Cape Charles Natural Area Expands, Reopens

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A sign marks the entrance to the Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve. File photo.

By Stefanie Jackson – The Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve, which closed for repairs in late July due to trespassing and unauthorized access to the natural habitats from the boardwalk, reopened last month and is bigger and better than ever.

In addition to the repairs that were made, the preserve has been expanded by more than 20 acres through a land conservation project that was recently completed, according to a Dec. 9 press release from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

“Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve has always been a favorite of local birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts,” said DCR Eastern Shore Region Steward Dot Field.

Now it has 50 acres protecting a variety of plant and animal species.

The additional 20.7 acres were purchased for $820,000 from South Port Investors, a company owned by local developer Eyre Baldwin.

The purchase was approximately 80% funded by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The remainder of the purchase price, about 20%, was paid by the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s ConserveVirginia plan had identified the addition as a high conservation priority for natural habitat and ecosystem diversity, as well as protected landscape and floodplain resilience.

“The conversion of habitat to residential and commercial development is a real threat to wildlife,” noted DCR Director Clyde Cristman.

The Cape Charles project will help preserve habitats of migratory songbirds, he explained.

“This coastal forest has long provided much needed resting and foraging habitat for migratory songbirds, as well as breeding habitat for resident birds. The additional forested acreage will help maintain the resilience of the natural communities the preserve protects,” Field added.

“Land acquisition, permanent protection and habitat restoration are the best tools we have to ensure that high-quality habitat is available for these species,” said DCR Natural Heritage Program Director Jason Bulluck.

Not only does the Cape Charles preserve protect the natural area, it will “support town efforts toward a network of walkable trails and public spaces,” noted Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler.

(Cape Charles is seeking funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation for the fourth phase of the Southern Tip Hike and Bike Trail, which will lead from Route 13 onto Stone Road and into town.)

The natural area preserve boardwalk, which is wheelchair accessible, provides access through the maritime forest and leads to a viewpoint of the Chesapeake Bay.

Due to COVID-19, the nature preserve is welcoming groups of no more than 10 people, according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

The preserve has no public beach access, and visitors are reminded to follow the rules and respect the natural environment.

The entrance is found approximately a half-mile from the Cape Charles Town Harbor, at the end of Patrick Henry Avenue.

The Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve was established in 1997 to protect the shoreline, dunes, maritime forest, and the species that live there, which include the endangered northeastern beach tiger beetle.

The Cape Charles preserve is one of 65 preserves that are part of the Virginia Natural Area Preserve System that was established in 1989 and covers more than 58,000 acres.

Many of the preserves are owned by DCR, but some belong to The Nature Conservancy, other nonprofits, universities, or private individuals.

Virginia Natural Heritage Program staff manage the preserves and also provide education and research opportunities. Some preserves offer low-impact recreational opportunities.

The program operates on limited funds and accepts donations. Checks may be made to the Natural Area Preservation Fund and mailed to Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Natural Heritage Program, 600 E. Main St., 24th Floor, Richmond VA 23219.