Good Relationships And A Conservation Strategy At Work In The Potomac Highlands: A Summary Of Potomac Conservancy’s Shenandoah Valley Priority Lands Project

Today we have a guest blog from Emily Warner, former Land Protection Director at Potomac Conservancy. Emily’s team just completed a conservation easement project in western Virginia that American Rivers funded through our partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called the Potomac Highlands Implementation Grant Program. This is Part 1 of a two part blog series on this project.

Hogue Creek, Potomac Highlands, VA | © Emily Warner, Potomac Conservancy

Hogue Creek is just one of five successful conservation projects in the Potomac Highlands Implementation Grant Program | © Emily Warner, Potomac Conservancy

Thanks to sound relationships, a conservation strategy, and the support of American Rivers and the EPA’s Potomac Highlands Implementation Grant Program, Potomac Conservancy assisted owners of five Virginia properties in the permanent conservation of 1,049 acres, 5.5 stream miles, and 9.4 miles of forested riparian (stream-side) buffers in 2012 and 2013!

The Goal:

The Conservancy’s Shenandoah Valley Priority Lands Project was intended to protect stream-side and forested lands in the Shenandoah Valley region of the Potomac River watershed to maintain or improve water quality in target waterways, preserve wildlife habitat, and help to maintain rural landscapes and the cultures and economies they support.

The First Key to Success:

The first component of this successful land conservation effort was our strong relationships with community members. Individual people (with their own unique values, hopes, fears, and interests in land) own much of the land within the Potomac River basin. Entering into a conservation agreement (or "easement") to protect land from excessive division and development is a personal decision (just as "excessive" is individually defined), and it requires a trusting and respectful relationship between the landowner and staff of a given land conservation agency or entity. Consequently, human relationships are hugely important to land conservation.

In this case, mutual friends or colleagues living or working within the Conservancy’s defined "priority area" introduced landowners of all five properties to Conservancy staff. These "pathways" or "match-makers" connected our staff with these and other potentially-interested landowners. Their efforts sped the Conservancy’s outreach process and reduced the risk of the Conservancy pestering landowners who would prefer not to be bothered. A few of the landowners first involved in this project later became liasions themselves as the project progressed.

Landowners have full choice of whether (or not) to enter into conservation agreements, and the Potomac Conservancy aims not to twist arms, but rather to: 1) provide landowners with information about how to conserve land, and 2) to assist those landowners who wish to conserve their lands in the process. Therefore, we most want to work with landowners who are already inclined toward protecting their lands.

The Second Key to Success:

The second key to our success lay in strategy. Strategic land conservation is critical to maintaining viable blocks (or corridors) of wildlife habitat, farmland, and stream buffers (as opposed to haphazard protection of isolated properties). Thus, the Priority Lands Project began by: 1) identifying forests and stream-side lands as the most important types of land to protect, and 2) identifying particular watersheds within the Shenandoah Valley as the most important geographies in which to protect land. Then we had to efficiently and respectfully initiate conversations with "priority area" landowners. This is where "pathways" and the importance of good relationships re-entered the process.

The Third Key to Success:

Many landowners with whom the Conservancy works are eager to enter into conservation easements, but face financial barriers. The Potomac Highlands Implementation Grant, administered by American Rivers, defrayed costs for three of the five landowners and paid the other two for a portion of their property values. This assistance greatly facilitated the completion of these projects.

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The Results:

During the two years of the project, the Conservancy completed five conservation easements within the Shenandoah Valley Priority Area. Three of the five properties adjoin one another and a pre-existing easement property in what the Conservancy now calls the “Hogue-Back Creek Hub” in northern Frederick County, VA. These four properties together total 608 contiguous acres, 2.6 continuous miles of Hogue Creek, and .75 continuous miles of Back Creek (which drains directly to the Potomac River). The other two properties protect farm and forest land on the North Fork of the Shenandoah River in Shenandoah County, VA and on a tributary to high-quality Cedar Creek in southern Frederick County, VA.

Stay tuned for another blog where we talk about building effective relationships with local landowners!