Conservation stories: The Epleys, Jim Ballard…and the Next Generations
By Kit Johnston
Virginia’s Department of Forestry (VDOF) turned 100 this year, a longevity few state agencies can claim. So, why, back in 1914, did the General Assembly and Governor Henry C. Stuart hire Virginia’s first state forester? What did they tell him to do? And have those basic duties changed for the VDOF over all these years?
At the time, Virginia was plagued by devastating forest fires that consumed hundreds of thousands of acres each year, most due both to neglectful brush burning, which provided the spark, and vast tracts of abandoned cutover forestland, which provided the tinder. First State Forester Chapin Jones was told to focus on prevention first, which he did, absent Smokey the Bear’s help, at least at the beginning. Later, thanks to seed funds from the U.S. Forest Service, Jones was able to hire private fire patrols to warn citizens of fire danger and to fight any fires they found.
Jones then turned his attention to the abandoned, fallow, and eroding lands, founding the state’s first tree nursery for stock to replant these tracts and help develop improved forest management practices. Still a one-man band in 1917, Jones created private landowner assistance programs to encourage Virginia’s forest landowners to adopt such practices. The programs included advice on how to conserve forest tracts, particularly those needed to protect key watershed sources.
The basic duties given to Jones 100 years ago largely remain VDOF’s obligations today, with a few exceptions. In 2007, the VDOF formed its first-ever division devoted solely to conservation of private forestlands. In 2009, this division launched VDOF’s first conservation easement program to give private forest landowners who want to conserve their lands forever an option for doing so with a forestry division’s help.
Since that time, many landowners have recognized this program as their preferred way to protect their land and their family’s land from division and non-forest development forever. In just five short years, the VDOF has secured 101 such easements on more than 30,000 acres across the state, covering some 3,500 acres in the northern Piedmont alone.
As the division’s Assistant Director Mike Santucci recently observed, “The purpose of our easement program — and its growth — are rooted (in Virginia’s forests).” Yet the program’s success in so few years seems grounded as well in the ease and dedication with which VDOF foresters approach their work, readily earning the trust of those they serve.
In 2009, Doug and Norma Epley became one of the first Virginia families to sign a VDOF easement on their 50 acres of forestland on a spur ridge just below Hazel Mountain in Rappahannock County.
Back in 1965, when Doug’s Dad bought the land, it was still being farmed all the way to a shared boundary with the Shenandoah National Park. As a child, Doug loved the view up and wondered if he would ever build a home on that spot. When he and Norma inherited the land, the forest with American chestnut saplings and their fascination with black bears was important to them. These characteristics led them to the decision to protect the land under conservation easement to protect it from future development and conserve what they loved most.
On this land and at their residence in Annandale, the Epleys raise honeybees. Here, they are often visited by black bear attracted to those bees (the hives are protected) and to a nearby pond. Into this bucolic and rustic setting, the Epleys often invite Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and search and rescue teams, to camp out just as Doug’s Dad did before them.
Early on, the Epleys thought to make the land a tree farm and still have an old forest management plan for doing so. But then they saw that didn’t fit well with what they cared about most. A turning point came when the county asked why they weren’t logging. They sought guidance from Don Loock, the Rappahannock representative for the Piedmont Environmental Council at the time. He sent them to VDOF’s new easement program, where Santucci had been promoted as one of VDOF’s two conservation specialists.
When she met Santucci, Norma “could see that VDOF might be a good fit because Mike was very detail-oriented from the start.” As VDOF staff explored the property’s history and discussed easement terms with the family, Norma Epley, a former legal secretary asked many questions, and the staff researched each one.
When “we finally had a draft easement in hand, Mike would say things like ‘you might want to take a look at this paragraph.’ He wanted us to see what it meant,” she said.
“In essence, with our cooperation and full knowledge, Mike and his team developed our easement. It is legally binding, and the property is protected, the land preserved. It is what we wanted. It is what our son, David, wanted,” Norma reflected. Retired from a long engineering career, Doug added he is particularly pleased by the restriction on building above a certain height on the property. “My Dad always wanted to preserve the skyline from here.”
In 2012, retired submarine commander Jim Ballard placed a large, mixed hardwood tract in Madison County under easement with the VDOF and is ready to do the same again with yet another tract. Six years before, Santucci had drawn up a VDOF Stewardship Plan at Ballard’s request to guide him in managing the land. Ballard and his late first wife Eliza Jane worked that plan for a while then heard “about how to hold places like this long term.” So they went to a Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) seminar on conservation easements.
Ballard wasn’t sold on the idea right away. In fact, for many years, Ballard thought long and hard about the impact of an easement on his land and how it might restrict his family’s future use of it, including their ability to exercise divisions. It might also limit the size and number of improvements they could make and require them to maintain a minimum amount of forested acreage. “Perpetuity is a long time, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to tie things up that long,” he said.
Ballard had worked the land with devotion for many years, and it had responded well. He loved how its environment supported bears, turkey, deer, and other wildlife. He decided he would prefer for the land “not to get busted up” beyond his tenure. He also thought about water and how “someday, the highest and best use of part of my land might be a public water impoundment for the years we’re going to need it.” An easement wouldn’t block that.
Thinking about who should hold the easement, Ballard knew he had choices, but he went with the VDOF. “Everyone I’d worked with there was top notch. I’d have been a fool to choose otherwise.” And now? “I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m satisfied we made a good contract,” he said.
Ballard’s two daughters were in agreement and had a hand in the easement terms. “This is the kind of family communication that makes for the successful intergenerational transfer of forestland so vital to the long term view of good forest management,” he said.
Timber is the third largest sector in Virginia’s economy today, a $17 billion economic resource base according to the VDOF. More than 10 million acres of forest land in Virginia is held by family landowners, two thirds of which are 55 or older. As they look ahead, many landowners want to keep their land in the family, but according to a National Woodland Owners Survey, only three percent of this aging population has a plan in place for transferring their forestlands intact to their heirs.
This is an important challenge the VDOF’s Forest Conservation Division is trying to address. “Over a half million acres of forestland has been converted to non-forest uses since 1977,” Santucci noted in a recent interview, “and most of this loss is from family-owned forestland. We know these forests are most at risk for conversion at the point of intergenerational transfer.”
“How forestland owners like Jim Ballard and the Epleys feel about their land, the options available to them, such as conservation easements, and the plans and decisions they make will go a long way in determining the viability and sustainability of Virginia’s forests for the next 100 years and beyond,” Santucci explained.