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Portion of Historic Fones Cliffs Incorporated into Wildlife Refuge

Environmentalists have been fighting for more than a decade to preserve Fones Cliffs-- a pristine, historic, miles-long section of orange-yellow bluffs towering nearly 100 feet over the Rappahannock River in the eastern part of Virginia.

On Saturday, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Sevice celebrated their new ownership of a section of the cliffs that will now be part of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Just about everyone who had been involved in coaxing, fighting even praying to save this section of Fones Cliffs from the excavator was here. Even a famed Fones Cliffs bald eagle photobombed Congressman Rob Wittmann during his speech.  "I love it. Right on cue," Wittman joked as the bird appeared.

You might be familiar with the story of how the Rappahannock Tribe attacked Captain John Smith as he made his way along this part of the river. Chief Anne Richardson said the cliffs are one of their most prized places and likely used to protect their towns on both sides of the river.  "We would have been able to see far down the river from both sides and had our warriors ready to protect these towns at the drop of a hat, long before the enemy would have seen us. And so this place is very important to us," Richardson explained.

Credit Pamela D'Angelo
Joe McCauley, former Rappahannock River Valley Nat. Wildlife Refuge manager, installs the first refuge sign atop Fones Cliffs. He has been fighting to get the cliffs into the refuge system from the beginning.

Another important part of the story: The bald eagle. Fones Cliffs is used by resident eagles for nesting and by hundreds of migratory eagles for roosting and hunting the waters below.  "The eagles are nesting here, which means that it would have had a spiritual connotation for the tribe," Richardson said. "So, the eagles are nesting here on this side, on the high side and so ceremonies would have been held here."

Fones Cliffs will also be remembered for property rights. The lands were taken from the Rappahannock Tribe long ago.  And the most recent owner, Terrell Bowers, argues when the county tightened zoning to prevent big development, it devalued the cliffs for a conservation easement tax break he had been counting on.

Despite the years of battling environmentalists, he was granted zoning for 45 houses. I met Bowers on the cliffs, just before he sold them last fall.  "I've been portrayed as this evil, out-of-state developer and I'm not a developer. I'm a landowner. My whole effort has been to regain my property rights that have been stripped from the land. Change in the zoning ordinance and the lack of flexibility within the county forced me to go down the path of development," Bowers complained.

But that path ended when he sold it to the Conservation Fund. Still, the modern battles over the cliffs are not over.

Conservationists are hopeful that the adjacent owner, Virginia True Corporation, whose New York owners recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, might sell as well.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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