July 2, 2019|By Robin Murphy| Land

Historic Virginia Cliffs Protected After Decade-Long Effort

Fones Cliffs is a very distinct topographical feature along the Rappahannock River, rising abruptly above the water. The striking white color of its facing is due to diatomaceous earth—talc-like powder created by the fossilized remains of marine life—that evolved millions of years ago when much of the area was beneath the sea. Shark teeth and large sea scallops (the Virginia state fossil) can be found in these cliffs, according to those familiar with the property.

Its commanding height is what likely attracted the building of three towns—Pisacack, Matchopeak, and Mecuppon—by members of the Rappahannock tribe long before Europeans arrived on the Atlantic shores. Most members of the tribe live in Caroline, Essex, and King and Queen counties today. The protection of Fones Cliffs provides members direct access to their eponymous river. The tribe’s Return to the River program will engage young people in an effort to preserve tribal knowledge and build leadership and conservation skills.

"We have a value system within our tribe that the decisions we make today, we have to think about seven generations in the future," Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe noted at the event, adding "…so the decisions we’ve all made today will allow generations of people to come to this special place, and have time here whether it be recreational, cultural, spiritual and just spend that time. That is just magnificent."

FonesCliffs5Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe. Photo by Zhivko Illeieff. 

The word Rappahannock means "the people who live where the water ebbs and flows." During Captain John Smith’s Chesapeake exploration in 1608, he traveled up these tidal waters, passing under Fones Cliffs, where a group of Rappahannock Indians lay in wait to ambush the unsuspecting explorer and his crew. Smith’s crew was protected by shields and continued upstream without further incident. The cliffs are a key feature of the extensive Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, which The Conservation Fund helped establish in 2006.

The reach of the Rappahannock River where Fones Cliffs is located is one of the most pristine in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Bald eagle experts commonly refer to Fones Cliffs as a bald eagle “bull’s eye.” Eagles use the property’s high elevation to survey the river for hunting opportunities, and it is not uncommon to see up to 400 eagles along this stretch of river. Even when eagle populations were at their lowest, they could still be found here.

FonesCliffs2Photo by Zhivko Illeieff. 

The property, which was slated to become a 45-home development, was acquired by The Conservation Fund in 2018 and recently transferred to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service using federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). But our involvement started well before that, with a long history of working cooperatively with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and others through the Rappahannock Partnership.

The Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1996 to conserve and protect fish and wildlife resources, threatened and endangered species, and wetlands. While the Refuge currently encompasses more than 9,000 acres, the goal is to protect 20,000 acres of land, preserving habitat and increasing wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities for the public. 

As part of the Refuge, development will remain restricted, and the historical significance of Fones Cliffs will be honored in perpetuity. Opportunities for hiking, bird-watching, and other recreation will be expanded as well.  

"The significance of preserving the Fones Cliffs property goes beyond environmental conservation," said Larry Selzer, President and CEO at The Conservation Fund. "It is a critical stepping stone in our nation’s history."” 

Protecting large-scale landscapes ensures that people can better appreciate our past by experiencing the sites, sights, sounds and wildlife that shaped history. Selzer emphasized this point in a quote by nature writer Wendell Berry: "If you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t know who you are."  

FonesCliffs4From left to right: A. Eric Alvarez (USFWS Chief of Real Estate), Heather Richards (The Conservation Fund Virginia State Director), Wendi Weber (USFWS Northeast Regional Director), Larry Selzer (The Conservation Fund President and CEO), U.S. Representative Rob Wittman, and Kendra Pednault (USFWS Rappahannock Refuge Manager). Photo by Zhivko Illeieff. 

U.S. Representative Rob Wittman spoke about his formative years working on the land in the area, and how "people and the land are inseparable." Representative Wittman, along with Virginia’s U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, worked for many years to secure necessary funding for Fones Cliffs from LWCF.  

LWCF is a federal funding source that uses a portion of offshore energy revenue to fund conservation at no cost to taxpayers. Virginia Environmental Endowment and other individual and institutional donors helped cover transactional costs associated with the purchase.

The Conservation Fund’s Virginia State Director Heather Richards, a key leader in this effort, noted, "The preservation of this property is the culmination of work by a partnership of conservation organizations. The Conservation Fund was honored to carry the project over the finish line, but we could not have done so with a decade of cooperation and collaboration by the partners of the Rappahannock Partnership: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Friends of the Rappahannock, The Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, Chesapeake Conservancy, Northern Neck Land Conservancy, Virginia Outdoors Foundation, and Fort A.P. Hill."

To learn more about The Conservation Fund’s efforts to protect historic sites throughout America, please go to https://www.conservationfund.org/our-work/land-conservation/cultural-conservation

Written By

Robin Murphy

 leads all aspects of branding, marketing and communications to enhance and expand The Conservation Fund’s national conservation objectives. He joined The Conservation Fund in January 2014.