People climbing up a rock surrounded by forest.
Cumberland Project Rock climbing at Hidden Valley © Travis Dove

Stories in Virginia

Our Virginia: Impact Report 2023

From the Appalachians to our Atlantic barrier islands, we're seeing conservation pay off across Virginia.

A front shot of Bettina Ring in a green shirt.
Bettina Ring State Director, The Nature Conservancy in Virginia. © Daniel White / TNC

From the Director

The Three-Legged Stool

The Nature Conservancy and many of our partners often use a metaphor to explain why we work the way we do—and the why really matters. Picture a three-legged stool. When all three legs are sound, the stool is balanced and provides a safe, stable platform. But what if any one leg is short, or wobbly or breaks? Then the stool and anything (or anyone) on it can topple over.

Similarly, effective conservation depends on three legs: nature, community and economy. Throughout my career, I have been passionate about the intersection of land conservation, sense of community and people’s livelihoods. It’s never been easy to balance all three concerns, but TNC’s commitment to doing the difficult but right thing was in large part what drew me to this organization.

Climate change only makes it more urgent that we rise to the challenge. TNC has some big goals in front of us and a limited time to get there. So, how do we bring together all of our partners, provide leadership in a respectful way, and engage the communities in which we work? And thinking beyond just our traditional allies, how do we encourage all the voices that should be heard to join us and help move us forward? While science guides where we work and what we need to achieve, grappling with questions like these reminds us why we must prevail.

We can’t get where we need to go alone. But, of course, we never have. From the Appalachians to the Atlantic, every conservation success has depended on the power of partnership. If, as is often said, the best predictor of the future is past performance, then I hope you can be as optimistic as I am about our ability to work together when it matters most and effect the change we need.

This report highlights just a few of the many people who are agents of that change across Virginia and beyond. As a TNC supporter, you, too, are forging a better future for nature and people. Your contribution is an investment in all three legs—nature, community and economy—that sustain life today and for future generations. We are deeply grateful for your commitment to conservation!

A bull elk sticks its head above tall grass.
THE APPALACHIANS Young bull elk near Breaks, Virginia © Steven David Johnson

The Appalachians

Geography of Hope

A quarter of the famous 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail runs through Virginia—more than any other state. This foot path and the forested ridges, pastoral valleys and swift streams of the surrounding landscape are beloved for their scenic beauty and recreation opportunities. For The Nature Conservancy, these ancient mountains ranging from Alabama into Canada are a top conservation priority because of their resilience and diversity in the face of global climate change.


 

Supporting Community and Economic Revitalization in the Appalachians

In a part of Appalachia where dependence on resource extraction, especially coal mining, is waning, local leaders and organizations are striving to diversify their communities and economies. Nature is proving to be a bankable asset—and one they are helping to protect.

The Cumberland Forest Community Fund is a competitive grant program designed to advance economic and community development goals throughout the footprint of The Nature Conservancy’s Cumberland Forest Project in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. This year in Virginia, UVA Wise, TNC and the Cumberland Forest Limited Partnership awarded $140,000 in grants, providing a critical infusion of funds for ten nature-based projects.

Two people sit on a bench looking out over an open meadow landscape ringed by trees.
More Room to Range Elk viewing station © Nick Proctor/TNC

More Room to Range

A 576-acre addition to our property in Buchanan County will support elk restoration and ventures that bring vital ecotourism dollars into communities. Another 121 acres acquisition in Russell County to our preserve on Clinch River will help protect water quality. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, Capital One and Genan Foundation made these projects possible.

“The quality of awarded projects is a testament to the creative, thoughtful commitment that our communities have in solving unique challenges in Southwest Virginia,” says Nick Proctor, community outreach coordinator with TNC’s Clinch Valley Program. “Each project demonstrates the fund’s triple bottom line: nature, community and economy.”

“Investing in our communities is a critical part of revitalizing the overall region,” adds Shannon Blevins, UVA Wise vice chancellor for administration, government relations and strategic initiatives. “We are thrilled to work alongside The Nature Conservancy and the Cumberland Forest Limited Partnership in enabling the success of these exciting projects.”

