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A barred owl perches on a limb in Crow's Nest Natural Area Preserve on a recent afternoon. Stafford County
Doug Vinson, a DCR employee, helps create trails that will enhance a visitor's experience once Crow's Nest is open
BY KATIE THISDELL
The 12-person van bumped along the rough road, tires hitting holes and ruts on the mile-and-a-half route into Crow's Nest Natural Area Preserve.
That drive may be proof enough of why the gates can't be thrown open on the preserve.
One of the first questions asked by a group of hikers on a recent warm field day--a rare chance for guided hikes--focused on when the 2,872-acre preserve would be open for everyone to enjoy.
Access to the site hinges on a much-needed $1 million-plus improvement to the one-lane, curvy entrance road, off Raven and Brooke roads in the eastern part of Stafford County.
The state denied a funding request this year. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation will keep trying, and will look for other grant opportunities.
Twice a year since 2009, when the tract was officially named a preserve, DCR has hosted field days, allowing dozens to tour the land.
On a recent Saturday, three groups hiked through Crow's Nest, purchased by the county and DCR over two years for $33 million.
"It's arguably the best piece of land in eastern Virginia in a lot of ways," Rick Meyers of DCR told the group of 80 people.
Old-growth forests, deep ravines and freshwater marshes are some of the defining characteristics of the two peninsulas around Accokeek and Potomac creeks.
But Meyers said it'll take "baby steps" to open the site up every day.
SAVING CROW'S NEST
Crow's Nest has a varied life story. It was first inhabited by Native Americans, and Pocahontas was abducted off the shores in 1613. Years later, the site was a plantation owned by the Daniels family.
Their schooner, moored off the shore in the 18th century, was called The Crow, giving the area its name.
Union soldiers burned the plantation house during the Civil War, and for about 100 years after that, not much happened.
In the 1970s, "outrageous" development plans were drawn up, including an airport, golf course, convention center and 4,500 homes.
"Thankfully that didn't end up panning out," Mike Lott, DCR's manager for Crow's Nest, told the group.
The site faced development pressure again in the early 2000s, prompting Save Crow's Nest groups to push for preservation.
That's when the Board of Supervisors partnered with DCR to purchase much of the land, though a 1,000-acre tract that borders Crow's Nest is now divided among a handful of owners, mostly limited liability companies, that haven't recently presented any plans.
These lots, in what's called Crow's Nest Harbour, can be developed only if they use public utilities, but the county doesn't intend to bring lines to the area. One owner is appealing the public utility requirement.
A pilot transfer of development rights program was recently OK'd by the Planning Commission. It could enable owners to voluntarily move their development rights into other areas in the county, restricting growth near Crow's Nest. The Board of Supervisors will discuss the land-use program soon.
Chairwoman Susan Stimpson recently brought up the Crow's Nest purchase at a board meeting, saying it may not have been a solid financial decision. Stafford paid $9 million. The total land is now assessed at $11.5 million, though it was $35 million at the time of purchase.
"Maybe this one didn't end up being a great deal for the taxpayers of Stafford County. It's obvious right now we paid a lot for land a lot of it is wetlands," Stimpson said.
Supervisor Paul Milde, a proponent of preservation, said, "I would do it again over and over and over until I was out of land in Stafford if I had votes for it."
NEW TRAILS BEING BUILT
The public at last has a limited opportunity to explore Crow's Nest.
A part of the preserve is north of Accokeek Creek, a strip of land along the freshwater tidal marshes.
It's where beavers have built a lodge, and ducks, geese and tundra swans spend their winter. Crow's Nest offers managed waterfowl hunting to a small group.
Earlier this year, DCR used grant money to build a 20-space parking lot just off Brooke Road. A porous pavement that may make you think of the computer game Tetris will filter rainwater and prevent runoff.
But the lot had been gated up for months, never opened for public use. Lott says there were delays in getting informational signs made, detailing the scientific importance of freshwater marshes and of Crow's Nest itself.
Those signs were installed last week, Lott said Monday. Two short walks lead to the creek's edge, directly across from where hikers will one day explore the 3-mile Accokeek Creek Loop.
DCR is in the permitting process to install a 350-foot pier at the parking lot, across the marsh and into the creek's channel. In the next year, kayakers and canoeists could explore Crow's Nest via a paddling trail.
Meanwhile, Lott, a former environmental planner for Stafford, has been busy just about every day using the grant money leftover from the parking lot before it runs out at the end of the year.
With various volunteers from DCR's Heritage Program, Lott is building and refurbishing trails throughout the preserve.
Even though it will be years before those trails are open to the public, he said it makes sense to do whatever work that he can now, while money is available.
On one of November's last warm days, a group of volunteers trimmed the remaining roots, sloped the edge of the pathway and pounded down the dirt on a piece of the Accokeek Creek Loop that detours what is otherwise quite a steep climb.
The new path will bypass one of Lott's favorite trees, a magnificent beech, the biggest he's found in the preserve.
"I love that tree," Lott told hikers at the field day. "Every time there's a storm, I think it's going to come down."
While many trees fell or were bent and twisted by the winds in the June 29 derecho, the beech wasn't hurt at all.
Hikers pointed out some of these damaged trees as they walked along another new piece of the loop that had been completed just before the field day. Mountain laurel lit up the sides of the path, as the sun shimmered off the shiny leaves.
On another slope that hasn't been used on field days because it's estimated to be a 40 percent grade up, Doug Vinson of DCR built switchbacks to make hiking easier and more enjoyable.
The crew will also create an optional extension for the loop this fall.
Lott hopes to soon offer guided hikes for smaller groups.
Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975
Widewater State Park, on the peninsula between Aquia Creek and the Potomac River, is also closed up, stuck while state lawmakers sort out budget issues.
In 2006, the state acquired the 1,100 acres from the Trust for Public Land for $6.1 million. This came after a lengthy tug of war that pitted the former owner, Dominion Lands (a subsidiary of Dominion Virginia Power) and its preservation partners against local developers who envisioned luxury waterfront houses, a marina, golf course and conference center there, according to a 2006 story in The Free Lance-Star archives.
At the time, officials knew that it could be years before the park was open for public use because of lack of state funding. Today, nearly seven years later, that hasn't changed, said Gary Waugh, spokesman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which oversees state parks.
Widewater State Park, along with a handful of other sites purchased in Virginia in the same time period, was designated with a "land banking status." The state wanted to save the pieces of land while they were undeveloped and affordable, rather than waiting until it was too late, Waugh said. Leesylvania State Park staff have oversight of the land, such as checking for trespassing.
A master plan was drawn up in 2008 for what the park could look like at build-out, done in three phases, at a total of $53 million.
The land is home to a rich collection of aquatic and plant life. Like nearby Crow's Nest, it has historic significance--a Civil War cemetery is at the tip of the peninsula, and wartime trenches are scattered through the property.
But here's the new part of the story.
At the request of Del. Mark Dudenhefer of Stafford, DCR is taking another look at that master plan to see if there are amenities that could be offered much sooner, at a lower cost, for day-use activities, Waugh said. This could include moving up the installation of a picnic area and boat launch for kayaks and canoes, rather than focusing on infrastructure improvements, Waugh said. DCR will look into the possibility at the beginning of 2013. At least one public meeting would be held.