Area Stewards Program
Snow Mountain Stewardship Area
The PRISM’s first success story is still being written, but it is off to a great beginning. A landowner and PRISM member in Greene County, Jim Hurley, is the Area Steward for Snow Mountain on the lower slopes of Hightop Mountain. He and his partner, Susan Roth, own 156-acres of forest and fields in the Chesapeake Bay headwater drainage that includes Snow Mountain. Both are master naturalists and botanists by avocation. Their land has a strict non-timbering conservation easement intended to “maintain the natural state of the woodlands.” Jim has extensive experience leading volunteers and using contractors to combat invasive plants in multiple parks and two homeowners associations in Arlington and Fairfax Counties. The couple began to control invasive plants on their land in 2013, wielding backpack sprayers, saws and clippers themselves, as well as hiring contractors to do some of the work. In 2015, the Virginia Department of Forestry and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service awarded them two-year and three-year grants respectively to control invasive plants and restore habitat on their property.
Beginning in the summer of 2015, Jim and Susan reached out to neighbors higher up on the mountain to expand the control effort. The five major ravines on the Hurley-Roth property are fed from the neighbors’ land above, and the water following downhill carries seed of invasive plants with it. They requested their neighbors’ permission and support in extending the conservation work to include their properties and create the Snow Mountain Stewardship Area. The stewardship area consists of about 600 acres owned by 12 families. This acreage consists mostly of forest on steep slopes with some open riparian areas and numerous ravines whose creeks converge downstream with Parker Branch, the Rivanna River, the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. Each property has the potential to infest and reinfest the others and contains a number of diverse plant community types whose integrity is in danger. Some two-thirds of the target area is in conservation easement and cannot be developed; the remainder is unsuited for development. It is a rural community; some landowners are farmers or blue-collar workers whose land has been in the family for generations, others have retired from white-collar careers to enjoy Snow Mountain’s wild beauty. None have the time, funds or expertise to combat the invasion of exotic vines, trees and grasses that are destroying their beloved land.
Jim and Susan decided to launch a war on Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegeum vimineum), the invasive of greatest concern on their property and the six properties adjoining them on their uphill borders. This grass, which has the capacity to carpet the forest floor and to displace native vegetation, travels primarily by dispersing its seeds in flowing and surface water. It is then further spread by wildlife, cars and foot traffic. This prolific annual grass came to the U.S. in 1919 from China as a dried, but seed-laden, packing material. It grows in sun or shade, wet or dry environments. In sunny moist places it reaches 4 or more feet tall. In a forest it may grow only 6 inches tall, but it sets seed in late summer and fall no matter its size, creating a seed bank for future years. No native insects or animals feed on it, so this grass provides no ecosystem services.
In the Snow Mountain Stewardship Area, Japanese stiltgrass occurs in both small and large patches on the forest floor and covers large areas along old unused forest roads, streamsides and riparian areas. The worst infestations occur under power lines and along roadsides where sun fuels its growth. Jim deemed the infestation on Snow Mountain to be at a controllable level. However, if left unchecked, in the near future the stiltgrass’ exponential spread would smother native wildflowers and prevent germination of shrubs and trees all over the mountain, in effect destroying the local habitat and creating a monoculture of a single nonnative species on the forest floor. Without collaboration and cooperation from neighboring properties, this is a bleak but realistic future scenario for this area. With a concerted community-wide effort, the stiltgrass can be brought under control in the targeted area, and health and biodiversity can be restored to this beautiful natural environment in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Five of the six neighbors Jim and Susan approached agreed to allow them to do the control work on their land. Some of these neighbors had been unaware of the problem and others had been concerned but had no funds to do anything about the grass. Using their own grants and their own funds to hire contractors, as well as employing their own sweat equity, Jim and Susan began the effort to control the stiltgrass on Snow Mountain in the late summer of 2015. Treatment was completed for the year by mid-September. Treatment continues in 2016. One more landowner has joined the effort and Jim and Susan intend to extend the work to the next six landowners on the mountain in coming years. Hopefully, this two-year blitz will set the stiltgrass back to where it is only a minor nuisance that is easily contained in future years. They hope that the good work being done around them and will encourage all neighbors to join in the effort to protect their land. The story is still being written, but it portends a happy ending.
