Yellow flowers grow in the open savanna beneath tall pine trees at Virginia's Piney Grove Preserve.
Pinelands Protection Piney Grove Flatwoods became Virginia’s 66th natural area preserve in September 2021 bringing the state’s highest level of protection to the heart of Piney Grove Preserve. © Robert B. Clontz / TNC

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Looking Back on 36 Years of Conservation

In celebration of Michael Lipford's retirement from TNC after 36 years, we look back on some of the successes from his tenure in Virginia.

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Michael Lipford head shot, taken outdoors on the Blackwater River.
Michael Lipford Marking 36 years with TNC. © Daniel White/TNC

Michael Lipford marked his retirement from The Nature Conservancy on December 2 after 36 years. Michael began his TNC career as a volunteer in 1982, was hired by TNC in 1986 as the Director/Ecologist to start the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, served as the Virginia Chapter’s Executive Director for 25 years and concluded his tenure as TNC’s Southern U.S. Division Director, a role he held for six years.

In celebration of Michael’s remarkable career and commitment to nature, we look back on a few of the successes from his time in the commonwealth.


A small woodpecker with brown and white flecked feathers and color coded identification bands on its leg perches on the side of a pine tree.
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis) a signature and iconic species of longleaf pine savannas. © Karen Willes
× A small woodpecker with brown and white flecked feathers and color coded identification bands on its leg perches on the side of a pine tree.
A group of women stand in a clearing of a pine forest during a fire briefing.
A Community of Fire WTREX 2022 participants during a briefing prior to the start of controlled burn exercises at TNC's Piney Grove Preserve. © Daniel White / TNC
× A group of women stand in a clearing of a pine forest during a fire briefing.
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis) a signature and iconic species of longleaf pine savannas. © Karen Willes
A Community of Fire WTREX 2022 participants during a briefing prior to the start of controlled burn exercises at TNC's Piney Grove Preserve. © Daniel White / TNC

Piney Grove

“It’s not going to wink out on my watch. This species is not going to be extirpated from Virginia as long as I’m state director.” Virginia’s rarest bird, the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW), was on Michael’s mind in 1998 when the Virginia chapter purchased a 2,000-acre stand of pines that would become Piney Grove Preserve

There were six red-cockaded woodpeckers at the preserve then. Many thought the population was too small to survive. Now, more than 70 RCWs call Piney Grove home. We’ve expanded the preserve and our Virginia Pinelands Program and reintroduced fire to the landscape to help restore the open longleaf pine savanna habitat the woodpeckers need. 

In 2010, TNC initiated the acquisition from International Paper of 5,000 acres adjacent to Piney Grove that would become the Big Woods State Forest and State Wildlife Management Area.


 

Aerial view looking down on a small boat cruising through a wide coastal channel that curves and meanders through wetlands and marsh on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Virginia Coast Reserve Healthy natural communities can make a difference in places like VA's Eastern Shore, vulnerable to rising seas and more frequent and intense storms due to climate change. © Kyle LaFerriere Photography
× Aerial view looking down on a small boat cruising through a wide coastal channel that curves and meanders through wetlands and marsh on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.
A fan of bright pink coral grows on a rocky outcrop on the Atlantic seafloor.
Deep Sea Habitats Sweeping measures enacted in 2016 to protect submarine canyons stretching from NY to VA provided protection for pink bubblegum coral that are likely 500-1000 years old. © NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition
× A fan of bright pink coral grows on a rocky outcrop on the Atlantic seafloor.
Virginia Coast Reserve Healthy natural communities can make a difference in places like VA's Eastern Shore, vulnerable to rising seas and more frequent and intense storms due to climate change. © Kyle LaFerriere Photography
Deep Sea Habitats Sweeping measures enacted in 2016 to protect submarine canyons stretching from NY to VA provided protection for pink bubblegum coral that are likely 500-1000 years old. © NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition

Virginia Coast Reserve

In 2002 the Virginia chapter assumed management and ownership of the longest coastal wilderness on the East Coast—Virginia Coast Reserve—and embarked on an era of restoration. 

