A 964-acre portion of Fones Cliffs, once threatened by illegal land-clearing and development, is now protected. Photo: The Conservation Fund

964 Acres of Previously-Threatened Rappahannock Riverfront Permanently Protected

In a great Christmas present for the Chesapeake and all who live around it, the Conservation Fund announced on Friday that it had acquired the last unprotected parcel of Fones Cliffs along the Rappahannock River. The Fund’s winning bid of $8.1 million for the 964-acre property, made in a November auction, resolved a three-year bankruptcy proceeding involving the property’s former landowner, Virginia True Corporation.  

Virginia True had actively planned to construct first an 18-hole golf course and a large resort subdivision, then a hotel, 10-story luxury condominiums and federally-funded housing on the property. At that time, environmental groups raised concerns over the historic value and natural resources of the land.

Then in 2017, a Virginia True property manager illegally cleared 13 acres of woodland on the edge of the Cliffs, causing significant erosion in the fragile soil and landslides on the Cliffs’ face, according to state environmental leaders.  As a result, the company faced criminal citations from Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality and fines of $200,000. 

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The read area above shows the large addition to protected lands this acquisition adds. Map courtesy of the Conservation Fund.

For the past decade, members of the Rappahannock Indian Tribe and multiple partners in the conservation community have been working to conserve various parts of the striking, four-mile-long, hundred-foot-high diatomite-and-sandstone cliffs, which the Tribe considers sacred ground.

Captain John Smith recorded a skirmish with Rappahannock archers shooting from the cliffs during his exploration of the river in August 1608, and later mapped three villages along them. In more recent years, the property has been documented as home to one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles on the Atlantic coast.  

The Virginia True portion of Fones Cliffs now joins two adjacent protected cliff sections, a 252-acre parcel acquired by the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge in 2018 and a 465-acre section by the Rappahannock Tribe last April.  

While the Conservation Fund’s purchase of the Virginia True property is the linchpin in finally conserving nearly all of Fones Cliffs, it is an intermediate step in a longer-term process. In the New Year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will purchase a conservation easement on the land from the Conservation Fund, using support from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

With the easement in place, the Conservation Fund will return the property to the Rappahannock Tribe later in 2023. Other partners, led by The Chesapeake Conservancy, will develop any additional funding needed to complete the complex but important process from private and corporate donors. 

The door will be open for the Rappahannock Tribe to conserve and protect this land of their ancestors, while fulfilling their stated mission” to preserve Rappahannock culture, social structures, and political structures while educating the public on the rich contributions that Rappahannocks have made and continue to make to Virginia and the Nation.”

-John Page Williams