Piney Grove Blazing Stars_640x400
Piney Grove Blazing Stars Fall wildflowers blazing star (Liatris spp.) at Virginia's Piney Grove Preserve. © Robert B. Clontz / The Nature Conservancy

Stories in Virginia

Virginia Pinelands Program

Protecting centuries-old cypress swamp, the state's rarest bird, and Virginia's founding forest.

This article was updated on August 20, 2020.

Through creative partnerships, land acquisition, ecological management, and other conservation strategies, Virginia's Pinelands Program works to protect vast expanses of wetlands and rare forests in southeast Virginia that are home to centuries-old cypress swamps and rare longleaf pine savannas.  

newly banded red-cockaded woodpecker chicks
Red-cockaded woodpecker Newly banded red-cockaded woodpecker chicks at Virginia's Piney Grove Preserve. © Robert B. Clontz / TNC

Virginia's Founding Forest

Despite its proximity to a major metropolitan area, Virginia's Pinelands supports an exceptional array of over 100 rare plants, animals, and natural communities.

At Piney Grove Preserve we're working to restore the longleaf pine of the commonwealth's founding forest and the northernmost population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, Virginia's rarest bird.

Five significant river systems - the North Landing, Northwest, Meherrin, Nottoway, and Blackwater rivers -  provide important wildlife corridors and collectively support a third of the state's non-tidal wetlands.  The Northwest River provides drinking water to 60% of the City of Chesapeake, while the Nottoway River is one of several sources of drinking water for the City of Norfolk.

Lake Drummond, Great Dismal Swamp
Great Dismal Swamp Morning mist rises over Lake Drummond. © Rebecca Wynn/USFWS (flickr Creative Commons)

The Great Dismal

TNC brokered the nation’s first major corporate donation of conservation land in 1973. The following year, Union Camp Corporation's gift of nearly 50,000 acres established Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which today encompasses more than 110,000 acres. 

Due to a history dating back to George Washington of ditching and draining, the swamp's hydrology - its plumbing - is out of balance. While fire is a natural disturbance among the swamp’s ecological processes, a swamp that’s too dry becomes more susceptible to damaging wildfires.

TNC works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce the threat of these intense fires. Acting as “nature’s plumber,” we’re seeking to manage the water flow, mimic seasonal flooding and re-wet the swamp. This project involves installing and maintaining several water control systems across the refuge. We’re not going to stop wildfires in the swamp, but we can reduce their intensity to make the refuge healthier for wildlife and safer for communities.

Longleaf pine is a fire adapted species.  It depends on fire to reveal bare mineral soil, stimulate seed germination and reduce competition from faster-growing tree species.
Good Fire Longleaf pine is a fire adapted species. It depends on fire to reveal bare mineral soil, stimulate seed germination and reduce competition from faster-growing tree species. © Kyle LaFerriere

Conservation at Work

  • Good FireUsing science-based methods, TNC partners with state and federal agencies to return fire to the landscape. In 2017 we successfully conducted the largest ever controlled burn at the 2,700-acre Piney Grove Preserve.
  • Restoring Habitat: We collaborate with partners at the College of William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, as well as state and federal agencies, to monitor the population of Virginia's rarest bird, the red-cockaded woodpecker, at Piney Grove Preserve and Great Dismal Swamp NWR.
  • Land Management: We work with private landowners to restore globally rare pine savanna habitat.  Through the Virginia Aquatic Resources Trust Fund, we are restoring forested wetlands to establish strategically located wildlife corridors.  
  • Land Protection: A recent matching-grant opportunity from Richmond’s Robert G. Cabell III and Maude Morgan Cabell Foundation unlocked $1 million to go toward the acquisition of nearly 800 acres adjacent to Piney Grove Preserve. The Cabell match leveraged additional grants that also enabled us to support the Virginia Department of Forestry in  acquiring a conservation easement on almost 750 acres of mature  hardwood forest extending roughly a mile along the Nottoway River. These properties will be devoted, where appropriate, to the restoration of rare pine savanna habitat. 
  • Conservation Easements: A conservation easement is a legal agreement, recorded with the deed, that restricts the type and amount of development that can take place on the land. TNC works with private landowners to secure easements along river corridors, protecting water quality and riparian habitat.  TNC served on an advisory board encouraging the City of Chesapeake to enact a new purchase of development rights program to protect open space. The city purchases development rights from willing private landowners, who then retain ownership while permanently keeping their lands as open space or in agricultural use. 
  • Education and Outreach: We foster a conservation ethic and appreciation for nature through education and outreach. TNC works to influence land-use planning and is helping local communities learn about development approaches that preserve local character, history, traditions, and, ultimately, the ecosystem itself.
  • Shaping Public Policy: TNC is a member of Virginiaforever, a campaign to garner increased public support and state funding for conservation.

Contact the Virginia Pinelands Program

Brian van Eerden
Program Director