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June 08, 2007

County’s Natural Heritage Committee presents annual report

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The Albemarle County Natural Heritage Committee (NHC) made its annual report to the Board of Supervisors during the Board's meeting on June 6, 2007. The committee was created two years ago to assess the county’s biological assets in an effort to come up with a sustainability plan. (report in .PDF format)

The roots of the NHC date back to the Comprehensive Plan adopted in 1999, which recognized “the importance of protecting biological diversity… for the ecological, aesthetic, ethical and economic benefits to the community.”

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Tomolivier_3 In 2002, the county formed a temporary biodiversity committee to come up with an initial assessment of Albemarle’s natural biological assets. In 2005 the panel was formalized as the Natural Heritage Committee.

Tom Olivier served as the chair of the committee last year, and presented the report to the Board. He said the NHC is developing an education plan to make sure landowners are aware of the assets on their property. The panel also is creating an additional layer in the county’s Geographical Information System to give county planners more information on biological resources when making land use decisions. Olivier said both the Nature Conservancy and Stream Watch have agreed to help fund this effort.

More importantly, the NHC will develop and implement a “Rapid Conservation Plan” to help protect areas that are under threat. Long-term, the NHC will develop a “Strategic Conservation Plan” to protect biodiversity at “a landscape scale.”

Nhcmap_3 To that end, Olivier told the board that six sites should be considered as “priority conservation targets.” They include three wetlands (Campbell, Preddy Creek, and Pinkerton Slash”, ), two river bluffs (Key West Rivanna and North Fork Rivanna Bluffs), and a large forested area in the southwest portion of the county that Olivier called Southern Albemarle Mountains.

The Pinkerton Slash area is already covered by a conservation easement, but Olivier says that doesn’t necessarily mean that the biological diversity of the areas will be protected.

“They simply insist that they be kept in open space,” he said. He recommend county staff develop a program similar to the Acquisition of Conservation Easement (ACE) program to protect the fauna and flora in targeted areas. “We think that sites that are recognized as being of high value based on biological resources… should be recognized as things we need to protect”

Olivier also said the committee wants the county to create a plan to help landowners understand the importance of these areas, and to also offer options for how stewardship programs might work.

When asked by Supervisor Ken Boyd (Rivanna) if the committee has contacted landowners, Olivier responded that they want to develop the stewardship education plan first. “I think the sense was that since we’re proposing things that are entirely voluntary, and since the biological value at these places is really independent of the current ownership, that this was the proper initial step to take.”

“Many people simply have no idea when they have biological resources on their properties that are special, and unfortunately sometimes they are destroyed quite casually.” He said the first step is let people know what they have, and also that the county wants them to voluntarily preserve them.

Supervisor David Wyant (White Hall) asked Olivier what guidance the committee might give to landowners who want to see a return of certain species of animals to their property. He recalled one woman who recently appeared before the Board to discuss the disappearance of bobwhite quail.

“I know the reason we don’t have them is because we clear-cut a whole lot more than we used to, we used to have brush fields. Well that goes against our land-use. We have got some things in place, and I think we’re going to find we run into these conflicts, and for me to get quail back, I have to do certain things, and other people come along and say you can’t do that. That’s the kind of guidance I would look from ya’ll.”

A naturalist with the University of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Science and member of the committee responded that the NHC is still trying to work out long-term plans for how to resolve such conflicts.

“Not only are we in conflict with our environment but the county of Albemarle is actually degraded,” said Carleton Ray. He added this costs the county more in increased water bills and impacts the county’s aesthetic values.

“Resolution of these conflicts is going to be a tough nut, but it need not cost a lot of money if people knew how or had guidelines for how to take stewardship of their own land, this wouldn’t cost anything, it just changes behavior.”

Sean Tubbs

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