Rappahannock Tribe celebrates return of Fones Cliffs acreage

By: - April 4, 2022 12:01 am

The Maskapow Drum Group performs a sacred song after the celebration of the acquisition of 400 acres of Fones Cliffs by the Rappahannock Tribe. (Evan Visconti/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Some dreams take generations to accomplish, as was the case when the Rappahannock Tribe celebrated the return of more than 400 acres of their tribal homeland Friday. The tribe has endured centuries of displacement stemming back to 1608 when English explorer John Smith made his first voyage up the Rappahannock River.

“We know that the dreams of our ancestors have come true and they are here to celebrate with us,” said Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson while announcing the land reacquisition at the return to the river celebration. 

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, joined the Rappahannock Tribe to celebrate the long awaited return to their ancestral homeland. “It’s not often that we get to attend such a meaningful celebration,” she said with teary eyes. “Your ancestors cherished these lands for many generations and despite centuries of land disputes and shifting policies, your connections to these cliffs and to this river remain unbroken.”

The tribe will reacquire land on the Rappahannock River that is home to a historic tribal village named Pissacoack. The Richmond County property also contains a section of Fones Cliffs, a four mile stretch of unique wildlife habitat consisting of white-colored cliffs that rise over 100 feet above the river. 

Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson holds back tears as she announces her tribe’s reacquisition of ancestral lands at Fones Cliffs. (Evan Visconti/ For the Virginia Mercury)

“Fones Cliffs have been a sentinel watching over the human and wild inhabitants of the Rappahannock River for thousands of years,” said Carol Angle, a Charlottesville benefactor whose family made an influential donation to the land reacquisition. “So much has changed in the world, but the cliffs are very much the same.”

Fones Cliffs are designated as an important bird area by the National Audubon Society for their significance to bald eagles and migratory birds. The cliffs are home to the largest bald eagle population in the mid-Atlantic and the associated wetlands are a vital habitat for waterfowl, said Amanda Bassow, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation northeast regional director. 

“Protecting this land also protects the river, its habitats and its water quality so that it can continue to support river herring, striped bass and Atlantic sturgeon that have called this river home for 85 million years,” said Bassow.

The land was reacquired through a partnership between the Tribe, Chesapeake Conservancy, and The Wilderness Society. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation also pitched in through a grant from Walmart’s Acres for America program. The program has a goal to offset Walmart’s real estate footprint by protecting important places to fish and wildlife as well as local communities. 

“To date the program has funded over 100 projects large and small, urban and rural, totaling more than 1.8 million acres across the nation,” said Bassow. “The project we’re celebrating today at Fones Cliffs stands tall among this distinguished group.”

The Rappahannock Tribe plans to create publicly accessible trails and a replica 16th century village to educate the community about their longstanding connection to the land and the river. The property will be permanently protected from development through an easement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and placed into trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland delivers remarks at a ceremony marking the return of about 400 acres of land to the Rappahannock Tribe at Fones Cliffs along the Rappahannock River. (Evan Visconti/ For the Virginia Mercury)

“The conservation easement donated by the Chesapeake Conservancy will allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to work in the interest of the tribe, its citizens, the local community and wildlife by conserving essential habitat while the Rappahannock Tribe maintains ownership,” said Martha Williams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director. 

Despite historic progress, there is still work to be done to protect all of Fones Cliffs. There are about 1,000 acres of land to the west of the conserved portions that are still at risk of development. The property is owned by the Virginia True Corporation which is currently mired in bankruptcy proceedings in New York. 

“This moment is a big turning point for the Rappahannock Tribe, the eagles and this special place. It is also a turning point for the conservation movement,” said Joel Dunn, Chesapeake Conservancy president and CEO. “Maybe this momentum will create an opportunity to build partnerships to achieve those objectives as well.”

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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].