Once They’re Gone, They’re Gone: Protecting Natural Spaces

Planting trees on the farm in Onancock, VA

Over Thanksgiving, I helped the Virginia Eastern Shore (VES) Land Trust plant 150 native pine and oak trees on my parents’ farm in Onancock, Virginia (located on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay). Our goal was to increase the width of a forested buffer along Pungoteague Creek – a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The buffer will protect the creek from excess nutrients that otherwise might enter the water from adjacent cropland.

The farm is a beautiful, 150-acre property that includes mature forest, tidal wetlands, and agricultural fields. Wildlife are abundant. Deer, Wild Turkeys, and a myriad of songbirds breed there. Bald Eagles nest nearby. Otters and bobcats have been spotted on the farm. Rare yellow-fringed orchids bloom along the forest edges. Though not farmers themselves, my parents always dreamed of eventually owning a property such as this on the Eastern Shore and building a home and life in their retirement that represented their environmental ethic.

Throughout Delmarva, natural habitats are rapidly being lost as development replaces agricultural land, wetlands, and forested areas. The natural areas that remain are increasingly fragmented, stressing or eliminating many wildlife species that require large tracts of forest.  The Inland Bays watershed has experienced particularly rapid population growth and land use changes. Protecting the remaining high-quality natural areas and restoring degraded habitats are priorities for the CIB.

Bald eagles are just one of the many species that rely on natural, protected habitats like these. Photo by Wknight94 (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the recently issued 2016 State of the Delaware Inland Bays, we reported that since 2010, progress on protection of natural habitat in our watershed has nearly stalled, and habitat restoration projects have slowed. This is attributed to reductions in funding for public conservation programs and high land values for development. Progress in habitat protection and restoration is closely tied to the availability of funding and incentives.

The 2016 State of the Delaware Inland Bays Report

30 years ago, my mom and dad realized their dream of owning and preserving forever a place of natural beauty and bounty on the Eastern Shore. They placed the farm into a conservation easement with the VES Land Trust.  A conservation easement is a voluntary contract between a landowner and a conservation organization such as the Land Trust. It permanently protects the natural features of the land by limiting future development, while still respecting private property rights. The Sussex County Land Trust manages voluntary land preservation easements in the Inland Bays watershed.

My parents take advantage of substantial tax deductions and other incentives that accompany the conservation easement on their farm. They’ve also received state and federal assistance with habitat improvements such as reforestation and construction of a wildlife pond. But financial incentives are not why they committed to this preservation. My family has a strong conservation ethic and values the beauty, biological diversity, and natural heritage that are so fast disappearing from the Delmarva Peninsula. These are the true wealth of the place. To my parents – and to us, their descendants – this is far more important than any short-term financial gain that might accrue if the land is subdivided and developed.

We need to do more to protect and preserve for future generations the natural areas that are fast disappearing from the Inland Bays. One of my favorite poems, by writer/activist Wendell Berry, expresses well our need for such places. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.


When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

(From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press, 1999)

Posted Under: Staff Blog