Visitors to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge may experience this linear refuge in any number of ways, depending upon who — or what — they are.
For some, the refuge represents outdoor opportunities for all ages and all abilities, with access to water and wildlife that provides a respite from our on-demand digital age.
But for the animals, birds, amphibians and fish that live year-round in its wetlands, forests and fields, or those that migrate here to breed in the spring and summer or find food during the winter, it is a refuge from the encroachment of human development.
What makes this refuge different — and one of the first of its kind in the nation — is that it’s comprised of a collection of 17 unconnected land parcels or “tracts” strung along the river like a necklace of charms. Together, they total 8,720 acres. From the upstream tract at Port Royal, down to the Laurel Grove tract just north of Belle Isle State Park, each charm contributes to the whole.
Many wildlife refuges are discrete parcels of land that may get enlarged through the acquisition of adjacent parcels. “That just wasn’t practical in the Rappahannock,” said Andy Lacatell, conservation specialist with The Nature Conservancy, one of several organizations that continue to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to increase protected lands in the Rappahannock River Valley.
To protect a diversity of habitat for multiple migratory and wide-ranging species, Lacatell said, everyone recognized that a lot of space would be needed.
Former Rappahannock refuge manager Joe McCauley said, “We capped our authority [the amount the USF&WS could purchase] at 20,000 acres and hoped that others would assist, that this would be a partnership.” That’s exactly what happened.
One of the best ways to get to know the refuge is by water, and the Rappahannock River Water Trail guide can help. The river trail is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
Richard Moncure, a native of the Northern Neck of Virginia, the peninsula on the river’s northern side, didn’t need a map as he headed up the river from Tappahannock. Moncure, now the tidal Rappahannock River steward, slowly leaned on the throttle of his Carolina skiff as he pointed out the creeks on either side of the river. Mount Landing, Broad, Occupatia on the southern side; Cat Point, Wilna, Jones to the north. Many of the creeks flow from parcels that are part of the refuge system.
Rounding Mulberry Point, the river narrows into the first of a series of oxbow bends, geologic relics from the ice age, when rivulets of glacial melt carved sinuous routes toward a sea that was miles offshore from the present coast.
Public and private landings are reminders of the days when the river was used for transportation and commerce, first by canoe, and later by sail and steamboat.
Upriver from the public Carter’s Wharf, the land rises on the river’s north side into vertical cliffs of diatomaceous clay and sand topped by dense stands of pine, oak and hickory. These are Fones Cliffs, where Rappahannock Indians once thrived.
“Coming around this bend,” Moncure said, “I bet Captain John Smith started to realize that the Rappahannock was a very different river from the Potomac.”
The cliff face loomed close. “Not much protection here,” he said, calling to mind the explorer entering lands known to be inhabited and protected by Indians.
These days, protection is what the refuge is about. It is best known for its large numbers of bald eagles, common enough that a visitor on the water would be hard-pressed not to see at least one any time of year. The bald eagle was one of the species targeted for conservation when the refuge was created in 1996. Their comeback has been legendary, and the Rappahannock refuge is now home to the largest wintering roost of eagles in Virginia.
“It’s like a mixing bowl of three different breeding populations,” McCauley said. Eagle populations migrating from the north and south converge on the river and join year-round residents.
Eagles prefer the fresh and brackish waters that dominate this stretch of the Rappahannock and the winding creeks that feed into it.
The line between fresh and brackish on the river changes with the tide and the amount of rain falling on the 2,848-square-mile watershed that feeds the river and creeks. This spectrum of salinity gives rise to diverse habitats — including wet hardwood forests, tidal marshes and beaches — that harbor many species.
The same variety that provides wildlife food and shelter, Lacatell said, also provides a diversity of opportunities for the public to see what’s out there.
McCauley, who became the refuge’s manager in 2000, four years after it was created, said that planning for public access began when the refuge was designated. “One of the criticisms I heard early on was that we were just buying this land for the wildlife. Well, that’s true — but we also want refuges to be places for the public,” McCauley said.
One of the first programs, still popular today, was the public deer hunt that benefits hunters as much as it does the refuge, which relies on the hunts to keep the deer population from exploding.
