Longleaf pine forest showing a seedling in the "bottlebrush" stage of growth.
LONGLEAF PINE A longleaf seeding in the "bottlebrush" stage of growth © Erika Nortemann / The Nature Conservancy

Stories in Virginia

How We Work: Forests

Restoring habitat, protecting clean water, and capturing carbon.

Virginia’s forests clean our air and water and help moderate our climate, yet our state is losing hundreds of acres every week. The Nature Conservancy is answering a clear call to action: protect and restore healthy, connected forests on which our lives and livelihoods depend.

A man stands on the fire line monitoring conditions during a controlled burn.
Longleaf prescribed fire Controlled burns help restore rare pine savannas. © Kenny Braun

Fired Up

Virginia’s last few red-cockaded woodpeckers were clinging to survival in a Sussex County forest in 1999, when the Conservancy protected the site as Piney Grove Preserve. Decades of fire suppression had been a major factor in the near disappearance of the bird’s pine savanna habitat.

In 2017, years of extensive restoration and partnership-building culminated in the largest controlled burn ever conducted at Piney Grove. Preserve manager Bobby Clontz led a 40-member fire team, coordinating ground efforts with aerial ignition from a helicopter crew. State and federal agencies and young AmeriCorps volunteers worked alongside Conservancy staff to burn 1,830 acres split almost evenly between our preserve and the adjoining Big Woods State Forest.

For this habitat, especially for 177 acres of recently planted longleaf pine, fire is a tonic. By enabling pines to thrive and encouraging native grasses and wildflowers on the forest floor, fire creates the only environment in which red-cockaded woodpeckers can flourish. In short, fire is the key to restoring the rich natural diversity of our Virginia Pinelands.

By the Numbers
  • 1,830: Acreage of 2017's record controlled burn conducted at Piney Grove Preserve and the adjoining Big Woods State Forest.
  • 9,616: Total acreage of Piney Grove Preserve and the state’s Big Woods Wildlife Management Area and State Forest. Collaboration enhances the scale of restoration in the Virginia Pinelands.
  • 37M: Gallons of gasoline (and resulting emissions) offset to date through forest-carbon credits generated by Virginia's Clinch Valley Conservation Forestry Program.

Learning and Burning

Burn crew members at Trappers Lodge staging area prepare for the Big Wilson Burn on Warm Springs Mountain in Bath County, Virginia.
Big Wilson Burn Burn crew members at Trappers Lodge staging area prepare for the Big Wilson Burn on Warm Springs Mountain in Bath County, Virginia. © Daniel White/TNC

To rejuvenate pine-oak forests in western Virginia, TNC and partners in the Central Appalachians Fire Learning Network have reintroduced fire across throusands of acres on our Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, adjacent George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, and state lands.

The 5,600 acre Big Wilson controlled burn in 2014 was the largest collaborative burn between TNC and the US Forest Service anywhere in the country, and one of the largest controlled burns of a mountainous area east of the Mississippi River.

Years of measuring post-burn effects have helped inform how we light future fires and affirmed a host of positive responses for forest health and diversity, especially from repeat burning.

Forest Carbon

The forests of the Clinch Valley help filter and protect the last free-flowing tributaries of the Tennessee River system.
Clinch Valley: The forests of the Clinch Valley help filter and protect the last free-flowing tributaries of the Tennessee River system. © Jon Golden

Every part of a living tree stores carbon, and forests absorb more atmospheric carbon when they are healthy and growing. Capitalizing on this cycle, in 2014 our Clinch Valley Conservation Forestry Program became the first Conservancy project in the nation to earn and sell certified forest-carbon credits under California’s Global Warming Solutions Act.

Through the fall of 2016, our southwestern Virginia forests had yielded credits to offset the equivalent of using 37 million gallons of gasoline. In 2017, with California’s legislature extending the program through 2030, market stability generated increased revenues, which will enable more on-the-ground forest restoration—a big win for climate, habitat and water quality.