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820 acres supporting old-growth forest protected in Giles, Bland counties

conservationMore than 800 acres, mostly in Giles County, have been purchased by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, protecting many forest species, including chestnut oaks that are over 300 years old, and expanding an existing natural area preserve within an important ecological forest core.

The land will be managed to protect old-growth trees and to promote nature-based carbon sequestration through proforestation — a practice of growing existing forests to their ecological potential — with the possibility of reintroducing the once dominant American chestnut (Castanea dentata) and another decimated species, the butternut tree (Juglans cinerea).

The acquisition expands the 233-acre Chestnut Ridge Natural Area Preserve by 587 acres and brings the privately owned preserve under DCR ownership.

Most of the acreage is in far western Giles County with a small section located in neighboring Bland County.

All 820 acres are now permanently protected as part of the Virginia Natural Area Preserve System, which is managed by the Virginia Natural Heritage Program at DCR.

There are no public access facilities, parking areas or established trails on the property, but DCR will explore the feasibility of public access in the future.

“The acquisition and protection of additional lands at Chestnut Ridge Natural Area Preserve sets the stage for projects aimed at protecting and restoring Virginia’s native biodiversity and landscapes that keep Virginia resilient to a changing climate,” DCR Director Clyde E. Cristman said.

Governor Ralph Northam’s ConserveVirginia land conservation initiative identifies the land as a conservation priority in the following categories: Agriculture & Forestry, Natural Habitat & Ecosystem Diversity, Floodplains & Flooding Resilience, and Protected Landscapes Resilience.

“Expanding the protected area around Chestnut Ridge Natural Area Preserve will conserve important lands in an ecological core, identified in the Virginia Natural Landscape Assessment as “outstanding,” the highest ranking possible,” DCR Natural Heritage Program Director Jason Bulluck said. “Protection of this forested core will prevent disturbance, allowing this forest community to attain old-growth habitat characteristics that are becoming more uncommon. Stronger protection and expansion improves long-term resiliency and viability of its Central Appalachian forest community.”

Bob and Darlinda Gilvary, owners of Gilginia Tree Farm LLC, are the sellers. They purchased the property in the late 1990s and together managed the forest, selecting and harvesting individual trees themselves, always careful to leave the oldest trees and a variety of other mature healthy stock for regeneration.

“Years ago, my husband and I decided to keep the whole land in forest,” said Darlinda Gilvary, who lives in a cottage near the preserve. “We did it to protect the environment and to protect water quality. It is important to us to leave it in good hands.”

DCR Natural Heritage Regional Supervisor Ryan Klopf has been involved in the conservation of Chestnut Ridge for nearly a decade.

“Conserving and restoring biodiversity is at the heart of our mission,” Klopf said. “Chestnut Ridge Natural Area Preserve represents two essential approaches to meeting this challenge. Here, we are protecting core forest habitat for native plants and animals, while also mitigating climate change through the tremendous biological carbon sequestration potential of Central Appalachian forests.”

As the preserve’s name suggests, American chestnut once comprised a major component of this forest, and evidence remains of its former abundance. Chestnut may have accounted for nearly 25% of trees across the Appalachian region, historically, but populations were wiped out by chestnut blight fungus in the early 1900s. As blight-resistant chestnuts are developed, DCR may restore this iconic species to the preserve.

Butternut, or white walnut, also was widespread across much of eastern North America but has declined by an estimated 58% since the 1980s due to a fungal disease called butternut canker. Scientists have found evidence that disease-resistant butternut trees may occur at Chestnut Ridge Natural Area Preserve.

Funds for the acquisition were awarded from the Forest CORE (Community Opportunities for Restoration and Enhancement) Fund — a component of the Virginia Outdoor Foundation’s TERRA program, which administers grant funds resulting from legal and regulatory actions involving Virginia’s natural resources. The Forest CORE Fund was established with $15 million received by the Commonwealth of Virginia to mitigate for forest fragmentation caused by the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Information about proforestation is available in the 2019 peer-reviewed paper, “Intact Forests in the United States: Proforestation Mitigates Climate Change and Serves the Greatest Good,” by William R. Moomaw and others, published in the journal, “Frontiers in Forests and Global Change.”

augusta free press
augusta free press