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Educator creates Shenandoah Valley wetland sanctuary

By Barbara Bowen
Virginia NRCS

Much of Shenandoah County landowner Mike Dorman’s WRE fronts on Smith Creek, a designated showcase watershed. Photo by John Markon,/Courtesy Virginia NRCS.

When one door closed on crop production for Mike Dorman, he soon opened another to restore about 30 acres of wetland as an oasis for hunting, fishing and wildlife watching in picturesque Shenandoah County.

The Stonewall Jackson High School principal acquired the property over the course of several years with the intent to keep it in agriculture. Dorman bought his first parcel in 1998 after the original owner approached him about buying a portion of his land. Each year, the farmer would ask if he’d like to purchase more and Dorman went on to acquire two more tracts with frontage on Smith Creek.

“I tried leasing it for farming and cattle production,” explained Dorman, “but the land stays so wet that you can only get a tractor out there at certain times of the year, and the cattle just tore it up.” explained Dorman. “Two different farmers tried to get corn growing and got a couple of tractors stuck down there. I knew I needed to come up with another plan.”

After a bit of research, Dorman found USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and contacted then District Conservationist Mike Liskey in the Strasburg Service Center to explore available options for his land. Liskey walked him through various Farm Bill programs and services that included conservation easements offered through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).

The resulting wetland reserve easement, which closed on Jan. 18, 2018, has been a labor of love for Dorman, who has been very hands-on in carrying out the restoration process to return the property to its original form and function. Dorman and his two sons have taken on most of the “grunt work” to complete the following practices: brush management, herbaceous weed control, tree/shrub site preparation and trails and walkways. He has also created food plots for various species.

It’s a far cry from what I do in my regular job,” said Dorman. “I go out with a machete and a chainsaw and get to work. In one area, we had persimmons intermingled with three or more acres of cedars. I wanted to keep the persimmons, so I cut down the cedars with a chainsaw. I bet I lost five pounds in one day!”

Dorman continues to work closely with current Strasburg District Conservationist Brent Barriteau to complete the conservation plan for the property, bringing in outside help for design work or bigger engineering projects that required heavy equipment. NRCS Area Engineer A.J. Schaeffer also prepared plans to plug the man-made drainage system for a 10-acre field, so the wetland function and wildlife benefit can be restored.

“Mike is in it for the long haul and willing to do anything needed to move the restoration process forward,” says Barriteau. “Not many landowners maintain such a positive attitude for so long. He also realizes that protecting these wetlands provides benefits, which also extend to his neighbors in the watershed and beyond. Whenever someone is on the fence about conservation, he’s willing to share his experiences.”

This commitment makes Dorman a great partner in the ongoing effort to improve the health of Smith Creek. The impaired waterway and its subwatershed of Gap Creek in Shenandoah County have long been the focus of targeted conservation to reduce phosphorous, sediment and bacteria pollution from highly concentrated animal operations in the region. Dorman is so invested in the effort that he has shared his story at a Smith Creek partnership meeting and attended the 10-year celebration of this collaborative conservation effort in October 2020.

Dorman says keeping the land in recreational use is “fine by me” and offers more long-term benefits than trying to rent it as farmland at $50 an acre. He’s restricted access to close friends and family because he doesn’t want visitors to “just shoot everything.”

“There’s tons of wildlife because I limit hunting,” Dorman says. “I probably shoot one deer a year and just sit and watch them the rest of time. One friend who had a stroke said ‘Mike, I don’t think I will ever get out in the woods again.’ I drove him up to the hunting blind and he got a deer. That’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him.”

While hunting is restricted, fishing opportunities are available on another tract that isn’t part of the easement. Dorman rents some of the creek frontage to an individual who stocks the waterway with trout. When the water is cool enough, visitors can drive right up to the stream to fish. Dorman knows of one elderly gentleman who wouldn’t normally be able to engage in this pastime without that access.

“My youngest son Lance likes to hunt, too, and sees the benefits,” says Dorman. “At times, I’ve seen bears and turkey down there. After I get this (restoration) done, I’ve been thinking about buying some bobwhite quail and establishing them with some pheasants in the grasses.”

The shift from agriculture to preservation on this scenic property is a win-win for wildlife and the environment. It also provides a sanctuary for the busy educator where he can get away from it all with his sons and a few lucky friends.