The first public access site was established on the Wilna Tract on the north side of the Rappahannock, just west of the Route 360 bridge. “The old dam that created Wilna Pond was in danger of failing, so we repaired the dam and at the same time we created the fishing pier and parking lot.”
Today, the 35-acre lake is home to largemouth bass and bluegills and is the site of the refuge’s annual children’s fishing day event. There’s a fully accessible fishing pier and a nearby lodge for refuge events, including educational classroom programs for schools.
Mount Landing Creek winds through the 727-acre Hutchinson Tract just west of Tappahannock. Shallows across the mouth of the creek prevent larger boats from entering, making it, according to the water trail guide, “an outstanding paddling creek.”
The Friends of the Rappahannock, which is Moncure’s employer, has helped increase public water access — both at the refuge and other sites along the lower river — and created water trail guides for Mount Landing, Hoskins, Piscataway Creek and Cat Point creeks.
The refuge has its own friends group, Friends of the Rappahannock Refuge, a nonprofit celebrating 12 years of volunteer support for the refuge.
The friends group, now numbering more than 100, has built trails and viewing platforms, conducted biodiversity surveys and helped design trail guides and install signs for the four tracts that are open to the public.
Ann Graziano, president of the Friends, said they decided early on not to have membership dues. “We think this has encouraged more participation from people who give what they can when they can, and we raise money during an annual fund drive,” Graziano said. Their talent and time has expanded the capacity of the refuge’s six-person refuge staff, who work closely with the volunteers and provide equipment, machinery and training.
Refuge manager Andy Hofmann said that without the Friends, “We couldn’t have accomplished half of what we’ve done, including access we can offer to the public.”
Graziano said that the challenge for the Friends is coordinating projects over such a large expanse of refuge. What has worked, she said, is recruiting a body of volunteer members from each area. A core group has helped the refuge develop several public walking trails on a tract near Port Royal. The Friends group is also developing a water trail in this section of the river.
Refuge visitors can see clues of the deep ties this refuge has forged with its human community. Each tract is named for the landowner or family from which it was acquired. Trails at Hutchinson Tract are named for people special to that project. Paula’s Point Loop is named after a young refuge realty specialist, now deceased, who scouted the land with McCauley prior to purchase.
“There was a point overlooking the creek where we stood,” McCauley said, “watching the black ducks, thinking about how important it would be to get the property into the refuge.”
Magruder Loop, also at Hutchinson, is named for a young co-op student whose leadership skills led him to become the “crew boss” over a group of much older volunteers who were building trails that summer. Matt Magruder went on to study natural resources in college and now works full time for the fish and wildlife service.
With deep and lasting ties to the surrounding communities, the process of building the Rappahannock refuge has nurtured more than habitat for wildlife. And building the refuge piece by piece has nurtured conservation beyond the acres under its direct management.
“The intent was to have focus areas to serve as anchor points for conservation actions of our partners,” Hofmann said. “The area in which we are authorized to add land to the refuge system is 268,000 acres.”
But conservation easements and property owned by other federal and state agencies, such as the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and public landings, all contribute to the system. The Nature Conservancy, Northern Neck Land Conservancy, Essex County Countryside Alliance, Virginia Outdoors Foundation, and state agencies are all land-holding partners. Fort A.P. Hill has contributed land acquisition resources through the Army’s Compatible Use Buffer Program.
“The Rappahannock refuge was the one to usher in a new era of landscape protection that takes into consideration the whole landscape, including the varieties of habitats for a broad range of conservation goals,” said McCauley, now a fellow with the Chesapeake Conservancy but still involved with land acquisition in the river valley. “Our intent was to protect half through fee-simple acquisition and half through easements,” which is pretty much what has happened.
The bald eagles and black ducks don’t need to understand the strategies of land acquisition, but for these populations to continue to thrive at the refuge, the work continues. Fortunately, this is a refuge that has lots of friends — and what they’re accomplishing together benefits wildlife and visitors alike.
This article was originally published on the Bay Journal website on July 12, 2014.
Established in 1996 to conserve fish and wildlife habitat along this vital tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, the refuge focuses primarily on protecting and managing tidal and inland wetlands, and adjacent uplands, to benefit wildlife.