A person biking on a raised wooden track that curves through the forest.
Natural Resources Shayne Fields rides his mountain bike on the Flag Rock Area Trails near Norton, Virginia. © Travis Dove
× A person biking on a raised wooden track that curves through the forest.
A woman canoeing on the Clinch River.
IN NATURE Canoeing the Clinch River © Travis Dove
× A woman canoeing on the Clinch River.
Natural Resources Shayne Fields rides his mountain bike on the Flag Rock Area Trails near Norton, Virginia. © Travis Dove
IN NATURE Canoeing the Clinch River © Travis Dove

Virginia Pinelands

Celebrating 25 Years of Restoration

In early 1999, The Nature Conservancy announced the launch of an ambitious restoration effort centered on our newly acquired Piney Grove Preserve. Over its first 25 years, TNC’s Virginia Pinelands Program has fostered powerful partnerships, restored fire as a natural force in the forest system and helped Virginia’s then-tiny population of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers to recover and thrive. Your support keeps Piney Grove at the heart of a massive regional initiative urgently focused on restoring our diverse, climate-resilient longleaf pine forests.
 
A woman bends close to the ground, picking leaves from a sassafras plant.
At Work Susan McHarris © Daniel White/TNC

A Trip Through Time

By Susan McHarris

Virginia has one of the most extreme stories of loss when it comes to Southern pine forests. When English settlers arrived in 1607, more than 1 million acres of longleafdominant forest stretched south from the James River. Adapted to fire and resistant to drought, wind and pests, the longleaf pine had served for millennia as valuable habitat. But at the turn of the 21st century, only 200 mature trees from that original forest remained.

I turned these facts over and over in my mind on the drive to TNC’s Piney Grove Preserve. Located about an hour southeast of Richmond, Piney Grove protects 4,000 acres of the historic longleaf pine belt. While the preserve is dominated by loblolly and shortleaf pine, TNC and its partners are returning longleaf to the forest, slowly but surely. As I started down the preserve’s Darden Trail, I thought, uncritically, that this forest didn’t look much like the pinelands I’d seen in pictures. Then we passed the fire line.

Rising from Ashes: Our Once and Future Forest

The fire line we crossed couldn’t have been more obvious. On one side lay a dense, mixed-species forest. On the other, a spacious grove of pines. At their bases, scorched bark revealed where fires had attempted to climb. Though clearly marked by fire, these trees were not damaged.

For thousands of years, Indigenous people ignited fires that encouraged the growth of the pinelands, allowing them to flourish and sustain people and place. But Virginia, being the first landing place for English colonists, lost its Indigenous stewards of the pinelands relatively early. After Indigenous knowledge was lost, a fear of fire began to take over American culture.

“The worst thing you can do to longleaf is plant it and not burn it,” says Bobby Clontz, TNC’s stewardship manager for Southeastern Virginia. TNC and myriad partners have brought controlled burns back to the region. Even Smokey Bear has changed his tune. Now, Piney Grove receives good fire every two to four years, facilitating the planting of longleaf and the overall success of the ecosystem. Soon I will leave Virginia, and unentangle myself, at least for the time being, from its landscapes and stories. But all of this will stay. The pine will keep rising from the ashes. And, hopefully, the tide will turn. After all, humans were always a part of the longleaf ecosystem. With the right actions, we can intertwine our destinies once more.

The purple blossoms of fall wildflowers blazing star (Liatris spp.) rise above Piney Grove Preserve's open, grassy savanna.
Piney Grove Blazing Stars Fall wildflowers blazing star (Liatris spp.) at Virginia's Piney Grove Preserve. © Robert B. Clontz / The Nature Conservancy
× The purple blossoms of fall wildflowers blazing star (Liatris spp.) rise above Piney Grove Preserve's open, grassy savanna.
Red-cockaded woodpecker. A small brown and white bird with white cheeks and a small red fleck of color at the side of its head.
Healthy Homes A red-woodpecker at the restored longleaf pine forest. © Carlton Ward Jr.
× Red-cockaded woodpecker. A small brown and white bird with white cheeks and a small red fleck of color at the side of its head.

