When Louise McKenna put 27 acres of pristine property along Dragon Run in Middlesex County on the market in 1985, she knew she didn’t want to see it developed.
She had no idea she was starting a movement.
A local pharmacist, Jimmy Morgan, had been enjoying the wild spaces along Dragon Run for years. He saw the sale as an opportunity to do something big. “He just started knocking on doors, getting people to donate,” says Janice Moore, president of Friends of Dragon Run (FODR), the nonprofit that Morgan and others formed with the mission of protecting the unique blackwater river and its surrounding wetlands. “He had a strong personality,” she adds.
He also had a talent for engaging people in a cause. For each $1,000 donation, Moore says, Morgan offered the donor a founding membership in FODR.
Once the group had raised money for the purchase, they transferred it to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which bought the property. VOF then protected it with an easement and held it as owner until FODR incorporated and got nonprofit certification.
FODR and its partners have been working to conserve more land in the Dragon Run watershed ever since. Today, 23% of the nearly 90,000 acres of farmland, forests and swamps that make up the watershed is protected by conservation easements held by VOF, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), or both. The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) now owns and manages the nearly 10,000-acre Dragon Run State Forest. In all, these organizations protect 23,212 acres of the most pristine floodplain ecosystem left in Virginia, habitat for over 55 species of fish and 90 species of birds, all native to Virginia.
“We’re about 75% to achieving our conservation goals,” says Andy Lacatell, the Virginia Chesapeake Bay director at TNC. “As with a lot of projects, that last part will be the most challenging. It’s hardest to piece the last bits together to get us across the finish line.”
The effort recently moved 14 acres closer, thanks to FODR’s latest purchase, which was placed under easement with VOF early this year. The property is FODR’s first in Gloucester and is now called the Morgan Tract, in honor of Jimmy, who passed away several years ago but whose legacy keeps growing.
“Every little scrap that you can protect will be joined up with something larger,” says Moore. “We buy as much as we can, whenever we can, and we take what people will give us.” The group owns and manages a total of 617 acres of land in the watershed, all of it protected by VOF easements.
Buying and protecting is only one half of FODR’s strategy, though. The other is education and outreach. The group organizes kayaking trips led by naturalists each spring and fall. They are also looking for ways to engage more of the area’s youth. They have led some excursions for Boy Scout troops, as well as for local middle school students.
“A science teacher and the school principal and the usual four guides went with them,” Moore says of the school trip, which took place in spring of 2019. “They stopped along the way and talked about the birds, the fish, the flora. It was a beautiful trip. The kids loved it.”
FODR had been planning a trip for 10th and 11th graders this spring, as well as for a 4-H group, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to cancel all spring paddle trips this year.
“We would have had a real foothold in area outdoor education if the coronavirus crisis hadn’t happened,” says Moore. “There’s been a pause but there’s still momentum.”
Plans are to try again in the fall with more area schools. “The goal would be to get as many kids as possible in Essex, King and Queen, Middlesex, Mathews and Gloucester Counties to come on a paddle before they graduate high school,” Moore explains. “That way, when it’s their turn to take care of it, they will.”