Conservationists Promote the Long View

Feb 9, 2017

Yesterday we brought you an account of trapping and banding a kestrel in the Shenandoah Valley Raptor Study Area. Today, WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz explores the current balancing act between human development and wildlife -- and asks about the long view.

Lance and Jill Morrow know that for the wildlife in their Shenandoah Valley Raptor Study Area and elsewhere, survival in the face of great human-caused odds is a sort of death-sentence dodge.

LANCE MORROW: A hawk can't fly across a field without being cut in half by a barbed wire fence, can't land on a pole without being electrocuted, all his habitat is on the sides of the county roads and the major highways, and he can't fly and catch a mouse without being hit by a car.

A root of the problem, he says, is that people don’t see economic value in wildlife. Sure, the American kestrels he and Jill study do kill and eat lots of mice, which farmers appreciate. However, Lance has a bit of a pessimistic streak.

LANCE: Birdwatchers like to see the little falcon, and that's as far as it goes, as far as I can tell.

CLYMER KURTZ: You think they’re valueless?

LANCE: Yeah, everything's valueless, right? Or we'd take care of it, right?

Morrow thinks that when it comes to the natural world in which we live -- and which we often endanger -- people should be thinking longer term:

LANCE: Everyone's thinking about the local economy in the minute. What this area -- every place in the world -- needs is what I call a 500-year plan. That is, What do you want the Shenandoah Valley to look like 500 years from now?

I suspected that Morrow’s 500-year plan idea was not very, umm, mainstream.

RHONDA COOPER: Generally, planning at the local level is done looking out 25-50 years.

Rhonda Cooper is the Director of Planning in Rockingham County’s Department of Community Development. She says the county is working to control growth in ways that will both preserve rural areas and promote development.

COOPER: It's important to have urban growth area boundaries around the towns and the city, and not let that development sprawl out and start to impact your rural areas.

But just protecting a rural lifestyle or land for agriculture from overdevelopment doesn’t necessarily translate to better wildlife habitat.

Diane Lepkowski, Rockingham County’s Deputy Zoning Administrator and Deputy Subdivision Agent, is the vice president of Rockingham Bird Club, which has supported the Morrows’ work.

LEPKOWSKI: Obviously the suburban lawn is not going to be a kestrel habitat, but a lot of farmland and open rural land is not kestrel habitat, either. A cornfield is like a barren wasteland for a kestrel.

TOM SMITH: [laughter] I don't have an answer to where we're going to be in 500 years. Good question, though.

I took the 500-year-plan idea to the state, to Tom Smith, Deputy Director of Operations for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

TOM SMITH: I think the Natural Resources budget is less than 1% of the state budget. We certainly value conservation and we devote a limited number of state resources toward it.

All told, 15% of land in Virginia is made up of the state parks system, federally owned land such as national parks, about 56,000 acres of Natural Area Preserves, and about a million acres of land in other kinds of easements.

Such easements might be the longest-term conservation option for landowners, at least those whose localities put up local money to buy property development rights with matching funds from the Office of Farmland Preservation in the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. That program is managed by Andrew Sorrell.

ANDREW SORRELL: The primary way to permanently preserve land is through a permanent conservation easement. Permanent means perpetual so it means forever. In essence that could be 500 years. However many years perpetual is.

Those easements can have a variety of purposes, from preserving standing woodland, wildlife habitats, historic resources, and even active farmland, says Sorrell -- and it’s purposefully difficult to change their terms.

Again, Rockingham County’s Diane Lepkowski.

LEPKOWSKI: A lot of the environmental impact and supporting wildlife really falls on individual landowners, if that's something that's important to them or not on their radar at all.

And that’s part of what Lance and Jill Morrow do in their Raptor Study Area -- show the birds to curious people.  In the olden days, Lance says…

LANCE MORROW: You would go to your robin nest and you would steal a baby robin, and try to feed it and it would die, and then you would try it again and maybe it will survive, and the neighbors, when that imprint robin flies to the neighbor's house and they know who it is and they take care of it, too, everybody learns. It's a hands-on experience.

But current law disallows the unlicensed handling of birds and wildlife.

LANCE: So everyone is disconnected from the wildlife I guess the state wants to protect.

That’s ironic, because, as Jill says,

JILL MORROW: It's hard to conserve something you don't have any clue about. You need to make a personal connection with wildlife.