The Dutch Creek Area Stewardship
The core landowners in the Dutch Creek Area Stewardship in Nelson County are neighbors who know each other well. They have worked and socialized together for fifteen years. Altogether, they own approximately 1,275 acres of contiguous, mostly forested land in a scenic, mountainous area of Virginia that has intrinsic natural resource value. These neighbors are highly conservation-focused and fiercely determined to protect their land. Most of their properties are under conservation easement. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) holds many of these easements, because TNC is especially interested in preserving forested areas deemed to be critical wildlife corridors. The 300-acre property of one core member, which includes the summit of a 2,000-foot mountain, is under an easement held by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. This property is one of the state’s dedicated Natural Area Preserves due to its unique geology and globally-rare plant communities. In springtime, an estimated 10,000 shooting-star wildflowers bloom on the southeastern slope of the mountain – a magnificent display not seen anywhere else in the commonwealth.
The stewardship area itself is further protected by being encompassed within the 3,000-acre Dutch Creek Agricultural-Forestal District (DCAFD). Development and commercial activities, other than traditional farming and forestry, are restricted within such state-certified, agricultural-forestal districts. Because the Dutch Creek area contains precious land with such high conservation value, the landowners took all the steps they could to protect it from development. They even were able to prevent the installation of a gas-pipeline that would have traversed the rocky barrens where the shooting-stars grow and another wetland site where golden club and a rare viburnum grow.
The residents at first did not realize the additional peril posed by another human-caused threat: nonnative, invasive plants. In recent years, however, they became increasingly alarmed about incursions of invasive plants that threaten to wipe out the special native plants in this unique area. For the past ten years, most of the owners have attempted to control invasive plants on their own properties with varying degrees of success. Because the road through the area, Dutch Creek Lane, acts as a continuous pathway for invasives to make inroads into bordering properties, long-term control has been difficult without a coordinated effort. When they learned about the Blue Ridge PRISM, the landowners readily welcomed the encouraging, expert information about controlling invasive plants and the possible incentives offered by the organization.
During the winter of 2015/2016, the owners of six properties decided to work with each other and with the PRISM. They formed the Dutch Creek Area Stewardship. As of the summer of 2016, the core members of the stewardship area have held three meetings. They decided their first plan of attack would be to coordinate their invasive control efforts along Dutch Creek Lane. This offered the most efficient way to control invasives and prevent reinfestation. The DCAS core group held two field work days during June and July and planned more work days in the coming months. The field work so far has targeted tree-of-heaven and Oriental bittersweet along Dutch Creek Lane, and sights were set on attacking Japanese stiltgrass along the road later in the summer. They are using the hack-and-squirt method with Garlon® 3A on the invasive trees and the cut-stem technique with concentrated glyphosate on the invasive vines.
In addition to work along Dutch Creek Lane, members are volunteering field work time on each other’s properties. So far, they are working together to hand-pull garlic mustard, cut-stump wineberry, and hack-and-squirt tree-of-heaven. All of the equipment and herbicide the group is using is being donated by DCAS members for the joint effort.
The core members are reaching out to the other landowners within the Dutch Creek AFD. They are discussing their fight against invasives and the opportunities to control invasive species on their respective properties. Of the five landowners contacted, some became interested in fighting invasives and gladly gave permission for DCAS members to treat infestations on their land. Others are not ready to make a commitment. Plans forward include using the PRISM’s factsheets and other educational materials to further inform reluctant neighbors and to hopefully motivate them to join the Dutch Creek Stewardship Area’s efforts in protecting their land.