Mike Hobart, the Chairman of Clarke County’s Board of Supervisors writes:
The Shenandoah River and Blue Ridge Mountain border Clarke County making it truly one of the most interesting and beautiful places on earth. The residents of the County share a common vision resulting in comprehensive action to promote preservation of our land and natural resources for now and into the future.
Our citizens have worked together conscientiously to study lands worthy of conservation easements. Not only do conservation easements preserve the beauty of the land, they are of value for the protection of the ecosystem and biodiversity of the land.
The Monastery easement is of special value not only for recognition of the historical significance of the site, but also for the continuing protection of Clarke County’s most valuable asset, the Shenandoah River. Further, the easement provides continuing wild places for animals displaced by development.
The cooperative support and partnership among local, state, federal governments and private citizens ensures that environmental, sustainable practices and agricultural objectives are met for our community. It is not just preserving the beauty and access to the land, rivers and mountains, but it is an investment in the natural infrastructure of a place now and into the future.
Such an observation certainly puts the recent easement into a broader perspective. More is going on here than the preservation of a site loved by its residents, visitors and retreatants. And it was not arrived at overnight but represents a long process and change in thinking on the part of the monastic community.
Beginnings. Everything has its start. The Abbey’s move towards easement began some 15 years ago from a totally different concern: the request by a neighbor to a right-of-way through the Abbey’s property. The request seemed invasive and a threat to the Abbey’s solitude; a few–very few–were aware of problems for that site’s ecological balance.
But it was onto that stage that Winkie McKay Smith, then Chairperson of the Clarke County Easement Authority, made her entrance. Were that parcel of property put into conservation easement, it would certainly be protected. But it would take another decade for that possibility to germinate and blossom into our first easement. Why so long?
Winkie has compared the evolution to prayer in one’s faith life. A child may begin praying for a bike–or a play station, now a days–and gradually learn to pray for parents and family but only, bit by bit, mature into the realization that prayer can be so much; that it promises possibilities and potentials and a relationship with the divine that the child (and adult!) can neither comprehend nor imagine. The idea of conservation easement, at first, may threaten one’s sense of ownership and security.
For example: if I put my property into easement aren’t I depriving my children of deciding what to do with their inheritance? Aren’t I limiting what I can freely do with my property in the future? Isn’t it safe enough as it is? Winkie points out that property owners can be afraid of interference in their property from the “government” (however they define that term) since the process goes through county, state or federal channels. And yet, she points out, putting property into easement actually guarantees that the government will respect and protect the owner’s decision about that property far into the future. And the owner only agrees to the terms of easement that he or she dictates in the final contract. Plus there are financial compensations and tax credits for an easement; as Winkie points out, it’s like being paid for not selling your property while retaining the right to sell it in the future. And even if sold, it must be protected as you originally stipulated in the easement.
What next? Easement isn’t the end of the story. George Ohrstrom, another mover on the Clarke County Easement Authority, points out that in the 1970’s and ’80’s Clarke County property owners were putting their land into easement but then continued the same farming practices as their forbears. The land was indeed protected but the larger issues still needed to be addressed.
George points out four threats to the environment: industrial pollution, developmental run off, sewage and agricultural practices. Although none of these problems are completely solved, industrial pollution and sewage are already under legal controls. The down-turn in the economy has slowed down the problem of run off from real estate development. The great problem remains agricultural practices. When property owners began putting their land into easement there was not yet a developed awareness of the threats to biodiversity and the necessity of sustainable practices. Traditional, and in a sense, “easy” practices like watering your cattle in streams creates problems for the necessary eco-systems in those streams. In a similar vein, what happens when those streams empty into the Shenandoah River ultimately impacts the Chesapeake Bay.
Sustainability Officer for Holy Cross Abbey, Ed Leonard, observes the conservation benefits of the easement at the Abbey: “nesting sites for eagles, hawks, owls and herons will be protected…we have one documented bald eagle nest on the property and I have counted over a dozen pairs of nesting blue herons on Parker Island. The land also provides a resting place for raptors migrating south and north along the Blue Ridge in the fall and spring…” For almost two years now, the cattle have been off the River Bank, returning it to its native state as a natural corridor for both animals and diverse native plant species. This is an important way of dealing with the problem of nitrates introduced into the water by the cattle.
What effected the change? In the Abbey’s own history, the change in thinking was already happening because an new opportunity was raised and questions were being asked. But the implications and, especially, the benefits remained nebulous. As Winkie points out, people need time to change the gears of their thinking and recognize the bigger picture. The financial gains of easement can be an incentive but ultimately one sees the enormous issues at stake. Without protecting the natural balance of the eco-system we live in, we won’t have a future, we won’t have an hospitable environment to live in. In fact, Winkie says, a property owner is the only advocate for the property which is helpless and has no voice of its own.
Concretely, the catalyst for the Holy Cross Abbey community was the Sustainability Study carried out 2009 through 2010 by six graduate students from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. That window of opportunity was suggested by Lewis White, then a member of the Cistercian community, in the course of our meetings begun in 2007 to plan for the future.
The Sustainability Study reviewed our economy, our land use, our water systems, our waste, our buildings, our industries, our energy use and our practices. Apart from the data, the interaction of the well informed, personable and engaging team of students made the issues at stake very real. It was then a natural development to “test out” easement with a parcel of 204 acres and then proceed with the rest of the property at this time.
The easement of the Abbey’s property is currently be followed up by participation in CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) to protect the two streams feeding into the Shenandoah. And after that there are further issues to consider.
I bother to write all this to stimulate any other property owner to persevere in exploring the possibility of an easement and not to be discouraged by the changes involved or held back by the comfort of the status quo .
As George Ohrstrom points out, the resources for beginning the process or for learning more about the vital issues are a finger tip away on your computer. George also points out that for anyone–you don’t have to own property–considering the consequences of your daily choices helps or adds to the problem. What are your practices of consuming water? How do you dispose your trash? Do you recycle and re-use? Do you opt for energy- saving/conserving appliances? Do you update your knowledge of environmental issues and the connections between our choices and the world around us?
to be continued