Mid Atlantic Seascape

Charting a Course for Healthy Oceans and Sustainable Fisheries

A humpback whale dives beneath the surface of the ocean.
Diving In Humpback whale in Atlantic Ocean © Matt Horspool/TNC Photo Contest 2021

Kate Wilke’s scariest moment on the ocean took place off the coast of Mexico. Before starting graduate school, Wilke undertook a study abroad project interviewing fishermen—which is how she found herself bobbing far from shore on a 19-foot wooden panga boat facing a sudden, violent storm.

“The darkest clouds blew in and just sheets of rain; we could not see our hands in front of us,” she recalls. “I think that boat driver just kept his eye on where the land disappeared and steered us toward that spot.”

Wilke didn’t let that close call steer her away from a career in marine conservation, but it left an indelible impression: “On the water, weather controls everything, and you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

That lesson remains relevant to the urgent challenges Wilke faces today as director of The Nature Conservancy’s Mid-Atlantic Seascape program. Her team works to protect healthy habitat and sustainable fisheries in ocean waters stretching from North Carolina to New York. It’s a bustling environment, with many people vying for fish and other marine resources. And conservation is only getting harder because of climate change.

Despite myriad challenges, the seascape team has pulled off some huge wins: establishing ecosystem-based management for previously unregulated menhaden (small prey fish with an enormous role in the ocean food chain), creating an Ocean Data Portal to guide decision makers and protecting 41,000 square miles of deep-sea canyons and corals—an area about the size of Virginia.

Wilke maintains a long-term focus on transforming ocean policy, often fostering unlikely alliances with fishing interests and regulatory agencies. And, since coming aboard a year ago, marine scientist Brendan Runde has deepened TNC’s engagement in field-based research and conservation.

The team’s current priorities include generating reliable data on recreational fishing harvests (which traditionally have largely gone unrecorded) and producing sound science to guide windpower development. “We like renewable energy; we want it to happen soon and in a big way,” Runde says. “But we don’t want it to happen at any cost.”

A waterman stands behind a wire mesh crab pot that is full of freshly caught blue crabs.
Crabbing Chesapeake Bay waterman harvesting blue crabs © Jason Houston

Only seven offshore wind turbines are generating power in U.S. Atlantic waters, but, within a decade, we expect thousands. TNC engages with industry on where to build turbines for the least disturbance. With support from NOAA, the seascape team is driving new research into how construction noise will affect marine life, as well as assessing the potential habitat value of turbine bases.

What’s at stake? “It boils down to our quality of life,” Wilke says. Whether or not you enjoy fishing or eating seafood or relaxing on beaches, you depend on resources that come from, or travel across, our oceans.

And millions of people earn their livelihoods from the sea. “What I still love best is working with fishermen and people who spend their lives on the water,” says Wilke. “It’s challenging but rewarding to learn from them, combine our different perspectives and expertise, and find solutions to big challenges.”

2023 Highlights

A look at key moments in 2023 through pictures

A person walking through a forest.
A group of 11 people standing in front of a trail entrance
A group of children holding butteerfly nets walk in a line along a mowed path.
A person standing in the mdidle of the Great Channels.
Candid portrait of volunteer Jeff Wright.
Jeff Wright At Voorhees Preserve © Kyle LaFerriere

Conservation Leadership

Jeff Wright’s Passion for Connecting People to Nature

Nature was in short supply around Jeff Wright’s childhood home in downtown Philadelphia. Wright’s father, too, had been a city kid, but his wartime experience had inspired a profound appreciation for forests. “My father was part of an air crew shot down over France in World War II and hidden by the French underground in a forest,” Wright says. “The forest hid them, fed them and provided them solace.”

Wright recalls frequent family getaways to parks, until, around the time he was in third grade, they moved into a house in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. “That was a kind of revelation for me,” he says. “We actually had trees and nature for the first time rather than visiting it in parks.”