Our work at the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve (VVCR) includes oyster and scallop restorationforest protection for migratory neo-tropical bird habitat, shoreline monitoring for beach nesting bird habitat and the largest and most successful seagrass restoration project in the world. VVCR’s best of class coastal resilience work puts natural solutions in place to help overcome the threats from rising sea levels and storm surges.

Building on VVCR's importance, the Mid-Atlantic Seascape was initiated to focus on the conservation of offshore marine habitats. In 2016, TNC led an effort, with the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council and NOAA Fisheries, to protect submarine canyons from New York to Virginia, a seafloor area encompassing about 40,000 square miles—an area about the size of Virginia. These canyons support deep-water, temperate corals and associated fisheries.  


 

Lush green vegetation and pink rhododendron blooms on a mountain overlook looking out over a valley under cover of heavy white clouds.
The Appalachians View of rain clouds from Bear Loop Trail with rhododendron blooms in the foreground. Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, Virginia. © Daniel White/TNC
× Lush green vegetation and pink rhododendron blooms on a mountain overlook looking out over a valley under cover of heavy white clouds.
Graphic showing a map outline of the Eastern and Central US with multi-colored lines converging into a migration corridor running along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains.
Migration Corridor As the climate changes, the Central Appalachians provide a corridor for plants and animals shifting their ranges to adapt and thrive.
× Graphic showing a map outline of the Eastern and Central US with multi-colored lines converging into a migration corridor running along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains.
The Appalachians View of rain clouds from Bear Loop Trail with rhododendron blooms in the foreground. Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, Virginia. © Daniel White/TNC
Migration Corridor As the climate changes, the Central Appalachians provide a corridor for plants and animals shifting their ranges to adapt and thrive.

Warm Springs Mountain

In 2004 the chapter purchased 9,000 acres on Warm Springs Mountain, now the heart of our Allegheny Highlands Program. This intact tract of forested land in Bath County was the missing puzzle piece that stitched together more than 300,000 acres of protected land. The preserve also shares a 13-mile border with the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, providing opportunities for partnership and collaboration with the Forest Service.

With the Clinch Valley and Allegheny Highlands Programs, Michael helped initiate the Central Appalachians Whole System project and, as Southern Division Director, was on a team that recommended the Appalachians as a global TNC focal area, for its critical role in biodiversity protection and climate mitigation.

“Our vision for Warm Springs Mountain is as a center of excellence for the Central Appalachians. We want it to be at the heart of forest and watershed management research.”


 

Aerial view looking down on a floating barge in the Piankatank River. A large crane is being used to scoop up chunks of granite rock from a pile on the barge and place them on a new oyster reef.
Building a Reef Granite rock is methodically placed in Virginia's Piankatank River to form the newest, 25-acre oyster reef in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. © Patrick Bloodgood/U.S. Army photo
× Aerial view looking down on a floating barge in the Piankatank River. A large crane is being used to scoop up chunks of granite rock from a pile on the barge and place them on a new oyster reef.
A woman sits in a blue kayak holding a small microphone to her mouth as she guides a tour along the wide, flat water of Dragon Run. A man in a yellow kayak floats behind her.
Dragon Tales Paddle Master Teta Kain, "Queen of the Dragon", in her element during a kayak trip on Dragon Run, Virginia, with Friends of Dragon Run. © Daniel White
× A woman sits in a blue kayak holding a small microphone to her mouth as she guides a tour along the wide, flat water of Dragon Run. A man in a yellow kayak floats behind her.
Building a Reef Granite rock is methodically placed in Virginia's Piankatank River to form the newest, 25-acre oyster reef in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. © Patrick Bloodgood/U.S. Army photo
Dragon Tales Paddle Master Teta Kain, "Queen of the Dragon", in her element during a kayak trip on Dragon Run, Virginia, with Friends of Dragon Run. © Daniel White

Chesapeake Bay and Oyster Restoration

Michael was an architect of large, cross-border, landscape-scale efforts called whole systems, including the Chesapeake Bay and Mid-Atlantic Seascape. TNC partnered with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to invest in restoring the native Chesapeake oyster in several Bay tributaries. TNC led restoration efforts in the Piankatank River, Virginia’s signature river for oyster restoration and part of the largest oyster restoration effort in the world. Upstream in the Piankatank watershed, TNC protected the largest forest block in the Bay watershed east of the mountains—over 25,000 acres along Dragon Run.


