the biggest missing piece to make a big difference on the landscape in terms of really increasing our land conservation, especially for public access projects.”
Dedicated funding for conservation is what environmental organizations hope to see happen in Virginia, said Nikki Rovner, the Virginia associate state director at The Nature Conservancy.
“Because of the competition with every other state program, conservation just never gets enough funding in our view,” said Rovner.
Less than one percent of Virginia’s state budget went toward natural resources in 2017, “which we know isn’t in line with what other states in this region are spending on conservation,” said Rovner, referring to a study by Fiscal Analytics, Ltd.
The Nature Conservancy says this year’s budget proposal is a huge opportunity to provide necessary funding to conservation, said Rovner.
“We will be hearing the governor’s proposed budget in mid-December,” said Bettina Ring, the Virginia secretary of agriculture and forestry. “With Gov.-elect Youngkin coming in, I think that there’s commitment. I think our beautiful landscapes in Virginia are a bipartisan issue that we all care about.”
Deciding what to protect
30 by 30 is the hope inside the America the Beautiful initiative, but the reality is more complex, said Tom Cors, director of lands for U.S. government relations at The Nature Conservancy.
You may wonder how close Virginia is to conserving 30 percent, said Cors. “But really we are trying to advocate that it’s not so much the political boundaries that count. It’s more about having functioning ecoregions, similar plant and animal communities that are grouped together by conservationists.”
DCR has aimed to identify important regions for conservation through a project called ConserveVirginia, which maps out over 7 million acres of Virginia’s highest conservation value lands.
“We do have a strong philosophy here that it’s not just the number of acres, but are they the right acres?” said Smith. “Are we protecting the highest quality lands from a conservation perspective, and are we ensuring the protection of the values that make those lands important?”
The America the Beautiful initiative does not specify where conservation efforts should be focused, but it does call for a locally led effort, leaving states and local communities in charge.
“The process of making sure conservation efforts are inclusive of both parties, of tribal nations, of local communities and private landowners is the most important thing going forward,” said Cors.
“In addition to the need to protect large forests and farmlands from development, there’s also a fair bit of work to do in terms of helping underserved communities within the state to conserve lands they value,” said Didier. “I think we have a lot of room to grow in protecting forests and green space in urban and underserved communities, including working with Black, Indigenous and people of color to protect the forests they own or value.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Privately conserved lands will continue to play a large role in Virginia’s conservation strategy. They make up the largest chunk of state spending on conservation at $75 million per year, said Rovner.
“We can accomplish a lot through private land stewardship, so it doesn’t always have to be in public ownership,” said Ring. “I think that’s the beauty of Virginia. Most of our land is privately owned, but we have amazing land stewards and forest landowners and farmers who want to do the right thing on their land.”
Indigenous tribes are also engaged in conservation efforts throughout Virginia, a practice that has always been something that is close to them, said Dana Adkins, the environmental director of the Chickahominy Tribe in Charles City County.
“Land conservation is an Indigenous way of life,” said Adkins. “We’ve always depended on the land and the water for survival, so it’s really necessary for us to do everything we can to be good stewards.”
Mitigating future threats
Conservation will be a key strategy for mitigating the threats of climate change and sea level rise in coastal Virginia.
“Those two factors are working together very quickly and the impacts are going to be for generations to come,” said Didier. “The more forest you cut down, the more water is going to flow into residential areas in the future, so bottomland forests and forested wetlands are really key for protecting coastal areas from flooding.”
Land conservation, with an emphasis on bottomland and riparian forests, is also essential for maintaining clean water quality, Didier said. Those forests filter out pollution and provide a buffer between waterways and various sources of runoff.
“We also know that we have a biodiversity crisis going on right now,” said Cors. “In order to address this nature crisis head on, we need all of our state, federal and private conservation programs to do more.”
By conserving working lands, or lands that support economic livelihoods, Didier said Virginia foresters can provide the glue between core habitats for wildlife to move in response to climate change, while also maintaining a land base for economic production of renewable wood products.
“We are behind, and we know we need to accelerate our efforts,” said Cors. “Hopefully by 2030 we’ve made a lot more progress on the policy tools, the funding tools, and most importantly the conversation with our communities about what folks want for conservation.”
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.