t’s The Rappahannock River is a priceless jewel winding its way down the Northern Neck from Fredericksburg through Caroline, King George, Westmoreland, Richmond, and Lancaster County. Notable along this jewel of rivers are the gems of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge made up of tracts of protected land kept in pristine condition for the protection of wildlife. Most refuges are single pieces of land. The Rappahannock Wildlife Refuge, however, is made up of smaller non-connected properties making land management more challenging since staff and equipment need to be moved from one tract to another. In addition, opening tracts to the public require additional manpower in terms of maintenance as each one has its own trails, kiosks, and public use areas.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the first unit of land for the Refuge in 1996. It currently consists of 8,707 acres. The ultimate goal of the Refuge is to protect 20,000 acres of wetlands and its associated uplands along the Rappahannock River and its major tributaries. Refuge units are located in Essex, King George, Caroline, Richmond, and Westmoreland Counties and include fresh water tidal marsh, forest swamp, upland deciduous forest, mixed pine forest, and grassland habitats.
In 2007, areas of the Refuge were designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The National Audubon Society designates these areas based on criteria such as bird population, high concentration of species in a limited area, or other factors. For the Northern Neck, the IBA designation coincides with areas of high bald eagle concentration.
Currently four Rappahannock Wildlife Refuge tracts are open to the public. The Port Royal Unit is located in Caroline County at the end of Caroline Avenue in Port Royal, VA. There is a 1 mile grassland walking trail. The unit is home to eagle nests that border the River so visitors can watch the eagles raise their young in the spring. With the advent of the Port Royal pier, the unit will soon be a portage stop for canoe and kayakers who can reach the unit by water and stretch their legs and walk the trail.
Two Refuge tracts are open in Richmond County. The Wilna Unit is located in Warsaw (Newland area) and is home to a 1 ¼ mile walking trail with a photo/hunting blind and an open observation deck. The unit winds around the magnificent 36 acre pond that is home to many migratory birds, osprey and herons. The pond has a fishing pier and a canoe/kayak launch. Largemouth bass, huge crappies, and sunfish abound. There is also an education lodge available for local teachers, organizations and others interested in environmental education. The Wilna Tract is home to many eagles, turkeys, deer, and quail. The Rappahannock Wildlife Refuge Friends Group maintains two Native Plant Gardens and a pollinator house at this site. It is also handicapped accessible.
The Laurel Grove tract is located in Farnham and has a grassland trail, and a 10 acre pond with a canoe/kayak launch. It is home to migratory birds, osprey and herons. The pond has bass, crappie and other fresh water fish.
The Hutchinson tract is located ½ mile north of Tappahannock in Essex County. There is an outdoor pavilion, a 2 ¼ mile walking trail, a fishing pier, and canoe/kayak launch. There is a four foot high observation deck overlooking the grassland and another observation deck overlooking Mt. Landing Creek. There is a walking bridge crossing one of the many ravines located on the property and many resting benches along the trail. The Friends Group developed a water trail map that canoe/kayakers can follow up Mt. Landing Creek. This unit is also part of the John Smith Trail since Mt. Landing Creek is where John Smith fled after the attack by the Rappahannock Indians who lived at Fones Cliffs. A butterfly garden and pollinator house are also located on the tract. This property is handicapped accessible.
What does it take to open a tract to the public? First it must be determined whether the unit can support the main mission of the refuge while allowing public access. The refuge system differs from our National Parks since their core mission to protect wildlife whereas, the park service is focused on public access to public lands. Each Refuge has a core mission directed to wildlife activities in their particular location, so access and activities vary from refuge to refuge. The mission of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge is to conserve and protect fish and wildlife resources, including endangered and threatened species as well as wetlands. Refuge habitats include freshwater tidal marsh, forested swamp, upland deciduous forest, mixed pine forest, and managed grassland. Using this as the guide, each tract is assessed as to whether it is suitable to be open to the public. In many cases, the entire unit is a tidal marsh which would not be compatible with public access. Even in some areas that are open to the public, sections of the tract are closed because of nesting eagles or other natural activities where human interaction would interfere with the Refuge objectives.
When it is determined that a tract can be open to the public, what does it take to get it ready? With the use of summer interns, YCC (Youth Conservation Corp), and SCA (Student Conservation Association) workers, the refuge builds trails and set up kiosks. This work is accomplished with help from volunteers of the local Friends Group. Once the tract is ready to be opened, a solid maintenance plan needs to be in place to ensure that the trails and public areas are always ready for visitors. Staff cannot maintain all of these trails at all the locations on their own. In fact, only one paid maintenance person is on staff and he spends much time maintaining equipment and handling large projects that require heavy duty equipment. Without the dedication and commitment of Friends volunteers, new tracts cannot be opened to the public. With limited funds and staff, volunteer are key.
The Friends Group currently has a membership of over 190 with around 40 members who actively volunteer throughout the year. Why volunteer? For that special moment when you are working on a trail and a wild turkey comes running toward you at full speed taking flight only when he gets close. Working a Native Plant Garden and seeing native bees pollinating your plants. Taking pictures for public events and watching a kid catch their first fish. Pointing out eagles in flight to visitors. Building an observation deck and looking out at a field full of deer or observing red-winged blackbirds swaying in the breeze on their grassy roosts. These are the reasons why we volunteer. So come join us. Membership is free. For more information and directions to the tracts go to www.rwrfriends.org or like us on Facebook: Rappahannock Wildlife Refuge Friends or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Ann Graziano has served as President of the Rappahannock Wildlife Refuge Friends Group since 2004. She is retired from Imagine One Technology and Mgmt., Inc. a DoD company headquartered in Colonial Beach, Virginia where she was Vice President of Corporate Operations. She has over 30 years experience in Human Resource Management. She resides in Richmond County.