Wright’s love for the natural world deepened during his own military service. Fresh out of college ROTC, he anticipated a two-year active duty assignment in the Army. Instead, a nearly 30-year career took him to some 50 countries. Along with “places of wonder and beauty,” Wright also witnessed rampant pollution, habitat degradation and deforestation in the former Soviet Union, Asia and the Americas.

Those experiences would strengthen his resolve that, for the benefit of humankind, “something had to be done.” Not one to leave a job to others, Wright started volunteering for stewardship workdays, including Jeff Wright’s Passion for Connecting People to Nature Nature Conservancy events, and citizen science projects during his last decade in government service and then his nearly two decades as an executive in industry. The rest is far from history. For almost as long as he spent in the Army, Wright has served TNC in Virginia as a leadership volunteer, financial supporter and self-described “thorn in the side”—an outspoken advocate for tackling difficult challenges.

Having grown up in an urban apartment and playing on a concrete schoolyard, Wright is passionate about providing public access to parks and preserves. He sees reaching out to communities who otherwise lack ready access to nature as “a tremendous challenge,” but a necessary one for both ethical and pragmatic reasons. “Wherever we do that, I think we have great success,” he says.

At TNC’s Voorhees Nature Preserve on the Rappahannock River, for example, Wright has invested not only many hours of “sweat equity” into the trail system, but he and his wife, Kathy, also helped TNC fund a popular new public access point that opened in 2020. And as a long-time member and current president of Friends of Dragon Run, he has helped countless hikers and kayakers explore one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most scenic and ecologically important tributaries while preserving, protecting and encouraging the wise use of this amazing watershed.

“Once you see some of those couple-hundred-yearold trees, see your first eagle fly by and see something as wonderful as a box turtle lumbering across a TNC trail, I think you’re hooked,” Wright says. “It makes an impression for life on a child, but, more importantly, it makes a big impact on the adults: They vote, they donate, they make policy changes.”

Wright is one such changemaker, and, for a former military man, he offers an interesting twist on the definition of a hero. Rather than someone willing to run toward danger, Wright says, “I’m looking for people who’ll run toward nature.” By any measure, Jeff Wright is one conservation hero whom we’re fortunate to serve alongside.

2023 By the Numbers

  • An illustrated icon showing an outline of a bird in profile perched on a branch.

    500K

    Acres that The Nature Conservancy has protected across the commonwealth of Virginia.

  • An illustrated icon showing three wide canopied trees grouped together.

    253K

    Across the three states being managed under TNC's Cumberland Forest Project.

  • An illustrated icon showing three trees enclosed in a fenced area.

    121K

    Acres of public land across Virginia that TNC has worked with partners to protect.

Intern Anna Ardila-McCarter sits on the ground surrounded by students working on craft and educational activities.
In The Community STEP intern Anna Ardila-McCarter leads an activity for children during Latino Conservation Week © Margaret Van Clief/TNC
× Intern Anna Ardila-McCarter sits on the ground surrounded by students working on craft and educational activities.
Three interns walking and talking to each other.
The Trio The Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve hosted three STEP interns: Hayley Marshall, Anna Ardila-McCarter and Alicia Godwin. © Kyle LaFerriere
× Three interns walking and talking to each other.
In The Community STEP intern Anna Ardila-McCarter leads an activity for children during Latino Conservation Week © Margaret Van Clief/TNC
The Trio The Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve hosted three STEP interns: Hayley Marshall, Anna Ardila-McCarter and Alicia Godwin. © Kyle LaFerriere

A Step Forward

Investing in Future Conservation Leaders

The Nature Conservancy realizes the urgent need to foster our next generation of conservation leaders, as well as to build a stronger, more diverse workforce. Virginia’s Short Term Experience Program (STEP) launched this year with eight paid summer internships geared to college students and recent graduates.

Virginia's STEP Program (5:08) Virginia's Short Term Experience Program (STEP) is a paid, 10-week summer internship program providing opportunities across the commonwealth for students to gain experience in conservation, inclusive storytelling, project management and more.

“We wanted to create a program that specifically focused on working with people of color, people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and people of different educational backgrounds who are coming from the humanities or the social sciences,” says program manager Taylor Fanelli.

