Imagine driving west on Route 50 from Gilbert’s Corner. As you approach Aldie, you pass under a large, overhead sign supported by massive stone pediments welcoming you to “Piedmont National Park.” Sound far-fetched? Shenandoah National Park and Sky Meadows State Park protect the Blue Ridge to our west. At one time, the Bull Run Mountains to our east were “a high priority” to become a state park, so it was certainly possible. While the valleys, views and vistas in between rival the natural and historic beauty found anywhere in the World, our leaders found a better way to protect the natural beauty and rich history we love.
Through the concerted efforts of motivated families, passionate individuals, and a supportive federal and state legislature, they achieved their goal. Today, a powerful network of land trusts, state acts, federal designations, commissions, and conservancies steward the protection together. The conservation easement is, however, one of the most powerful tools they have. Today, the conservation easement holds a landowner true to the high ideals protecting natural and cultural values above monetary gain. Development rights are extinguished forever, a qualified land trust holds the easement, and the land remains unchanged, protected in perpetuity.
Arms linked, private landowners and land trusts stand watch over our region. The World Resources Institute reports that nationwide, more than 30 million acres are under conservancy easement, today. 1.7 million acres are protected in Virginia. As massive as that is, we can thank the local foxhunting community for pushing today’s conservation easement forward. I had no idea how direct the influence was until I started the research here.
In the last installment of The Fence Post, I described that the hunting community (wing shooters, fishermen and foxhunters) organized clubs to begin the conservation movement in the late 1800s. In the Piedmont, the first clubs were foxhunts formed by local landowners. They knew they would find the best protection of their property on their own avoiding the national, or state, park system organizing elsewhere.
Harry Worcester Smith was the first “outsider” from Boston, known for his indomitable appetite for the sport. Many would follow him looking for good footing, fine hunting, and a countryside reminiscent of England’s best countryside. In the 1920s, the land here was generally available for $50 – $250/acre. Large tracts of land were purchased by those with British hunt country in mind and the means to keep their estates intact without selling.
Smith would organize the various hunts through The Masters of Foxhounds Association giving strength to the territorial boundaries of each hunt. Today, the MFHA lists more than 147 recognized hunts in America in their Hunt Roster. 24 are here in Virginia, more than any area of the nation.
Things went well as long as strong-willed and well-funded gentry protected the area. Even the wealthiest knew that eventually, they would die and their families would have to sell the land for estate taxes, or lack of interest. More than wealth would be needed to protect the land.
In the mid 1960s, the game changed. At the time, Stephen J. Small was an attorney-advisor in the Office of Chief Counsel of the IRS in Washington. Small was responsible for the federal income tax regulations on the conservation easements written today. His books Preserving Family Lands, II and III, and The Business of Open Space: What’s Next?? speak to his seminal role and are a “must read” for any conservationist.
I spoke with Small, recently. He admits, the conservation easement was around in 1965, “but only a handful of people knew what it was, or how it worked. The popular support for what I was doing was, in part, due to the foxhunting community, just 50 miles away. In 1972, Eve Fout, Maggie Bryant and Charlie Whitehouse were a delegation from the Piedmont Environmental Counsel that urged me on in my work. Leaders of the Myopia Hunt, near Boston, were behind me, too, but they all knew that estate taxes would force the sale of land to developers, dissolving foxhunts. They knew the conservation easement would block the development and urged me on. You just couldn’t tell Maggie Bryant, or Eve Fout, no.” I can’t imagine.
30 million acres later, you can say it certainly worked. They were right, but as predicted, the crush of population growth is on our doorstep. Especially now, as the pandemic and social unrest is pushing city dwellers to the country, local lands are changing hands quickly. Will the new owners embrace the deed restrictions they now must honor? Or test their strength? My next article will address the future of the conservation easement and how leaders of local land trusts are prepared to face it. They are ready, but like Bryant, Fout and Whitehouse, it will be our job, too. George Ohrstrom, Jr., a founder of PEC, once told me, “It’s going to change, Rob. Be a part of the change.” And so it is.