VCC staff preparing a field report on a working farm in Rockingham County

Guest Written by Taylor Evans, Director of Land Protection, Valley Conservation Council

“Where do we even start?” The ever-present question for organizations with ambitious missions, expansive geographies, and limited staff. Couple this with ever-increasing threats from climate change to commercial and residential development, and a small question becomes a seemingly overwhelming problem. Valley Conservation Council is a private, non-profit land trust dedicated to the protection of the natural and cultural resources of the greater Shenandoah Valley – an 11-county service region spanning two large watersheds and millions of acres of working farms and important upland forests along Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. With a team easily counted on one hand, we are faced with the perennial question of how to best use limited resources to protect an iconic landscape, nationally recognized as a conservation priority.

A farm surrounded by the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest that
contains high-quality mixed hardwood forests and miles of waterways protected
by VCC in 2022
In 2022, thanks to a grant from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Wild East Fund, VCC was able to partner with the Shenandoah Valley Conservation Collaborative, a 20-plus member organization comprised of conservation-focused private organizations and public agencies, to begin work on a prioritization tool that ranks all tax parcels within the greater Shenandoah Valley based on their agricultural and ecological value with data from publicly available sources. After more than a year of work, the tool was finalized in 2023 with added functionality that aggregates tax parcels by ownership to streamline landowner outreach and increase conservation outcomes.
“Augusta Priority Ag Parcels”: A map showing the highest (pink) and high (purple) conservation value parcels based on criteria to select for agricultural protection and restoration importance.
After two years of work, this new tool has produced more questions than simple answers. We are now using this data to integrate national and regional priorities with local knowledge that is not easily summed into a convenient numerical score. Perhaps most importantly, how will we use the prioritization tool to tell stories that matter to people and communities throughout the Valley? The real work is contextualizing data into narratives that show landowners their vital place in a landscape, partners pathways for collaboration, and funders the necessity of supporting our efforts to protect the most vulnerable and important lands and waters in the Shenandoah Valley.
VCC staff inspecting a conserved forest in Shenandoah County
VCC’s recent award of nearly $750,000 through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake WILD Grants in partnership with National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to permanently protect wildlife corridors in southern Rockbridge and northern Botetourt counties is a clear demonstration that data-driven storytelling is effective. The area, nestled between Buffalo Creek and Purgatory Mountain, has been the focus of research, outreach and advocacy for decades. It was through good data and strong relationships that we were able to advocate for an unprecedented level of funding to permanently protect a key landscape in the Shenandoah Valley. This effort between Buffalo Creek and Purgatory Mountain, along with our storytelling based on clear conservation priorities, serves as a model for focused conservation that attracts funding and drives conservation outcomes on a meaningful scale in the western headwaters of the Bay watershed. We hope it can serve as a model throughout the broader Bay watershed.
Photo Credit:
1: Lily Bose (Valley Conservation Council)
2: Lily Bose (Valley Conservation Council)
3: Taylor Evans (Valley Conservation Council)
4: Lily Bose (Valley Conservation Council)

Lightning Update is a regular communication of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Partnership or member organizations.
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Support for the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership is provided by:
National Park Service Chesapeake
EPA Chesapeake Bay Program
USDA Forest Service
Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources
Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Virginia Outdoors Foundation
US Fish & Wildlife Service
Chesapeake Conservancy

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