Tribes awarded state grants for the first time to conserve Va. forestland 

By: - November 22, 2022 12:02 am

Fones Cliffs. (Bill Portlock)

In a mission to gain back lands lost since Capt. John Smith’s first expeditions throughout the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, state and federally recognized Indigenous tribes are tapping into state funds. 

Last week, two tribes were awarded grants directly from the Virginia Land Conservation Fund (VLCF) to acquire and preserve forestlands for the first time. The grants will only cover a portion of the cost of the land acquisitions and will be available to the tribes for two years. 

During this time, the rest of the funding must be raised for a successful property transaction to take place. A one-year extension can be given if progress on the acquisition is being made, said Suzan Bulbulkaya, a land conservation manager at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The historic moment resulted from legislation passed earlier this year allowing Virginia’s state and federally recognized tribes to receive grants from VLCF, one of the state’s premier sources of conservation money, funded through the budget. In the past, tribes were required to work with another public body, such as a nonprofit or government program, to receive those funds. 

The Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe was awarded $310,000 to acquire over 800 acres in King William County, and the Rappahannock Tribe of Virginia was awarded $500,000 to acquire roughly 700 acres in Richmond County. 

“We’re thrilled to have gotten these applications and to be able to help the tribes,” said Bulbulkaya. “VLCF funds are used frequently as seed money to help leverage other federal funds and private funding, and it’s exciting to see these new entities and the energy and the diversity of funding that they’re going to be bringing in.”

The ability to leverage other funding is “extremely important when you’re trying to acquire land, because the Land Conservation Fund doesn’t have money for the entire thing,” said Rappahannock Chief G. Anne Richardson. 

The VLCF grants awarded to the tribes add to a recent uptick in land acquisitions by tribes in Virginia that began with their long-awaited recognition by the federal government in 2018. 

Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit that has partnered with the Rappahannock on land conservation efforts, said “the pattern that’s emerging here” with tribal land acquisitions in Virginia “marks a new era for the conservation movement in the Chesapeake and beyond.”

The Rappahannock’s return to the river

The Rappahannock tribe is seeking to acquire roughly 700 acres of land that will connect to the 400 acres it successfully acquired in April along the Rappahannock River’s famous Fones Cliffs. 

Three historic villages along this stretch of the river, known as Wecuppom, Matchopick and Pissacoack, were home to the Rappahannock long before English colonists first arrived. 

The area where the Rappahannock tribe aims to acquire and conserve land.

A goal of the tribe is to rematriate all three of those towns to our tribe and put them into federal trust so that they are never desecrated again,” said Richardson. 

Along with its cultural significance, Fones Cliffs is also a critical habitat for bald eagles and other migratory birds. Richardson noted: “These cliffs are really important to the whole ecosystem over there, and we want that to continue not just for tribal people but for all people and the sustenance of people on that river.” 

By conserving property inland of the river, the tribe aims to connect the land it acquired in April with two properties owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a more connected stretch of preserved forestland. If acquired, the property will be placed by the tribe into trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and under easement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. 

We are very hopeful that with a charitable willing seller, some successful grant applications, and some hard work, that we’ll be able to succeed in acquiring another piece of property for the tribe and with the tribe,” said Dunn.

The Upper Mattaponi’s return to the river

If the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe manages to acquire over 800 acres of land that include a stretch of shoreline along the Mattaponi River, it will be the first time the tribe has been connected by land to its namesake waterway since being forced out of the region during colonization. 

“Acquiring some property with river frontage is paramount to the future of our tribe and to the ideas that we have for our tribe moving forward,” said Upper Mattaponi Chief W. Frank Adams. 

Leigh Mitchell, the tribe’s environmental and cultural protection director, said the acquisition would be “just the starting point of having the tribe be active participants in the stewardship of these watersheds in the future.”

The property is also the site of a former sand and gravel mine that will require some cleanup – a situation Mitchell said isn’t unusual for tribes to face as they reacquire lands. 

“As is the case with a lot of tribes now having federal recognition and being able to build up their land base as sovereign nations, unfortunately the properties available to the tribes usually have environmental issues,” she said. The Upper Mattaponi, she added, hope to restore the site “so that it’s not just kind of an eyesore but that it’s really going to be a diverse healthy habitat and ecosystem.”

The tribe hasn’t yet decided whether to place the land under trust or easement with a government agency or conservation group. However, its grant application does include some ideas for public access to the property, including the installation of walking trails and a kayak ramp. 

“Us having a private space on the river is just such a big deal for us,” said Adams. “If we want to have a religious ceremony, or a cultural ceremony, you really don’t want spectators and/or strangers showing up using your property also.”


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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].