By Carol Vaughn —
The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve has a new name as it celebrates its 50th year on the Eastern Shore.
It is now called the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve, in recognition of the Volgenau Foundation’s long-term support of the organization, including a recent $5 million gift.
“The Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve honors Dr. Ernst Volgenau and his family for their conservation impact over more than three decades supporting TNC projects from Virginia to California,” according to a press release.
While the family foundation has supported numerous TNC conservation projects, the renaming “befits the family’s special connection and ongoing commitment to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where their partnership with TNC began,” the release said.
“The Volgenau leadership gift will be used to fund all of the great work happening at the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve into the next 50 years,” said VVCR Director Jill Bieri in an email.
That includes continuing to protect and manage conservation lands; management and research associated with migratory birds and the barrier islands and other coastal ecosystems; marine habitat restoration involving eelgrass and oysters; and work to advance coastal resilience for nature and people — including nature-based solutions and expanding education and community outreach programs, Bieri said.
“Their gift, on the occasion of our 50th, is intended to help us leverage additional funding to support this important work into the next 50 years,” she said.
Bieri, who leads a staff of 12 at the reserve, reviewed highlights of the past 50 years during an Oct. 1 webinar to which more than 200 people tuned in.
Bieri reflected on “how this really local program is having global impacts.”
The reserve includes 14 undeveloped barrier and marsh islands — the longest expanse of undeveloped coastal wilderness remaining on the east coast.
After the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in the 1960s, land developers increasingly eyed the Virginia Eastern Shore barrier islands.
In 1969, the New York-based Smith Island Development Corporation announced it had purchased Smith, Myrtle, and Ship Shoal islands, with plans to build a $150 million resort community, according to a TNC history.
By 1970, TNC purchased the islands and one more, along with part of Hog Island.
Eventually, the Virginia Coast Reserve included most of 14 barrier islands and Brownsville Preserve near Nassawadox.
At present, around 133,000 acres on the Eastern Shore of Virginia are conserved, including 40,000 acres owned or managed by TNC, as well as land conserved by partners.
That amounts to 33% of the total land cover on the Shore.
Of the 40,000 acres, 33,000 acres are owned by TNC and the remainder is in 70 private conservation easement properties.
TNC today “is thinking about land protection in very different terms than we did 50 years ago,” Bieri said during the webinar.
Fifty years ago the organization was focused on protecting undeveloped coastal areas for biodiversity and bird habitat.
“That’s still very important to The Nature Conservancy, but…when we think about priority places on the Eastern Shore to protect now, we think about those places that will help us with resilience — where can we protect behind coastal marshes, so that as sea level rise increases those marshes can continue to migrate and we still have the benefit of those systems,” Bieri said.
A 2017 study by George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis and Urban Analytics detailed the impact of conserved land on the economies of Accomack and Northampton counties.
The study found conservation organizations spend $22 million a year and add $9 million to the gross regional product and 161 jobs to the area.
Gross Regional Product is the market value of all goods and services produced within an area in a given period of time.
Additionally, conservation visitors spend $51 million and add $26 million to the GRP and 665 jobs to the region.
The aquaculture industry, which relies on conserved lands to provide clean water, accounts for $157 in spending, $114 million added to the GRP and 445 jobs, according to the study.
Bieri’s presentation included discussion of the reserve’s successful seagrass restoration project — the world’s largest at 9,000 acres to date; efforts to protect migratory bird habitat; oyster restoration projects, which also can help protect marshland; development of a coastal resiliency tool to help communities visualize the effects of climate change (https://maps.coastalresilience.org/virginia); and education and outreach programs, including workshops for teachers and students.
“Our long-term strategy — which is a long-term strategy that everyone should think about in terms of connecting people to nature — is through education,” Bieri said.
Professional development for Shore teachers and a field experience for every fifth, seventh, and 10th grade student on the Shore are components of VVCR’s education outreach.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on many of the in-person educational programs, VCCR is offering virtual workshops amd presentations and is doing limited in-person teacher workshops, with safety protocols in place.
“We hope very soon we’ll be able to get kids in kayaks and boots and boats again out in the field,” Bieri said.
Additionally, the VCCR recently created an eight-member advisory committee comprised of diverse community members to help the organization better understand how it can communicate with and listen to the community “and how they can be partners with us in our work going forward,” Bieri said.
Bieri during the webinar announced a new website, https://exploreourseaside.org, with information about visiting the barrier islands, the area’s natural history, migratory birds, ecotourism operators, and more. The website was funded by The Nature Conservancy with support from The Volgenau Foundation and by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program led by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality through a grant from NOAA.