Southeastern Virginia: Southern Rivers Program

In southeast Virginia, six major rivers and vast expanses of wetlands and rare forests are home to centuries-old cypress swamps, rare longleaf pine, and a rich mix of freshwater mussels and fish. Through creative partnerships, land acquisition, ecological management, and other conservation strategies, the Conservancy's Southern Rivers Program works to protect the area’s lands and waters.

Despite its proximity to a major metropolitan area, this region supports an exceptional array of over 100 rare plants, animals, and natural communities. The 130,000-acre Great Dismal Swamp represents one of the East Coast’s largest contiguous forests. Securing the donation of nearly 50,000 acres to establish a federal refuge in the swamp was an early milestone for the Conservancy in Virginia.

The Southern Rivers Program now concentrates on five significant river systems: the North Landing, Northwest, Meherrin, Nottoway, and Blackwater rivers. The Northwest River provides drinking water to 60% of the City of Chesapeake. Near the headwaters of the Meherrin, Nottoway, and Blackwater Rivers, Piney Grove Preserve harbors the northernmost population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. All five mostly freshwater rivers are important wildlife corridors and collectively support a third of the state's non-tidal wetlands.  

  • forest fragmentation
  • altered fire regimes
  • incompatible development
  • invasive species
  • canebrakes
  • longleaf pine savanna
  • Atlantic white cedar
  • Virginia least trillium
  • red-cockaded woodpecker
  • canebrake rattlesnake
  • fox squirrel
  • Roanoke logperch
  • Atlantic pigtoe mussel
Our Conservation Strategy

Guided by conservation science, the Conservancy works with a variety of partners to protect the forests, lakes, wetlands, and unique habitats of the Southern Rivers. Below are some of the ways we work:

  • Land protection:
    We purchase land or interests in land and accept donations of land or easements from willing sellers and donors. The Conservancy brokered a donation of nearly 50,000 acres to establish Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Science-based conservation:
    Using its science-based methods, the Conservancy partners with state and federal agencies to restore natural fire regimes. The Conservancy uses fire and timber management at 2,700-acre Piney Grove Preserve to restore habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers. The Conservancy partners with the College of William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, as well as state and federal agencies, to monitor the red-cockaded woodpecker population.
  • Land management
    The Conservancy is working with private landowners to restore globally rare pine savanna habitat.  Through the Virginia Aquatic Restoration Trust Fund, we are restoring forested wetlands to establish strategically located wildlife corridors.  The Conservancy partnered with International Paper (IP) and Virginia’s Natural Heritage Program to conduct a biological survey of IP land at South Quay.
  • 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. The Conservancy works with private landowners to secure easements along river corridors, protecting water quality and riparian habitat.  The Conservancy 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. The Conservancy 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.
  • Help to shape public policies:
    The Conservancy has committed at least $10,000 in private funds toward a new state initiative, the Virginia Invasive Species Council, to combat invasive species and has joined a coalition of public and private groups to launch Virginiaforever, a campaign to garner increased public support and state funding for conservation.
  • Community-based conservation:
    The Conservancy is working with individuals and public agencies to expand the protection of Great Dismal Swamp. Using partnerships with large landowners and cooperative management agreements with timber companies, we’re working to protect the natural heritage of this region.
Program Milestones and Achievements
  • The North Landing and Northwest rivers support the greatest diversity of rare plants and animals in Virginia east of the Blue Ridge.
  • Since the early 1970s, the Conservancy has worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Great Dismal Swamp, one of the largest contiguous forests in the eastern U.S.
  • The Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve was nationally recognized through the Audubon Society’s “Important Bird Area” program.  
  • The Conservancy helped develop a Purchase of Development Rights program to protect thousands of acres and thwart urban sprawl from Virginia Beach to the Chesapeake Bay.
Contact Information
Southern Rivers Program
The Nature Conservancy
530 E. Main Street, Suite 800
Richmond, VA  23219
Phone: (804) 644-5800 ext. 1119
Fax: (804) 644-1685

Piney Grove Preserve Blackwater River Preserve North Landing River Preserve