The interns gained 10 weeks of valuable experience not only in traditional roles such as land stewardship and geographic information systems, but also in emerging fields such as inclusive storytelling and outreach to underrepresented communities. Along the way, says State Director Bettina Ring, “we learned as much from these impressive young people as they learned from us.”

Quote: Taylor Fanelli

We wanted to create a program that specifically focused on working with people of color, people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and people of different educational backgrounds

STEP Manager

A Shore Bet

Our Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve hosted three interns, all Eastern Shore natives and graduates of the local public school systems that partner with VVCR’s environmental education team. “The best part of our summer program was the fact that we were able to hire three local women who, without STEP, may not have realized TNC offered opportunities like this where they grew up,” says Jenny Miller, preserve and education manager.

“We were really excited for this opportunity to bring in young people from different areas of the Shore, different communities on the Shore,” adds Margaret Van Clief, outreach and education coordinator. “Not only could we help them connect with some of the benefits of working with an organization like The Nature Conservancy, but it’s also been really exciting for them to help us make new community connections.”

A sunset landscape picture of a river.
Fraser Preserve Potomac River at Fraser Preserve © Tom Hamilton
A picture of Tim Koppenhaver in front of a TNC preserve sign.
Tim Koppenhaver at Lake Drummond in Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. © Courtesy of Tim Koppenhaver

A Natural Quest

100 Before 60

By Tim Koppenhaver

After completing a sabbatical in 2016 during which I took time away from work to visit 18 preserves protected by The Nature Conservancy, the question came up, “What’s next?” The answer was simple: Keep the momentum going. I wanted to continue collecting amazing habitats protected by TNC. So, I set a new goal to visit 100 properties in Virginia and beyond before I turn 60 in 2024.

To qualify, a property had to meet one of two standards. The first was easy: any location listed under “Places We Protect” at nature.org. Most of these are TNC preserves with public signage like Fraser in Fairfax, Virginia, or Blowing Rocks in Florida. The second was any property where TNC’s work is behind the scenes and takes research to find, such as Bethel Beach in Onemo, Virginia, or the Mesoamerican Reef off the coast of Cancun, Mexico.

Using these two standards, it was easy for me to find a property within two hours of just about every place I’ve visited since 2016. As I traveled for business or pleasure, most trips included excursions to add new properties, and the count grew quickly.

Though I traveled far in this quest to collect 100 properties, 31 came from my home state of Virginia. Here in Virginia, I found a beautiful mosaic of diverse habitats, including caves, swamps, prairies (yes, Virginia has prairies), marshes, waterfalls and mountaintops. Once, on one of the latter, I was turned back by a black bear.

You can learn a lot about habitats online, but immersive in-person experiences bring much deeper appreciation. And so, visiting diverse and beautiful habitats where TNC works became my obsession.

Along the way, the assistance I received from TNC employees both locally and abroad has been remarkable. Without fail, they promptly attended to all my inquiries. Whether it was administrative guidance by email or land stewards accompanying me during visits, the staff at TNC has added great richness to my quest.

Of particular note is Jen Dalke, Virginia’s volunteer program manager. We first met when I was training to be a trail monitor for Wildcat Mountain Preserve. Since then, her guidance and help have been invaluable in connecting me with the right people when considering TNC property visits. She’s been my secret weapon.

After reaching #100, a September 2023 visit to TNC headquarters in Arlington, I know the question that’s coming: What’s next? Part of that answer will be this. I’ll never stop visiting new TNC properties when traveling. The momentum rolls on. Though my current 100-tile mosaic is diverse and beautiful, adding more will offer an even deeper understandin

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    Our Virginia: 2023 Impact Report

    From the Appalachians to our Atlantic barrier islands, we're seeing conservation pay off across Virginia. Take a deep dive with our 2023 Impact Report.

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    Nuestra Virginia: Informe de Impacto 2023

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    Our Virginia: 2022 Impact Report

    From the Appalachians to our Atlantic barrier islands, we're seeing conservation pay off across Virginia. Take a deep dive with our 2022 Impact Report.

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