 

A man walks along the edge of a field next to a wide, water filled ditch to catch runoff.
Working with Farmers Preserving Virginia's agricultural heritage while also creating a buffer corridor along river marshlands. © Carlton Ward Jr
× A man walks along the edge of a field next to a wide, water filled ditch to catch runoff.
Gray twisted cypress tree knees rise above the dark waters of Lake Drummond. Two tall cypress trees stand in the background, reflected in the lake.
Great Dismal Swamp NWR Bald cypress trees rise up from the tannin stained waters of Lake Drummond. © Virginia Tourism Corporation
× Gray twisted cypress tree knees rise above the dark waters of Lake Drummond. Two tall cypress trees stand in the background, reflected in the lake.
Working with Farmers Preserving Virginia's agricultural heritage while also creating a buffer corridor along river marshlands. © Carlton Ward Jr
Great Dismal Swamp NWR Bald cypress trees rise up from the tannin stained waters of Lake Drummond. © Virginia Tourism Corporation

Agricultural Reserve Program 

We worked with a coalition of farmers and local governments in Virginia Beach to create the Agricultural Reserve Program in 1996.  A first of its kind for a locality, the program helps preserve the city’s agricultural heritage while also creating a buffer corridor along river marshlands.  

The North Landing River marshlands protected by TNC in the late 1980s and early 1990s, built on protection of the Great Dismal Swamp, called the Green Sea Program.  This locality driven easement program has been exported to several other regions in Virginia.


 
A large sign reading Big Woods State Forest stands at the edge of a forested protected area.
Protecting Public Lands Big Woods State Forest, Big Woods Wildlife Management Area and Piney Grove Preserve together protect more than 7,500 acres of critical forest habitat. © Daniel White / TNC
× A large sign reading Big Woods State Forest stands at the edge of a forested protected area.
A small wooden enclosure is overgrown with tall flowering plants on the edge of an open green field. A mountain ridge lines the horizon in the background.
Protecting Open Spaces Virginia's conservation easement tax credit can be used protect open spaces and parklands, lands of historic or cultural significance, farmlands, forests and natural areas. © Kent Mason
× A small wooden enclosure is overgrown with tall flowering plants on the edge of an open green field. A mountain ridge lines the horizon in the background.
Protecting Public Lands Big Woods State Forest, Big Woods Wildlife Management Area and Piney Grove Preserve together protect more than 7,500 acres of critical forest habitat. © Daniel White / TNC
Protecting Open Spaces Virginia's conservation easement tax credit can be used protect open spaces and parklands, lands of historic or cultural significance, farmlands, forests and natural areas. © Kent Mason

Conservation Policy and Funding 

In 1988, Michael wrote and helped pass into law, the Virginia Natural Area Preserves Act that established the Virginia Natural Heritage Program and State Natural Area Preserves System. After becoming state director, he was a leader in providing funds for state natural areas and state park acquisitions through the 1992 Virginia General Obligation Bond, passed with the support of 67% of Virginia voters. A similar effort was successful in 2002.

In 1999 the Virginia chapter proposed, wrote and passed into law a conservation easement tax credit. The program provides a stable, cost-efficient method for funding land conservation in Virginia and can be used to establish permanent conservation easements and to purchase open spaces and parklands, lands of historic or cultural significance, farmlands and forests and natural areas. Michael also led the effort to create the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, the primary vehicle for Virginia public land acquisition.  


 

The Virginia chapter staff pose for a group photo outdoors in front of a narrow lake during a chapter retreat.
Our People TNC Virginia staff retreat, Twin Lakes State Park, November 2019. © Daniel White/TNC

Growing the Virginia Program 

“I am proud of helping grow the Virginia Program into one of the best state chapters in TNC, from a small staff of six to a staff of more than 60; every one of them a passionate and hard-working professional and some of the best people I’ve had the pleasure to know.”


 

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in more than 70 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.