Daily Press (Sunday)

Va. must build on its protection for forests


If you were asked to imagine the coastal plain of Southeast Virginia, what would come to mind? Perhaps beaches spotted with birds, dunes punctuated with high grasses, or the oysters, fish and other bounties of the sea. You might even picture the magnificen­t sunrises that grace our coastal communitie­s each morning.

But when I think about Southeast Virginia, one image stands out: forests. The incredible pine savannas of this region are rich with some of the most biological­ly productive and diverse forests in North America, dating back thousands of years.

Born in Craig County, I spent my childhood exploring the forests of Appalachia. Living in this special place inspired my career as a forester, which eventually led to my appointmen­t as Virginia state forester followed by Virginia secretary of Agricultur­e and Forestry. I am proud to have played a role in making Virginia a leader in forest conservati­on, especially in helping to restore the longleaf pine savannas of the Southeast and returning fire to its natural role as a tool for managing native species.

Longleaf pine once dominated the coastal plain, blanketing more than 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas. But by 1893, this sprawling forest was harvested to near extinction. A census conducted in 1998 revealed that just 200 mature longleaf pine trees remained in Virginia, down from the more than 1 million acres that once extended south from the James River.

As The Nature Conservanc­y’s new Virginia state director, I come to the organizati­on having witnessed the power of collaborat­ion between government agencies, university partners, non-profits, the private sector and individual landowners in improving the health and expanse of Virginia’s longleaf pine forests, as well as the hundreds of species that depend on them. A prime example of this collaborat­ion can be observed at The Nature Conservanc­y’s Piney Grove Preserve, just more than an hour’s drive from Virginia Beach.

For 25 years, The Nature Conservanc­y has worked with partners to restore longleaf pine at Piney Grove Preserve and surroundin­g conservati­on lands. Restoring longleaf requires active management, including frequent controlled burns in concert with state and federal agencies and highly trained volunteers. Resistant to wind, pests and drought, longleafs actually depend on recurring fire disturbanc­es to thrive — a fact well-known to and employed by Indigenous communitie­s. Home to a growing population of red cockaded-woodpecker­s — Virginia’s rarest bird — Piney Grove has become a story of success, showing us what can be achieved through strong partnershi­ps and with proper investment.

While forests are certainly important for their role as habitat, they also offer natural beauty, recreation­al enjoyment, carbon absorption, clean drinking water and a valuable economic resource. Forestry is the third largest industry in Virginia, generating $23 billion annually and supporting 108,000 jobs across the commonweal­th. Management includes a wide range of activities: timber harvesting and regrowth, fire management and restoratio­n of native species, and recreation. Every aspect of our investment in forests creates a ripple effect, supporting livelihood­s and quality of life for all Virginians.

As Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his administra­tion prepare their biennial budget proposal, I urge considerat­ion for increased funding for programs that conserve forests. The Virginia Land Conservati­on Foundation and Land Preservati­on Tax Credit allow landowners to voluntaril­y conserve their lands, but both programs are oversubscr­ibed. In addition, state agencies such as the Department of Forestry, Department of Conservati­on and Recreation, and Department of Wildlife Resources need additional funding to tap into federal conservati­on dollars currently available — dollars that could go to other states if we don’t provide the required matching funds.

Conservati­on repeatedly cuts across party lines, with 70% of Virginians supporting public spending to prevent the loss of natural areas and open spaces. Our forests and natural resources must receive recognitio­n in our state budget proportion­al to the influence they have on millions of Virginians’ lives. Every person in the commonweal­th today and in the future deserves to enjoy the magic and productivi­ty of Virginia’s forests, including the mighty longleaf pine.

Bettina Ring is the Virginia state director of The Nature Conservanc­y. She previously served as Virginia secretary of Agricultur­e and Forestry (2018-2022), Virginia state forester (2014-2018), and as chief sustainabi­lity and diversity officer with the Sustainabl­e Forestry Initiative.

 ?? ?? Flowers in bloom are shown at The Nature Conservanc­y’s Piney Grove Preserve in Wakefield. The open pine savanna habitat is a hotbed for biodiversi­ty.
Flowers in bloom are shown at The Nature Conservanc­y’s Piney Grove Preserve in Wakefield. The open pine savanna habitat is a hotbed for biodiversi­ty.

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